Breastfeeding is one of the most intimate and loving experiences a mother and baby have together, but let's be real — it can be hard! With my first baby, I struggled to make it work, calling every mother I knew for advice and trying out more than a few techniques for soothing tender nipples and aching breasts. It did all come together, and it will for you too, but here are some ideas for dealing with difficulties along the way. And if you're still having trouble with sore nipples or proper latching, something may be wrong, so seek professional support to identify the issue.
For the first few weeks of breastfeeding, I wanted nothing — nothing — to touch my nipples. In between feedings I longed to walk around topless, but for decorum's sake I often wore a very light swaddle looped over my breasts, halter style, and yoga pants. Turns out I was employing one of the best healing techniques there is for sore nipples: open air. Letting breasts air-dry and ensuring that they're moisture-free between feedings can help. If even the slightest fabric irritates but it's impractical to be naked (as it well may be), breast shells keep nipples untouched, even under clothing.
After a feeding, nipples can be chapped and raw, especially in the beginning. It may be tempting to soothe them in the shower, but avoid using soap, which can irritate the sensitive areas. Rubbing a little colostrum, your own milk, onto the nipples is a proven natural remedy for this issue and purified lanolin-based creams have been shown to help restore softness.
When breasts become full of milk, or engorged, they can feel like rocks and ache intensely . . . not pleasant. While there is no scientific evidence to support it, chilled cabbage leaves are a proven at-home treatment and chilled gel packs have a similar effect (but less anecdotal charm). Place cold cabbage leaves or gel packs on your breasts for 10 to 20 minutes between feedings — they can go inside a bra if you need to wear one. (Tip: Avoid underwire for a while and try the cabbage for only 24 hours.)
Compresses of warm tea bags on sore nipples can reduce pain, and warm water compresses do the same, though there's no science behind it. The heat from the application brings blood to the area, which helps the healing process. Also, let's be honest, a warm compress just feels good. Anything you can do to aid relaxation is recommended.
Take a break
There's no rule that says you have to continually breastfeed, especially if it's causing you pain at first. And no matter what you've heard, it does hurt a bit in the beginning for most women. One option is to alternate feeding the baby directly with pumping. A good breast pump is gentle on sore breasts, and it allows a partner or family member to get involved with feeding so you can sleep! Plus, it keeps your milk supply up and helps to build a store of milk for use when you return to work or want to get away for an afternoon. An app can keep track of timing and ounce counts, which frees up your brain.
While some experts warn against nipple confusion and less milk delivery with the use of nipple shields, I found them invaluable in my breastfeeding journey with both of my children. When I was raw and red and ready to give up, a shield protected my sore nipples and allowed me to continue breastfeeding. After a couple of weeks, I was ready to go bare and all was well. If you're struggling with intense soreness, it's a good fix to explore.
More From Medela
Breastfeeding doesn't look the same for everyone. And that's more than OK. There's no perfect way to do it, and plenty of ways to get to your own version of perfect. See how real families with real-world advice get through it all at MedelaThroughItAll.com.