Breastfeeding has many benefits for both the baby and mom. In fact, it’s so beneficial that it’s the recommended nutrition for babies. However, breastfeeding might also come with challenges – sometimes including pain in the breasts for the mother.
Breast pain for the mother during breastfeeding can lead to early weaning – even if the mother doesn’t want to wean. Painful breastfeeding might also be associated with postpartum depression. There are several reasons that breastfeeding might cause pain.
However, breastfeeding doesn’t usually have to be painful. There are solutions for any cause of pain. It’s important for new moms to know how to find relief from breast pain and to have support from doctors, lactation consultants, and their family or support people.
Painful breastfeeding latch
Some discomfort and soreness is normal in the first week or so of breastfeeding, as you and your baby get the hang of it. Working with a lactation consultant early can help you avoid having unnecessary breast pain while breastfeeding.
Nipple pain when breastfeeding shouldn’t be extreme, and it should improve. If you’re in pain when your baby latches and sucks – especially if the pain seems unbearable, or persists with time – it’s likely that your baby doesn’t have an optimal latch.
Hospitals usually have a lactation consultant available for moms to work with during their hospital stay. Take full advantage of that resource. They can help you and your baby get used to a good latch from the very beginning – a latch that will allow your baby to feed efficiently, and that will also be the most comfortable for your nipples.
If you suspect your baby has a poor latch and it’s causing feeding problems or pain, talk to your doctor and work with a lactation consultant.
Proper latch is crucial for pain-free breastfeeding
Signs of a poor breastfeeding latch are:
- Experiencing pain when your baby latches and sucks.
- Misshapen, flat, or pinched nipple after your baby comes off the breast.
- If your baby’s mouth doesn’t cover most of your nipple, but rather only the tip.
- If milk leaks out of the side of your baby’s mouth, they make a clicking sound while eating, or their lips are tucked in rather than flanged out.
- You are unsure if they are successfully sucking and swallowing – you should be able to see or hear them swallow every few sucks.
Some general tips for a successful latch are:
- Holding your baby in a cross-cradle position while you first get the hang of feeding. Use the arm on the same side as your breast to hold your breast for your baby, and bring your other arm across your baby’s body – with your hand cradling the back of their head.
- Brush your baby’s top lip with your nipple. They will lead to them reflexively opening their mouth.
- When they open their mouth, bring their head to your breast – with their chin first – to get most of your nipple in their mouth.
- If the latch is too shallow, unlatch and try again.
- To unlatch your baby, slide a finger into the corner of their mouth.
Nipple soreness and pain
While you’re getting used to breastfeeding or troubleshooting a poor latch, there are some things you can do to ease nipple soreness and pain. Taking care of your nipples between feeding your baby can reduce breastfeeding pain.
Be sure that if you’re using a pump, the pump parts are the correct size for your breasts. The wrong-sized pump flange can lead to painful nipples. Wear a comfortable bra or shirt that isn’t too tight on your nipples while they’re sore.
After breastfeeding, dab a little bit of breast milk on the tip of your nipple. This can help it heal. You can also use nipple-specific ointment like lanolin. Don’t use fragrant soaps or lotions on your nipples – this can cause drying and cracking. You can clean your nipples with water only. Change breast pads often.
One common cause of breastfeeding pain is breast engorgement. Engorged breasts happen when they’re overfull with milk. This can occur when your milk first “comes in” or transitions from colostrum to mature breast milk. This can also happen if you start nursing less than usual or skip feeds.
Possible signs of breast engorgement are:
- hard, swollen, and tight breasts
- breasts that are painful or at least a little tender
- breasts that are warm and red
- milk not flowing as well
- a low-grade fever for 24 hours
Although it is normal to have full and probably even uncomfortable breasts when your milk first comes in, you’ll want to take measures to avoid engorgement. Not only can engorgement be uncomfortable and painful, but it can also lead to clogged ducts or an infection.
Preventing breast engorgement
Some things you can do to avoid and reduce breast engorgement are:
- Feed your baby often – your newborn should be eating 8-12 times in 24 hours
- Aim to empty your breasts with each feed
- Get a good latch to ensure that your baby is eating efficiently and can empty your breasts
- Take a warm shower right before feeding, or use a warm washcloth on your breasts to encourage milk flow
- Massage your breasts while feeding your baby
- Use ice on your breasts for a short time between feeds to ease some swelling and discomfort
If your baby doesn’t seem to be consistently emptying your breasts when they feed, you may need to work on their latch – consult your doctor and a lactation consultant.
If your baby is having a difficult time latching to your breasts because they’re so swollen and tight, try pumping or hand-expressing just a little bit of milk before each feed. This can empty your breasts just enough for them to get a good latch.
Pumping can also help empty your breasts, but avoid pumping more than your baby needs to eat so that your body won’t overproduce milk. If you won’t be with your baby or they take a bottle for some reason, pump around the same time they take the bottle. Avoid skipping feeds or skipping pumping altogether. Use the Baby Daybook app to track both nursing and pumping sessions to help you keep track.
Clogged milk duct
A clogged milk duct can be another cause of breastfeeding pain. A clogged milk duct can have all the same symptoms as engorged breasts, and you may also feel a tender and sore lump in your breast with inflamed tissue around it.
To relieve the clogged milk duct, feed your baby often and massage the clogged area in a circular motion – toward your nipple. Position your baby so their chin is toward the clogged duct. This will help them suck from that part of your breast.
Clogged ducts – like breast engorgement – can be caused by an improper latch, skipping feeds, or nursing less frequently than usual. A bra that’s too tight or pressure on your breast from something like a bag strap can also cause a clogged duct.
Mastitis is a breast infection that causes breastfeeding pain. Symptoms will sometimes look like engorgement or a clogged duct but can also include:
- Flu-like symptoms like chills, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, and fatigue
- a yellow discharge from the breast
- hot and red breasts
Mastitis treatment is much like treating engorgement and clogged ducts – feed often, emptying your breasts. Your milk is still safe for your baby to drink. Oftentimes, however, antibiotics are required to treat mastitis. Prioritize rest so that your body can heal.
See your doctor if you have a fever (especially one longer than 24 hours), if your symptoms aren’t resolved after 24 hours, or if you get worse. Other reasons to see your doctor include if both of your breasts seem infected, if there is blood or pus in your breast milk, if there are red streaks on your breast, or if your symptoms came on suddenly and are severe.
A thrush or yeast infection is a fungal infection that can sometimes impact a breastfeeding mom. You may have a thrush infection if your nipple itches, burns, is cracked or flaky, you’re experiencing new breastfeeding pain, or if you have sharp or stinging pain in your breasts between breastfeeding.
A thrush infection can start in your baby’s mouth and spread to your breast, or vice-versa. A thrush infection in your baby’s mouth will look like white spots on their tongue or cheeks. If you or your baby have thrush, see both of your doctors to be treated.
When breastfeeding causes pain, it can be very distressing. Once you find the right solution, you can enjoy breastfeeding without any discomfort and focus on the beautiful moments with your little one.
Keeping track of your baby’s feeding schedule
Keeping up with all the essential schedules and details for your newborn, including your baby’s breastfeeding, can be challenging. However, it is crucial to your baby’s health and well-being to ensure they consume enough milk and produce the right amount of wet diapers. Baby Daybook can help you track when and how often to breastfeed, among other things. You can even monitor your baby’s growth and set reminders for feeding times. Plus, you can share the schedule with others, helping to care for your little one. Let Baby Daybook help you keep track of your baby’s feeding schedule so you will have one less thing to worry about.
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Engorgement. n.d. WIC Breastfeeding Support, USDA. wicbreastfeeding.fns.usda.gov [Accessed Sep 2023]
Plugged Ducts, Mastitis, and Thrush. n.d. WIC Breastfeeding Support, USDA. wicbreastfeeding.fns.usda.gov [Accessed Sep 2023]
5 common breastfeeding problems. n.d. UNICEF. www.unicef.org [Accessed Sep 2023]
Breastfeeding Challenges. 2021. ACOG. www.acog.org [Accessed Sep 2023]
Common breastfeeding challenges. 2021. Office on Women’s Health. www.womenshealth.gov [Accessed Sep 2023]