Sugar Water for Babies: Benefits and Risks

Medically reviewed by Karen Gill, MD on July 19, 2016Written by Rena Goldman on July 19, 2016
Sugar Water for Babies

There may be some truth to Mary Poppins’ famous song. Recent studies have shown that a “spoonful of sugar” might do more than make medicine taste better. Sugar water might also have some pain-relieving properties for babies.

But is sugar water a safe and effective treatment to help soothe your baby? Some recent medical studies show that a sugar water solution may help reduce pain in infants.

Unfortunately, there are also risks to giving your baby sugar water. Read on to learn more about the treatment and when it should be used.

Why is sugar water used for babies?

Some hospitals use sugar water to help babies with pain during a circumcision or other surgeries. At the pediatrician’s office, sugar water could be given to reduce pain when the baby is being given a shot, a foot prick, or having blood drawn.

“Sugar water is something that medical facilities and providers may use during a painful procedure on a young child to help with pain relief, but it’s not recommended for daily use at your home,” says Dr. Shana Godfred-Cato, a pediatrician at Austin Regional Clinic.  

How is sugar water given to babies?

Sugar water should be administered by a pediatrician. They may administer it to your baby either by syringe into the infant’s mouth or by placing it on a pacifier.

“There is no standard recipe that has been studied, and I don't recommend making it on your own,” says Dr. Godfred-Cato.

The mixture can be prepared at the doctor’s office or hospital, or it may come ready-made like a medication.

“The amount given per procedure is approximately 1 milliliter and contains a 24 percent sugar solution,” says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Is sugar water effective for babies?

One study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that babies up to 1 year old cried less and may have felt less pain when given a sugar water solution before getting a vaccine shot. The sweet taste is believed to have a calming effect. It might work as well as anesthesia in some cases.

“Sugar water can help distract the baby away from the pain, compared to a baby who doesn’t get sugar water in a similar circumstance,” says Dr. Fisher.

But more research is needed in order to tell how exactly sugar water works for pain in newborns and the correct dosage needed to be effective.

Dr. Godfred-Cato says there are some studies that have found breast-feeding to be more effective than sugar water for reducing pain, if the mother is able to breast-feed during the procedure.

What are the risks of giving sugar water to your baby?

If given incorrectly, sugar water can have some potentially serious side effects. For this reason, it’s recommended that you use the treatment under a pediatrician’s supervision.

“If the mixture isn’t appropriate and the child gets too much pure water, it can cause electrolyte disturbances that may lead to seizures in severe cases,” says Dr. Fisher.

When the body gets too much water, it dilutes the amount of sodium, putting electrolytes off balance. This causes tissue to swell and can cause a seizure, or even put your child into a coma.

Other potential side effects include upset stomach, spitting up, and decreased appetite for breast milk or formula.

“Too much sugar water may affect the baby's appetite for breast milk or formula, and a [newborn baby] should only take a fluid with nutrients and protein, not purely a liquid made of water and sugar,” says Dr. Fisher.

Next steps

Currently, researchers don’t know enough about the potential risks and benefits to recommend sugar water for babies. There’s also no evidence to show sugar water would be helpful for minor discomforts like gas, upset stomach, or general fussiness. Don’t give sugar water to your baby without the supervision of a doctor.

Alternatively, there are many natural ways to soothe your baby at home. “Great ways to comfort an infant in pain include breast-feeding, use of a pacifier, skin-to-skin contact, swaddling, use of touch, talking to, and soothing your infant,” says Dr. Godfred-Cato. 

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