Hydroxycarbamide is already used by adults, but the treatment had not previously been tested on young children.
Scientists in the US found that hydroxycarbamide reduced pain and other complications in babies who were given the drug.
Babies who were treated with the drug had half the number of painful events – pain lasting more than two hours and needing drug treatment.
The study of 200 babies found that the drug led to an 80% reduction in cases of dactylitis – pain and tenderness in the hands and feet.
The only negative effect of the treatment was mild or moderate neutropenia, a reduction in the number of white blood cells.
Sufferers of sickle cell anaemia have sickle-shaped red blood cells, which are more likely to block blood vessels and die sooner.
This results in pain, organ damage and early death among patients.
The researchers said their findings, published in the Lancet medical journal, “should have a major effect on guidelines for the management of children with sickle cell anaemia”.
They added: “Hydroxycarbamide therapy can now be considered for all very young children with sickle cell anaemia.”
Professor David Weatherall, from the University of Oxford, said: “These findings are extremely encouraging.
“Hydroxycarbamide is inexpensive and could certainly be made available in low-income countries in which sickle-cell anaemia is so common.”
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