Breastfeeding Soreness: 5 Ways to Soothe It

Breastfeeding can cause some soreness and discomfort to women, especially if it is their first time nursing. Here are some ways to soothe discomfort.

I knew all about epidurals and breathing techniques before I went into labor with my first child, but I was unprepared for what came once she arrived—breastfeeding. While I had no firsthand experience, I figured my daughter would know exactly what to do. Little did I know that she was in intense training, too. According to Madonna Fasimpaur, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) for over 20 years, nursing requires a baby to use and coordinate over 30 muscles in her head.

While some women experience no problems with nursing, others, like me, find it difficult to get their babies to latch on properly. Without milk flowing from mother to baby, problems may arise such as engorged breasts, where the breasts are full of fluid and become hard. Other conditions like clogged milk ducts or mastitis (breast infections) may require careful examination by your healthcare provider and possibly even medication.

When I asked lactation experts to share secrets for avoiding breastfeeding pain, the first response was, “There should be no pain!” By making sure that your baby is correctly latched onto the breast, through working with a certified lactation consultant, you can forego some of the problems I encountered.

Yet many women experience discomfort in these early days of breastfeeding. While your baby is learning how to suck and you get used to nursing, you may experience a feeling of fullness as your breasts increase milk production to meet your baby’s needs. This fullness (not true engorgement) may be uncomfortable. To help you alleviate some of that discomfort, try these soothing strategies from IBCLC experts.

Breast Massage with Reverse Pressure Softening

When the breast becomes full to the point of becoming hard, it may be difficult to put the breast in the baby’s mouth for her to latch on properly. Reverse pressure softening (RPS) helps get the milk flowing and softens the breast in preparation for feeding, explains Karen Kerhoff Gromada, RN, IBCLC and the author of Mothering Multiples: Breastfeeding and Caring for Twins or More!

To perform RPS, use the pads of your fingers to gently push on the breast tissue, working from the base of the nipple toward the chest wall. You should not be moving the fingers separately but instead use the combined pressure of your fingers to displace the fluid in your breast (this may take 60 seconds or longer). This technique should soften the breast so that the baby can latch on more easily. Your baby should be ready to nurse as soon as you’ve finished the massage and you can use this technique as often as you nurse.

Fasimpaur reminds moms that as a woman’s body adjusts to different hormones and the birth of a baby, only one-third of breast fullness is due to milk. Another one-third is from increased blood supply, and the last third is from fluids—especially if you had an IV during the delivery.

Cold Compresses

Use cold compresses to reduce swelling of the breast tissue. Fasimpaur advises women to use a wrapped bag of ice or even a bag of frozen bag of peas to bring relief to swollen breasts. Place the cold compress on the breast for no more than 20 minutes (any longer and you can risk numbing the area) at a time when you need comfort, up to four times a day. Don’t put pressure on the breast; simply place the cold compress on it.

After a few days the swelling should go down. You can stop using the cold compresses as soon as you feel relief.

Cabbage Leaves

That’s right, cabbage leaves can also relieve breast tenderness. Fasimpaur explains that researchers are not exactly certain what mechanism makes cabbage leaves so effective, but they’ve been used for centuries.

To try this remedy, first wash and pat dry green cabbage leaves and place them in the refrigerator until they feel chilled to the touch. Put the cabbage leaves around the breast and even up toward the armpit. Leave the cabbage leaves on up to 20 minutes (or until they wilt). Throw the cabbage leaves away afterwards. Perform this soothing strategy between feedings up to four times a day.

As with cold compresses, cabbage leaves should bring comfort within a few days. You can stop using them when you feel comfortable.

Hot Showers and Cold Compresses

Women may find relief in a hot shower, says Fasimpaur. “Sometimes I send a woman into the shower with a good hand pump that’s easy to use.” Aided by the hand pump, a woman can start the milk flowing out of the breast and soften hard breasts in preparation for feeding. Fasimpaur cautions, however, that heat can increase congestion, so women should use cold compresses after their shower. “Just like you wouldn’t use heat to treat a swollen ankle, you don’t want to use heat for a swollen breast.”

Showers have the added benefit of relaxing a nervous mother and making her ready for nursing.

Nursing

It may seem obvious, but the simplest way to soothe breast discomfort is by getting your baby to eat and getting milk moving within the breast. “Your baby’s tummy is about the size of a walnut,” says Gromada. “You should feed your baby as often as your baby seems interested.” Fasimpaur adds that a woman should be less concerned about how often or how long a baby eats and be more concerned with reading the baby’s cues that he’s hungry.

Find the Right Support

You may need to consult with a lactation expert after you’ve left the hospital if your baby is not latching on properly and you are experiencing breast soreness. Talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. If she’s not able to help, she can refer you to a lactation consultant in your area. Make sure that the consultant you contact is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). Visit your local WFA Moms guide to find a consultant in your area. The consultant may be able to offer suggestions over the phone, but you should expect to pay a fee, which may or may not be covered by your insurance, if she makes a home visit. Or take a local breastfeeding class in your city.

Nursing should be a pleasure, not a pain. It may take time for you and your baby to get into a comfortable schedule of feedings that relieves your fullness and satisfies her hunger. But if you are experiencing discomfort, talk to your healthcare provider to get the support you need.

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