Relief for Breastfeeding Pain

a woman breastfeeding her baby

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Breastfeeding is a natural, convenient way to feed an infant for those moms who choose this route. But it's also a learning process for you and your baby. What rarely gets discussed is that while for the most part, breastfeeding doesn't hurt at all, sometimes it does—a lot. Anyone who has breastfed a baby knows that sometimes, discomfort is inevitable, especially in the beginning.

Sadly, many new mothers discover this truth first-hand when they're on their own, overtired, and just days into breastfeeding with painfully engorged breasts, tender lumps, cracked nipples, or inflamed areolas.

Will Breastfeeding Always Hurt?

Most painful breastfeeding symptoms are highly treatable and preventable. Information is key—ideally, before the sore nipples and other painful issues arise—but at any point, changes can be made to greatly alleviate symptoms. Even if you're doing everything "right," you may still find yourself with sore nipples or uncomfortable breast tissue. Thankfully, relief may just be a matter of making small adjustments—so don't give up because you think you're doomed to perpetual breastfeeding pain.

So how do you make it through the temporary (though sometimes excruciating) pain? We're here to help.

Breastfeeding is not something most women pick up perfectly (or pain-free) without guidance, practice, and support. Help is out there, and lactation support services can help provide great relief.

Latching and Positioning Are Key

First and foremost, pick up the phone and call your doctor, midwife, or a lactation consultant for advice or referral to a local breastfeeding expert. You can also reach out to your friends, doctor, hospital, midwife, doula, or birthing center for references to local lactation support services.

Know that these issues are very common and you do not need to figure out (or suffer through) your breastfeeding issues alone. More often than not, sore nipples, tender lumps, and engorged breasts are the result of a poor latch and not fully draining milk reserves equally.

Without correction, an inefficient, painful latch may increase your discomfort and potentially decrease your milk supply, especially if you end up favoring one breast over the other or not fully draining your breasts with each feeding. A visit with a certified lactation consultant will help you correct any latch problems, develop optimal feeding positioning, and help you figure out if there are any other underlying causes.

But what can you do when you have an appointment scheduled in two days but you're in pain right now? In the meantime, try switching up and varying breastfeeding positions on your own. Be sure your baby is not just latching to the nipple but connecting to the areola as well. Other simple solutions that can help decrease pain include using a nipple cream, lightly massaging "clogged" milk ducts, and letting breasts air dry between feedings.

Simply changing positions will often help your baby latch on in a different way, which gives any sore spots on your nipples a break and encourages milk to move through the entire breast to prevent clogged ducts, the precursor to mastitis.

For example, if you normally nurse holding your baby across your chest, try a side football hold or lie down on the bed and try nursing your baby from that position. Experiment to find the positions that provide the most pain relief for you. Using a nursing pillow to prop your baby up on can also help correct position and latch and reduce discomfort.

More Tips to Ease Breastfeeding Pain

Try some of the following comfort measures to further ease breastfeeding pain. Though these comfort measures won't necessarily correct the larger issue if there is a problem with your baby's latch, they will dull your pain and help you to hang in there until you can get the lactation help you need.

  • If the pain and discomfort are constant, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen).
  • Use breast compressions to help your baby to get milk more quickly; reducing the time your baby is on the breast.
  • Try relaxation breathing techniques that you may have been taught during your prenatal birthing classes—or that you learned at a yoga class.
  • Apply an ice pack to the breast to temporarily numb the area.
  • Consider using over-the-counter soothing packs, such as Lansinoh Soothies.
  • Soak black tea bags in warm water and then apply the bags to your nipples to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Apply an over-the-counter breastfeeding ointment such as Lanolin. These types of ointments are nice because you don't have to wipe them off your nipples when it's time to breastfeed—they are safe to keep on your nipples while your baby eats. 
  • Let your nipples air out after feedings. It may seem strange, but just leaving your nipples exposed for a few minutes after a feeding can really help ease the pain of cracked or bleeding nipples. The breast milk actually acts as a protectant and a moisturizer, so don't wipe your nipples off before you let them air dry them.

When Pain Is a Symptom of a Larger Problem

Although some amount of discomfort is normal with breastfeeding, particularly nipple pain as you and your baby learn how to breastfeed, if you are experiencing any other symptoms, such as fever, pain throughout your breasts, chills, a rash, or reddened area on your breast, you will need to be evaluated by a healthcare professional as you may be experiencing mastitis.

Mastitis is inflammation and infection in the milk ducts (typically located in or near a painful, reddened area on the breast). This is a common, painful ailment that needs to be evaluated by a medical professional. Mastitis often develops in tandem with ignored latch or other breastfeeding challenges, making it all the more important to seek lactation help at the first sign of pain to avoid developing more serious breastfeeding complications. The common treatment protocol is antibiotics and continued breastfeeding after which it tends to resolve in a few days. (Yes, it is safe and encouraged to continue breastfeeding with mastitis.)

A Word From Verywell

Breastfeeding can be a rewarding, special bond between mother and child—as well as a convenient, inexpensive food choice for your baby. However, the truth is that sometimes it's painful and it's not always easy to get the hang of it on your own.

Seek help from a lactation specialist (or other medical professional or from your breastfeeding friends and family) at the first signs of discomfort and know that for most women these initial pains will be short-lived. The important thing is that you get your questions answered, your discomforts addressed, and your baby gets fed (however you choose to do so).

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