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When breastfeeding hurts: 7 possible causes and solutions, mama

From raw nipples to a bacterial infection, here are some reasons why you may be experiencing pain during breastfeeding and tips to help reduce pain.

why does breastfeeding hurt

Breastfeeding can be a beautiful way to bond with your baby, but every mama may experience it differently—and often, the experience can involve some physical discomfort.

So let's address the commonly heard breastfeeding mantra, "Breastfeeding shouldn't hurt. If it hurts, something's wrong." This is true—to an extent. But our concern with that phrase is that it discounts the widely shared experience of many brand-new mamas: Those first days of breastfeeding are not always awesome. We hear you, mama, and we want to ease your worries a little.

From raw nipples to a bacterial infection, here are some reasons why you may be experiencing pain during breastfeeding and tips to help reduce pain.


Raw or chapped nipples

Especially for new mamas, a very sensitive part of your body (hello, nipples) is suddenly being tugged, rubbed and sucked for hours every day. It is bound to be at least a bit raw and uncomfortable. It cannot be overstated that if you are worried, seek support. But if all checks out, and all you need is a period of adjustment, here are some tips to make breastfeeding more comfortable.

  • If you suspect that your nipples are just adjusting and need a little TLC, try expressing and rubbing a bit of breast milk into them, as breast milk has healing properties (I know, right?). Scientists have discovered that many of the key properties of breastmilk (growth factor, stem cells and probiotic bacteria) can have medicinal uses beyond feeding the baby. Healing your nipple might be one of them!
  • Expose your breasts to air. Try for a few 20-minute sessions per day (though more definitely won't hurt).
  • Use a baby-safe nipple ointment between feedings.

Latch issues

Painful latch issues can stem from several areas, so seeking the aid of a lactation consultant early is usually the best thing to do, when possible. If it hurts when your baby latches, if your baby seems stressed at the breast, if your nipples are cracked or bleeding, or if your baby can't seem to maintain a latch, something might be up—and a lactation consultant can help you discover what the issue is.

It could be anything from needing to tweak your positioning a bit, to a structural issue with your breast (for example, flat or inverted nipples), to a structural issue with your baby's mouth (like a tongue or lip tie).

If you're experiencing pain during breastfeeding, try out these breastfeeding positions:

  • Laid back: You lie back or recline at a 45-degree angle, the baby lies on you belly-to-belly, bobs their head until they find your nipple, latches and eats.
  • Cradle: The baby lies in your arm across your abdomen. Their head is supported by your arm that's on the same side as the breast they are nursing from.
  • Cross-cradle: The baby lies in your arm, across your abdomen. You support their body with the opposite arm from the breast they are nursing on.
  • Football: The baby is at your side with their head toward your front and their legs pointing toward your back. They nurse on the side they are being held on.
  • Side-lying: You lie on your side with the baby also lying on their side, facing you. They nurse from the breast that's on the side you're lying on.

For more ideas, check out Your best latch: 10 things to know to breastfeed without pain.

Lip and tongue ties

Another possible cause of pain during breastfeeding: Sometimes a baby's mouth structure can make it difficult for them to get a proper latch, resulting from a too-tight frenulum (the membrane that connects the tongue to the bottom of the mouth or the one that connects the upper lip to the upper gum). These are called tongue ties and lip ties, and they can cause discomfort or pain while breastfeeding when the baby can't latch properly. You may notice these visually, or you may find out your baby has a tie because they are having issues latching. It is actually quite common and rather easy to fix.

An otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) can do an in-office procedure to release the tie, either using a laser or a scissor snip. (This is sometimes done in the hospital before discharge if you have a hospital birth.) Tongue and lip ties are not always a problem. However, If you do need to get it fixed, don't worry. The process is usually well-tolerated and works wonders on fixing a latch problem. Most insurance plans will cover this procedure, but you may need to get a referral.

Oversupply

While it may seem like producing too much breast milk is a good thing, women who experience it know it can be very difficult to deal with. Symptoms of oversupply often include:

  • breasts that are always full or engorged
  • a baby who is unhappy at the breast—fussy, gagging or spitting up frequently

Symptoms of oversupply can also be connected to other breastfeeding issues, such as a baby with a lip or tongue tie. Therefore, if you suspect that you have an oversupply, your best bet is to consult with a provider or lactation consultant to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Plugged or clogged duct

Sometimes milk can get obstructed in one of the ducts (the highways that transport the milk from the lobes to the nipple). When this happens, it is usually on one side and can cause a painful, hard, warm and red lump. Here are some tips for unclogging a duct:

  • Try taking a warm shower or applying a warm compress and massaging it.
  • Nurse your baby—a lot. It may take some acrobatics, but we have seen success when women position the baby so that their chin is pointing toward the clog, since that is where they are most efficient at removing milk.
  • Try "the dangle." Place the baby flat on their back on the floor and then position yourself on all fours over them, dangling the breast with the clog for them to nurse from.
  • If these tricks don't work, call a lactation consultant or your provider.

Thrush (candida or yeast infection)

Thrush is a common condition that can cause breastfeeding to hurt, and it can develop in your breasts, in the baby's mouth, or both. Babies naturally get a white tongue when they breastfeed. If you can scrape the white off with your fingernail, it's likely milk, but if you can't, it could be thrush. The baby may also develop a bumpy diaper rash. You might know that you have thrush if your nipples burn, or when the baby latches, you get a sharp, shooting pain in your breast.

Thrush is usually treated with an antifungal medication for you (often a cream for your nipples) and the baby (often a gel that is applied in their mouth). Make sure you and your baby are tested and treated for thrush because it is easily spread. It thrives in warm, moist areas (like your baby's mouth).

Mastitis

If bacteria enter the breast where there is unmoving milk, an infection called mastitis can occur—and mama, it hurts. In addition to the symptoms of a clogged duct, you will usually feel sick, much like you have the flu, with chills, body aches and a fever. These symptoms warrant an immediate call to your provider (yes, even at 2:00 a.m.). They can sometimes even diagnose you over the phone.

Mastitis is treated using oral antibiotics, and it is almost always safe to continue breastfeeding (your provider will guide you here). It's actually the best thing to do, as it will help prevent the condition from worsening.

Here are some mastitis prevention tips:

  • Fully drain the milk from your breasts while breastfeeding.
  • Allow your baby to completely empty one breast before switching to the other breast during feeding.
  • Change the position you use to breastfeed from one feeding to the next.
  • Make sure your baby latches on properly during feedings.
  • If you smoke, ask your doctor about smoking cessation.

Breastfeeding pain can be tough to deal with, but so often, there is a solution. Whenever you are worried, reach out to a provider right away.

Here are some of our favorite items that can make breastfeeding easier and more comfortable:

Multi-purpose balm

best nipple balm

This healing wonder is a mama must-have. A nourishing and fragrance-free blend of just five organic oils—nothing more, nothing less— it works in harmony to address an array of skin issues.

$20

Virtual lactation consultant visit

virtual lactation consultant

This 20-minute video chat consultation will connect you with a Tot Squad lactation expert to support your breastfeeding, lactation, and infant feeding goals.

$50

Breastfeeding pillow

breastfeeding pillow

The unique L-shape design of this breastfeeding support pillow is made to hug all shapes and stages of recovery, with C-section moms in mind.

$25

Double electric breast pump

double breast pump

Sleek on the outside and high-powered on the inside, the Luna pumps more milk in less time and is easy to use, with a quiet motor that won't wake the baby. The massage and expression modes provide full control and maximum comfort.

$260

Nursing sports bra

nursing sports bra

This thoughtfully-designed nursing sports bra offers wide and supportive straps, moisture-wicking fabric, double-layer support and a nursing flap clasp that you can work with one hand.

$69

A portion of this article is excerpted from The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama.

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

By its very nature, motherhood requires some lifestyle adjustments: Instead of staying up late with friends, you get up early for snuggles with your baby. Instead of spontaneous date nights with your honey, you take afternoon family strolls with your little love. Instead of running out of the house with just your keys and phone, you only leave with a fully loaded diaper bag.

For breastfeeding or pumping mamas, there is an additional layer of consideration around when, how and how much your baby will eat. Thankfully, when it comes to effective solutions for nursing or bottle-feeding your baby, Dr. Brown's puts the considerations of mamas and their babies first with products that help with every step of the process—from comfortably adjusting to nursing your newborn to introducing a bottle to efficiently pumping.

With countless hours spent breastfeeding, pumping and bottle-feeding, the editors at Motherly know the secret to success is having dependable supplies that can help you feed your baby in a way that matches lifestyle.

Here are 9 breastfeeding and pumping products to help you no matter what the day holds.

Customflow™ Double Electric Breast Pump

Dr. Brown's electric pump

For efficient, productive pumping sessions, a double electric breast pump will help you get the job done as quickly as possible. Quiet for nighttime pumping sessions and compact for bringing along to work, this double pump puts you in control with fully adjustable settings.

$159.99

Hands-Free Pumping Bra

Dr. Brown''s hands free pumping bra

Especially in the early days, feeding your baby can feel like a pretty consuming task. A hands-free pumping bra will help you reclaim some of your precious time while pumping—and all mamas will know just how valuable more time can be!

$29.99

Manual Breast Pump with SoftShape™ Silicone Shield

Dr. Brown's manual breast pump

If you live a life that sometimes takes you away from electrical outlets (that's most of us!), then you'll absolutely want a manual breast pump in your arsenal. With two pumping modes to promote efficient milk expression and a comfort-fitted shield, a manual pump is simply the most convenient pump to take along and use. Although it may not get as much glory as an electric pump, we really appreciate how quick and easy this manual pump is to use—and how liberating it is not to stress about finding a power supply.

$29.99

Nipple Shields and Sterilization Case

Dr. Brown's nipple shields

There is a bit of a learning curve to breastfeeding—for both mamas and babies. Thankfully, even if there are some physical challenges (like inverted nipples or a baby's tongue tie) or nursing doesn't click right away, silicone nipple shields can be a huge help. With a convenient carry case that can be sterilized in the microwave, you don't have to worry about germs or bacteria either. 🙌

$9.99

Silicone One-Piece Breast Pump

Dr. Brown's silicone pump

When you are feeding your baby on one breast, the other can still experience milk letdown—which means it's a golden opportunity to save some additional milk. With a silent, hands-free silicone pump, you can easily collect milk while nursing.

$14.99

Breast to Bottle Pump & Store Feeding Set

After a lifetime of nursing from the breast, introducing a bottle can be a bit of a strange experience for babies. Dr. Brown's Options+™ and slow flow bottle nipples were designed with this in mind to make the introduction to bottles smooth and pleasant for parents and babies. As a set that seamlessly works together from pumping to storing milk to bottle feeding, you don't have to stress about having everything you need to keep your baby fed and happy either.

$24.99

Washable Breast Pads

washable breast pads

Mamas' bodies are amazingly made to help breast milk flow when it's in demand—but occasionally also at other times. Especially as your supply is establishing or your breasts are fuller as the length between feeding sessions increase, it's helpful to use washable nursing pads to prevent breast milk from leaking through your bra.

$8.99

Breast Milk Storage Bags

Dr. Brown's milk storage bags

The essential for mamas who do any pumping, breast milk storage bags allow you to easily and safely seal expressed milk in the refrigerator or freezer. Dr. Brown's™ Breast Milk Storage Bags take it even further with extra thick walls that block out scents from other food items and feature an ultra secure lock to prevent leaking.

$7.99


Watch one mama's review of the new Dr. Brown's breastfeeding line here:

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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