Relief for Breast Engorgement Pain After Stillbirth

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It seems particularly cruel, but women who experience pregnancy loss still produce breastmilk in the days after delivery. It may come as a shock, as well, when the breasts begin to fill with milk, as women are not always told to expect this.

But, unfortunately, the truth is that on top of coping with this monumental grief, if you've just had a stillbirth or miscarriage or your baby died shortly after delivery, you may soon need relief from breast engorgement pain.

Overview

Dramatic hormonal changes soon after childbirth (even in cases of pregnancy loss) cue your body to begin making milk, which typically comes in two to three days after delivery. With no breast stimulation (from nursing or pumping) this process will stop on its own after a week or two. Even still, in approximately two-thirds of women who are not breastfeeding, the breasts may overfill, causing moderate to severe breast engorgement.

Some women choose to pump their breast milk and donate it. This is something to consider if you feel it may be healing for you. However, for many women, their main concerns are how to reduce discomfort, cease milk production, and heal emotionally. Below, we share tips to help you get through this difficult period as comfortably as possible.

Coping Strategies

In the past, women were encouraged to bind their breasts tightly to stop milk from coming in, but that approach may actually cause more discomfort and lead to plugged ducts. The best option is a well-fitted bra with plenty of support—but not anything that's too tight. A sports bra may be particularly comfortable for you.

Avoid Breast Stimulation

In addition, try to avoid stimulating your breasts, including the areola and nipple. If you haven't been pumping or breastfeeding, you may be able to get through lactation and engorgement very quickly by avoiding stimulation. However, if you are in a great deal of pain from enlarged, hard breasts, a bit of pumping or hand expression can relieve some of your discomfort while you wait for the milk production to end.

Be aware that even warm water in the shower could be enough to stimulate a let-down reflex or encourage milk production. There are products available to help support and protect sensitive breasts in the shower, such as the Shower Hug, if you find the water pressure too intense. It's also helpful to face away from the showerhead to avoid water pressure on the breasts.

Use Ice Packs

Ice packs are ideal for coping with tender breasts during the first few days postpartum. There are many unique ways of applying cold packs to your breasts, such as using small bags of frozen veggies, freezing a damp washcloth in a zipper bag, or adding a small amount of rubbing alcohol to water in a zipper bag to make a flexible ice pack. Commercial ice packs work, as well.

Cabbage Leaves

Applying chilled cabbage leaves is another way to provide relief. This is a traditional remedy to relieve engorgement that many women find helpful. Separate and wash the leaves from a head of cabbage. Keep them in the refrigerator. Break off the stems and crush the leaves lightly in your hands just before applying them to your breasts.

Don’t cover your nipples, but you can apply the leaves all over the rest of your breasts. You can place them inside your bra or just put them on your skin. Change them every 30 minutes, or sooner if they don’t feel cool anymore.

Consider Medications

If you are having a lot of discomfort or simply do not want to experience breast engorgement, you may want to talk to your doctor about medications that have been found to be effective in suppressing lactation. Most physicians and midwives recommend trying non-pharmacologic techniques first, as these drugs can have significant side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and headache. However, they can successfully inhibit breast milk production for many women.

Express Some Milk

If you are feeling very engorged and uncomfortable, as noted above, it’s okay to let a little milk out. It may be the only way to ease the feeling of fullness. Just be aware that any breast milk you express is likely to stimulate further breast milk production. So, only express what you need to alleviate pain. Unless you’ve already established breastfeeding or pumping prior to your baby’s death, you can probably get enough relief through hand expression.

If you were already feeding or pumping before your baby died, it will be more difficult to seamlessly taper your milk supply, but it is possible. You'll experience less engorgement if you can slowly cut back on pumping rather than stopping abruptly. Start by eliminating one session at a time. Shorten the time you pump at that session by a few minutes each day until it has been eliminated (this may take three to seven days). Then, reduce and eliminate another pumping session, and repeat until done.

A Word From Verywell

Coping with pregnancy loss is heartbreaking. Having to deal with breast engorgement too can feel like a brutal, physical reminder of that void. The above tips can help to reduce the discomfort you may experience, which should end in a week or two. Be sure to care for your emotional pain, as well. Seeking support from loved ones, a support group, and/or a counselor can help you process your grief as you heal emotionally and physically from this tragic experience.

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