Changes to the Areola During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Normal Variations and Causes for Concern

a baby breastfeeding

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During pregnancy, the areola—the circular area of the skin that surrounds the nipple at the center of the breast—becomes darker in color and may grow in size. These changes are believed to help the newborn find the nipple and latch on to encourage nursing. An effective latch entails putting the entire nipple and part of the surrounding areola into the baby's mouth. Without a proper latch, a baby will likely have difficulty getting enough milk, which can lead to insufficient milk intake for the baby and issues with low milk supply and cracked and painful nipples for the mother.

The Function of the Areola

During pregnancy, the Montgomery glands, which are located in the areola, tend to become raised and more noticeable. These small lumps are sometimes described as looking like goosebumps. This change in structure is completely normal and not a cause for concern. A primary function of this change (and of the areola in general) is thought to be to aid with nursing.

The Montgomery glands secrete oil to lubricate, clean, and protect the areola and the nipple, which is especially important when breastfeeding. The glands also produce a slight scent. Like the darkening of the areola, the scent of the Montgomery glands is believed to help the newborn find the nipple and begin breastfeeding more easily. Once breastfeeding has ended, the Montgomery glands usually shrink back down and the texture of the areola returns to its pre-pregnancy state.

The Size, Color, and Shape of the Areola

The size of the areola typically ranges from 1 to 2 inches in diameter. However, for some women, it can be smaller or much larger. The shape of the areola can be round or oval, and the color can be any shade of red, pink, or brown. After breastfeeding has ended, the areola may return to a lighter shade, but it typically remains a darker color than it was before pregnancy.

How Breastfeeding Impacts the Areola and Vice Versa

Breastfeeding can affect the areola in a number of ways, particularly if a baby is nursing with a poor latch, which can cause abrasion or other irritation to the areola tissue. Additionally, damage to the areola can affect breastfeeding success and comfort.

Knowing more about the function of the areola and potential complications can help you identify any problems early on and assist you in taking action to improve your nursing experience and overall breast health. Below are some common areola concerns and strategies for coping.

Improper Latch

The areola can become sore and/or cracked due to an improper latch, which is often the result of the baby sucking on only the nipple instead of latching onto the areola skin. The first step for correcting this is to make sure that your baby is latching on properly—and getting help if needed. Many nursing moms (and babies) need guidance to get the hang of effective, comfortable nursing techniques.

A certified lactation consultant can help assess your baby's latch and provide you with more information. Often just one or two visits are needed to drastically improve breastfeeding success. Other sources of help include advice from friends or family who have experience nursing, as well as your doctor, pediatrician, or other breastfeeding-savvy medical professionals.

Cracking and Irritation

If you live in a dry climate, breastfeeding can cause dryness, soreness, and cracking of your areola. There are many types of nipple moisturizers that are safe for nursing mothers, which often provide excellent relief. Consult your doctor if you have questions about the right ointment or cream to use for you.

The areola can also become irritated, cracked, or sore from leaking breast milk. Moisture on your skin can sometimes cause skin breakdown and infections such as thrush or mastitis. If your breasts are leaking, wear absorbent breast pads in your bra and change the pads when they become wet. Additionally, after nursing, let your areola and nipples air dry for a few minutes before covering up. This tends to help the skin heal as well as to prevent further skin irritation.

Some skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis, can develop on the areola. These conditions can cause breastfeeding to be painful. See your doctor or a dermatologist for diagnosis and treatment. Make sure that your doctor knows you are breastfeeding before prescribing any treatments or medications for you.

Engorgement

Common symptoms of breast engorgement include swollen, firm, and painful breasts. Engorgement can make your areola feel hard and flatten out your nipples, making it very difficult for your baby to latch.

In the first few weeks of breastfeeding, aim to breastfeed anytime your baby is hungry to keep your breasts from becoming overfilled—or pump as needed. Also, try to empty your breasts completely with each feeding to help your milk supply level with your baby's needs. However, even with your best efforts, you may end up engorged during those early days of breastfeeding.

If your breasts do become engorged, nurse your baby after hand expressing or pumping a little bit of breast milk first to make nursing easier. This will help to relieve some of the pressure in the breast, prompt the letdown, and soften the areola to make a proper latch more feasible. Frequent nursing is the best way to treat and prevent engorgement.

Engorged breasts can feel painful, lumpy, or heavy. They can cause a slight fever of around 100 degrees, and you may also experience swollen and/or tender lymph nodes in your armpits. Be sure to report any symptoms to your doctor and/or lactation consultant but most likely these symptoms will go away once excess breastmilk has been expressed.

Surgical Procedures

Breast surgery near the areola can damage the milk ducts and interfere with breastfeeding. Certain procedures, such as breast reduction, are more likely to include an incision near or around the areola. However, any procedure that involves an incision or removal of breast tissue in that area of the breast can impact the areola and potentially be problematic for breastfeeding. Talk to your doctor if you have had breast or chest surgery and have any concerns about how this may impact nursing.

A Word From Verywell

Areolas aren't something many of us spend much time thinking about until pregnancy or breastfeeding causes them to change—or if problems occur. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any areola questions or problems you may experience. Luckily, while some of these concerns can be painful, many simple and effective remedies are available to ease most issues.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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