Non-pharmacological management of infant and young child procedural pain

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023 Jun 14;6(6):CD006275. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006275.pub4.


Background: Despite evidence of the long-term implications of unrelieved pain during infancy, it is evident that infant pain is still under-managed and unmanaged. Inadequately managed pain in infancy, a period of exponential development, can have implications across the lifespan. Therefore, a comprehensive and systematic review of pain management strategies is integral to appropriate infant pain management. This is an update of a previously published review update in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2015, Issue 12) of the same title.

Objectives: To assess the efficacy and adverse events of non-pharmacological interventions for infant and child (aged up to three years) acute pain, excluding kangaroo care, sucrose, breastfeeding/breast milk, and music.

Search methods: For this update, we searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE-Ovid platform, EMBASE-OVID platform, PsycINFO-OVID platform, CINAHL-EBSCO platform and trial registration websites (; International Clinical Trials Registry Platform) (March 2015 to October 2020). An update search was completed in July 2022, but studies identified at this point were added to 'Awaiting classification' for a future update. We also searched reference lists and contacted researchers via electronic list-serves. We incorporated 76 new studies into the review. SELECTION CRITERIA: Participants included infants from birth to three years in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or cross-over RCTs that had a no-treatment control comparison. Studies were eligible for inclusion in the analysis if they compared a non-pharmacological pain management strategy to a no-treatment control group (15 different strategies). In addition, we also analysed studies when the unique effect of adding a non-pharmacological pain management strategy onto another pain management strategy could be assessed (i.e. additive effects on a sweet solution, non-nutritive sucking, or swaddling) (three strategies). The eligible control groups for these additive studies were sweet solution only, non-nutritive sucking only, or swaddling only, respectively. Finally, we qualitatively described six interventions that met the eligibility criteria for inclusion in the review, but not in the analysis. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: The outcomes assessed in the review were pain response (reactivity and regulation) and adverse events. The level of certainty in the evidence and risk of bias were based on the Cochrane risk of bias tool and the GRADE approach. We analysed the standardised mean difference (SMD) using the generic inverse variance method to determine effect sizes. MAIN RESULTS: We included total of 138 studies (11,058 participants), which includes an additional 76 new studies for this update. Of these 138 studies, we analysed 115 (9048 participants) and described 23 (2010 participants) qualitatively. We described qualitatively studies that could not be meta-analysed due to being the only studies in their category or statistical reporting issues. We report the results of the 138 included studies here. An SMD effect size of 0.2 represents a small effect, 0.5 a moderate effect, and 0.8 a large effect. The thresholds for the I2 interpretation were established as follows: not important (0% to 40%); moderate heterogeneity (30% to 60%); substantial heterogeneity (50% to 90%); considerable heterogeneity (75% to 100%). The most commonly studied acute procedures were heel sticks (63 studies) and needlestick procedures for the purposes of vaccines/vitamins (35 studies). We judged most studies to have high risk of bias (103 out of 138), with the most common methodological concerns relating to blinding of personnel and outcome assessors. Pain responses were examined during two separate pain phases: pain reactivity (within the first 30 seconds after the acutely painful stimulus) and immediate pain regulation (after the first 30 seconds following the acutely painful stimulus). We report below the strategies with the strongest evidence base for each age group. In preterm born neonates, non-nutritive sucking may reduce pain reactivity (SMD -0.57, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.03 to -0.11, moderate effect; I2 = 93%, considerable heterogeneity) and improve immediate pain regulation (SMD -0.61, 95% CI -0.95 to -0.27, moderate effect; I2 = 81%, considerable heterogeneity), based on very low-certainty evidence. Facilitated tucking may also reduce pain reactivity (SMD -1.01, 95% CI -1.44 to -0.58, large effect; I2 = 93%, considerable heterogeneity) and improve immediate pain regulation (SMD -0.59, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.26, moderate effect; I2 = 87%, considerable heterogeneity); however, this is also based on very low-certainty evidence. While swaddling likely does not reduce pain reactivity in preterm neonates (SMD -0.60, 95% CI -1.23 to 0.04, no effect; I2 = 91%, considerable heterogeneity), it has been shown to possibly improve immediate pain regulation (SMD -1.21, 95% CI -2.05 to -0.38, large effect; I2 = 89%, considerable heterogeneity), based on very low-certainty evidence. In full-term born neonates, non-nutritive sucking may reduce pain reactivity (SMD -1.13, 95% CI -1.57 to -0.68, large effect; I2 = 82%, considerable heterogeneity) and improve immediate pain regulation (SMD -1.49, 95% CI -2.20 to -0.78, large effect; I2 = 92%, considerable heterogeneity), based on very low-certainty evidence. In full-term born older infants, structured parent involvement was the intervention most studied. Results showed that this intervention has little to no effect in reducing pain reactivity (SMD -0.18, 95% CI -0.40 to 0.03, no effect; I2 = 46%, moderate heterogeneity) or improving immediate pain regulation (SMD -0.09, 95% CI -0.40 to 0.21, no effect; I2 = 74%, substantial heterogeneity), based on low- to moderate-certainty evidence. Of these five interventions most studied, only two studies observed adverse events, specifically vomiting (one preterm neonate) and desaturation (one full-term neonate hospitalised in the NICU) following the non-nutritive sucking intervention. The presence of considerable heterogeneity limited our confidence in the findings for certain analyses, as did the preponderance of evidence of very low to low certainty based on GRADE judgements.

Authors' conclusions: Overall, non-nutritive sucking, facilitated tucking, and swaddling may reduce pain behaviours in preterm born neonates. Non-nutritive sucking may also reduce pain behaviours in full-term neonates. No interventions based on a substantial body of evidence showed promise in reducing pain behaviours in older infants. Most analyses were based on very low- or low-certainty grades of evidence and none were based on high-certainty evidence. Therefore, the lack of confidence in the evidence would require further research before we could draw a definitive conclusion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Pain* / therapy
  • Blood Specimen Collection
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Pain Management
  • Pain, Procedural* / therapy
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic