Essential, but painful: needles are used for babies’ early childhood vaccinations and medical care during childhood illnesses. They cause distress for the babies and often also for their parents and caregivers, and can result in future anxiety and fear about needles. Researchers around Harrison et al. examined if breastfeeding reduces vaccination pain in babies aged 1 to 12 months. The results were published in the Cochrane Database for Systematic Review.
In an intervention review in February 2016, the Canadian scientists searched the medical literature for studies of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) examining the effectiveness of breastfeeding babies beyond the neonatal period up to one year of life during the use of needles. They compared the effectiveness of breastfeeding in reducing pain (as scored by crying time and pain scores), to parental holding, skin- to-skin contact, babies lying flat, the giving of water or sweet solutions, placebo, other interventions, and to no intervention. For the data collection and analysis, they searched several scientific databases and identified 10 studies with a total of 1066 infants aged 28 days postnatal to 12 months. All studies examined if breastfeeding reduced pain during vaccinations.
The results showed that breastfeeding reduced crying in young babies having vaccinations compared to no treatment, oral water, and other interventions such as cuddling, oral glucose, topical anaesthetic, massage, and vapocoolant spray (“cold spray”). On average, breastfed babies cried for 38 seconds less than babies who were not breastfed and pain scores were significantly lower. There was no evidence that breastfeeding had an effect on physiological responses, such as heart rate. No studies reported on any harm while breastfeeding healthy babies during vaccinations (based on low-quality evidence).
No studies included in this review involved populations of hospitalised infants undergoing skin-breaking procedures. Because the studies only evaluated the effects of breastfeeding during vaccination, more evidence is needed to learn if breastfeeding helps older babies in hospital during blood work or procedures such as the insertion of drips.
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