Rubbing a small amount of sugar gel on the inside of a premature baby’s cheek dramatically reduces its risk of hypoglycemic brain damage, a new study has found.

Researchers from New Zealand discovered that a simple dextrose gel, when applied to the baby’s cheek, causes enough of a glucose spike to stave off any risk for permanent brain damage, which, as a condition, occurs in one out of every 10 babies born prematurely. Among fully mature newborns, the risk drops to one in 500.

The experimenters began their study, which they’ve come to call the “sugar babies” study, as a way to compare the physiological response among premature babies with diabetics, another group that faces an increased risk for hypoglycemia. Through testing 242 babies with hypoglycemia (514 in total), the team found dextrose gel to be the cheapest, simplest method for counteracting hypoglycemia’s potentially devastating effects. At just over £1 ($1.60), the method is now being pushed as the suggested first line of defense in treating preemies’ low blood sugar.

"This is a cost-effective treatment and could reduce admissions to intensive care services, which are already working at high capacity levels,” Andy Cole, chief executive of premature baby charity, Bliss, told the BBC. Though Cole lauded the study’s findings, he conceded it’s “clear there is more research to be done to implement this treatment."

Dextrose gel has the added collateral benefit of improving breastfeeding rates among premature babies. Study leader Professor Jane Harding remarked that newborns suffering from low blood sugar are often rushed to intensive care and put on a drip; in the meantime, their nutrition comes from baby formula. The new treatment method sees mother-baby reunion much earlier, potentially eliminating the need for formula.

"The dextrose gel improves the rate of breastfeeding and we think this might be because babies stay with their mothers, and are not given formula in the first few hours to manage their hypoglycemia,” Harding said.

Below are common symptoms of hypoglycemia, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health:

  • Pale skin with a bluish tinge
  • Sweating, irritation
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Loose muscles
  • Difficulties in preserving warmness of the body
  • Difficulties in feeding
  • Vomiting

Source: Harris D, Weston P, Signal M, Chase J, Harding J. Dextrose gel for neonatal hypoglycaemia (the Sugar Babies Study): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet. 2013.