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Caring for your breasts for breastfeeding success

By The Health News Team | July 13, 2023
Mother holding infant baby

Breastfeeding is recommended but can be challenging — and painful — for some people. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 60% of mothers in the U.S. do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to. One of the reasons they stop: issues experienced during lactation, including sore nipples, engorgement (very full breasts), clogged ducts and infection.

However, according to Lisa Simpkins, a board certified lactation consultant and certified perinatal educator with Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns, there are a variety of ways you can help reduce and relieve breast discomfort during breastfeeding. Here, she shares her top six tips for caring for breasts for breastfeeding success:

Wear a proper support bra.

The larger and heavier the breast, the more likely you will need a supportive bra. During pregnancy, many women find wearing a sleep bra more comfortable. A prenatal and early breastfeeding bra will have no underwire and should support your growing breasts without cutting into the ductal system. The material should be breathable — cotton is ideal — and a proper fit is important.

Avoid clogged ducts.

A clogged milk duct occurs when it doesn’t properly drain, leading to irritation in the surrounding tissue. It often feels like a sore lump or knot in the breast. Clogged ducts can happen when the baby isn’t eating often enough or hasn’t yet learned to breastfeed well; with severe engorgement; and if feedings are skipped. Clogged ducts can also happen with ill-fitting bras and when wearing a tightly fitted baby wrap or sling.

Use breastmilk to heal your own breast.

The special elements in breastmilk make it a perfect “medicine” to help heal your own breast tissue. Breastmilk has anti-inflammatory and anti-infective qualities to aid in healing. After each feeding, put a few drops of breastmilk on your nipples using clean fingers. After it dries, you can also add a nipple balm made of 100% pure lanolin directly on the nipple, which is very safe when breastfeeding.

Wear nipple pads when engorged.

Often in the early weeks after giving birth, your body makes an excess of milk. For many women, it is difficult to contain. Using breast pads to capture leakage may be the best way to avoid embarrassing moments when out in public and prevent the need to do more laundry. Regularly change the pads when they get damp.

Apply heat for tenderness relief.

Heat not only feels good on uncomfortably full breasts, but it also helps soften engorged breasts enough so that mom can hand-express or pump her breasts. A warm shower is often the best way to help breasts release milk when they are overfull because it offers warmth and hydromassage as the water hits the breasts. Warm compresses and gently massaging the breasts can be helpful too.

Practice hand hygiene.

Good hand hygiene is always recommended. Avoid using soap or shampoo directly on your nipples, as they can remove your natural lubrication. Wash your nipples with water and gently lather the rest of your breasts with diluted soap and water. Make sure you rinse any soap residue off your breasts.

When to seek care

Talk with your doctor or a lactation consultant if you have concerns about breastfeeding or your infant’s nutrition. Watch for flu-like signs paired with severe tenderness in the breast. This can be a sign of mastitis, a breast infection.

Thrush, also known as a yeast infection, is a fungal infection on the nipples or breast and may require medication. Pink, flaky, shiny, cracked or blistered nipples on mom, and white spots inside baby's cheeks, tongue or gums are common signs of thrush.

Simpkins recommends you also seek care if:

  • You have what many call a “good” sleeper in the in the early weeks after birth. This may indicate that the baby isn’t getting enough nutrition at the breast.

  • Your baby does not have enough pee and poop diapers. By day 5, infants should have a minimum of six to eight wet diapers and a minimum of three poop diapers.

  • Baby can’t maintain a latch and “pops” on and off throughout the feeding.

  • Your nipples are damaged or in pain beyond the first minute or so of breastfeeding.

Learn more about breastfeeding; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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