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How to ease nursing pain

5 minute read
Mother breastfeeding her child

Many moms find breastfeeding uncomfortable. Learn the 5 most common reasons — and get expert tips on how to find relief.

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

Breastfeeding is good for your baby’s health — and yours. But sometimes, it can be painful. And then nursing becomes an unpleasant experience for both you and your child.

With a bit of help, you can turn things around. Read on to get the scoop on culprits that cause nursing pain. And follow tips from experts to find relief.

(Want to learn how breastfeeding can benefit your health? Learn more here.)

Pain culprit #1: Breast engorgement

Engorged breasts mean your breasts have too much milk inside. They might feel warm, hard and painful. This can happen if your milk isn’t fully removed during feedings or if you skip a nursing or pumping session. Breast engorgement is especially common during the first few days after childbirth.

“There’s a buildup of extra fluids from pregnancy, childbirth, intravenous fluids, extra blood flow and higher milk production,” explains Ruth Hale. She’s a lactation consultant and the founder and owner of Birth to Breast in San Diego, California.

Engorgement can also happen as your milk changes. Just after birth, your milk is a thick, deep yellow color. And it’s especially rich in nutrients. After a few days, your milk begins turning a bluish-white color as it changes to meet your baby’s needs. It continues changing up until about 2 weeks after delivery.

How to treat it: Encourage your milk flow during feedings. Use a warm, moist washcloth on your breasts for 10 to 20 minutes before nursing. That can help you lactate more smoothly. Make sure your baby latches well to get the most milk.

You can also massage your breasts before and during feedings, moving from the chest wall to the nipple. Put cold compresses on your breasts after nursing and between feedings to reduce swelling and pain.

Still in pain? Try over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®). Following these tips can help ease engorgement within a few days.

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Pain culprit #2: Blocked milk ducts

Glands inside your breasts produce milk. And ducts in the breast move the milk to the nipple. The ducts can become plugged for many reasons, according to the US Department of Agriculture. These include:

  • Severe engorgement
  • Regularly breastfeeding on only 1 breast
  • Skipping feedings or not feeding as often as usual
  • Pressure (such as wearing a bra that’s too tight)

When the ducts are blocked, it prevents milk from moving out of the nipple and causes the glands to overfill with milk. The result: a tender, sore lump in your breast. You may just have a single lump or you may notice a few. And they can be pea-sized or bigger.

Plugged milk ducts are common. “In the beginning, many women go through this stage,” says Aaron Gelfand, MD. He’s an OB-GYN with ChoicePoint in Englewood, New Jersey. But if the ducts stay clogged for too long, you may develop a breast infection. So call your doctor when you have a plugged duct.

How to treat it: Use a warm compress on your breasts, suggests Dr. Gelfand. “It helps melt the milk and makes it flow without hurting.” Another tip: Try massaging the area between the plug and the nipple to help loosen the tissue around it.

Pain culprit #3: Mastitis

Sometimes, clogged milk ducts can cause a breast infection known as mastitis. When milk gets trapped inside your breast, bacteria from your skin or your baby’s mouth can multiply, according to the Mayo Clinic. You might notice:

  • Your breasts feel tender, warm or hot to the touch
  • A reddened area on your breast
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, chills, nausea, vomiting and body aches
  • Yellowish discharge from the nipple

How to treat it: See your doctor if you notice any symptoms of mastitis or if you don’t feel better within 24 hours of relieving plugged milk duct pain. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection.

Pain culprit #4: Nipple soreness

Are your nipples sore? That’s normal while breastfeeding. You and your baby are learning how to latch. And your nipples are adjusting to getting pulled outward.

Some babies have a hard time latching well. “Usually, parents will feel their baby biting and clamping down, intense pain that doesn’t go away and nipple damage,” Hale says.

How to treat it: Helping your infant latch better is the first step. Lift your baby to your breast with your nipple pointing toward the roof of the baby’s mouth. And untuck the lips once the baby has latched on.

There are also products you can use to protect your nipples while nursing, such as nipple shields. They wrap around your areola (the darker, circular skin surrounding the nipple) and have a hole at the tip that your milk can flow through.

And try these tips that can soothe soreness between feedings:

  • Avoid exposing your nipples to too much moisture between feedings, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics. Wearing nursing pads can help keep you dry if your milk leaks.
  • Apply a lanolin-free nipple butter.
  • Apply your own breast milk to your nipples to help with any dryness.

Pain culprit #5: Thrush

Thrush is a yeast infection that can appear on or in the breasts. It’s often caused by an overgrowth of fungus in the baby’s mouth, which then passes to you during breastfeeding. You may notice symptoms such as:

  • A stinging or burning sensation in the nipples
  • Stabbing pains deep in the breast
  • Red, sensitive, cracked or itchy nipples

How to treat it: See your doctor if you think you or your baby has thrush symptoms. Treatment typically includes an antifungal cream or ointment for your nipples. Your doctor can also prescribe a mild oral antifungal medication for your baby.

Bottom line: Breastfeeding is a wonderful time for mothers and babies to bond. Don’t let pain get in the way. Let your OB-GYN know if you’re having trouble.

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Additional sources
Blocked ducts: U.S. Department of Agriculture (n.d.). “Plugged Ducts, Mastitis, and Thrush”
Mastitis causes: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Mastitis”
Nipple pain: American Academy of Pediatrics (2020). “Treating Breast Pain”