Breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed your baby, but sometimes it’s not as straightforward as you might have hoped. If you do struggle to breastfeed and experience breastfeeding pain, don’t panic. Lots of new mums find feeding their newborn baby difficult at first, but it does get easier.
Midwife and My Expert Midwife co-founder Lesley Gilchrist looks at the most common causes of breastfeeding pain and how to treat them, so you can focus on bonding with your new baby:
Does breastfeeding hurt?
Breastfeeding is the perfect way to feed your baby, as your breast milk is tailored to suit your baby’s needs and support their immune system. This doesn’t mean your breastfeeding journey will always be a smooth ride, though.
Many new mums struggle to get to grips with breastfeeding in the early days or weeks – remember, it’s a new skill that both you and your baby have to learn, so be patient and gentle with yourself.
Feeding your baby shouldn’t be painful once you get the hang of it, so if it is, it’s a sign that something may be wrong. Being able to identify and effectively address any problems encountered early on can go some way to removing the stress and pressure often felt by new mums in the early weeks with their newborn.
Breastfeeding pain and problems with the latch
One of the most common problems that can have knock-on effects for both you and baby is incorrect latch and attachment at the breast. Having expert help on hand to assist with any issues can mean the difference between breastfeeding continuing or not.
As the baby is learning to latch on, they may not have the whole nipple in the mouth to start with and your nipple may be hitting hard against their hard palate as they suck. This can cause pain when you start a feed. With improved technique and practice this can sort itself out easily but you may need a little help so do not be shy to ask your midwife or health visitor.
If you experience any problems with latching or you simply need a few pointers on how to get started, ask for help sooner rather than later from your midwife, midwifery support worker, lactation consultant or health visitor.
La Leche League offer support accessible online, via phone, text and face-to-face meetings in areas local to you. Find your local group and breastfeeding support at La Leche.
Breastfeeding pain and tongue tie
Up to 10 per cent of babies may have some form of tongue tie, which can affect latch and attachment. Tongue tie involves the frenulum, which anchors the baby’s tongue to the bottom of the mouth. Their frenulum may extend towards the tip of the tongue more than normal, or may be thicker than normal, thus restricting movement.
You, a midwife or another health professional can identify a tongue tie. It’s important to remember that not all babies who have a tongue tie will have feeding difficulties.
If you have concerns about tongue tie or your baby experiences problems feeding, speak to your midwife or healthcare advisor.
Cracked, sore or bleeding nipples
Cracked, sore and/or bleeding nipples can result from an incorrect latch, meaning your baby is not attaching to the breast correctly. Your skin might simply be sore to start with, as it acclimatises to the new experience of your baby feeding. You can continue to feed your baby while receiving help from your midwife or health visitor with latch and attachment.
• Nipple balm
If you do continue feeding, your damaged nipples may still feel sore and painful while they recover, so try using a nipple balm to help soothe and protect them.
Choose one that is smooth to apply, lanolin-based, 100 per cent natural and doesn’t need to be removed before feeding your baby. You can apply both before and after feeding, to offer some protection as well as soothe afterwards and between feeds.
• Nursing pads
Another essential item for your mama bag is nursing pads. They can wick away moisture and protect your clothing from any natural leaks. We love these super-soft Bamboo breast pads by Littlelamb. They're absorbent and breathable as well as wonderfully soft against sore skin, perfect for new mums adjusting to breastfeeding. Don't worry if the nipple balm you use goes onto the breast pads - this will not cause any problem.
Engorgement happens when you have an overproduction of breast milk. It will feel like your breasts are full and solid, and this can sometimes make it tricky for baby to latch on. Engorged breasts are most common and quite normal during the first week or so after giving birth as your milk ‘comes in’, and it can feel quite uncomfortable for a day or two. Feeding will help to relieve the uncomfortable feeling of fullness.
• Breast pumping
You can also try expressing some milk off (either by hand or using a breast pump) to relieve any pressure, but try not to express too much, as this can stimulate the breast to make more milk. We're fans of the Medela Swing Flex Essentials Breast Pump Set, an innovative and easy to use electric breast pump, so you can switch from breast to bottle and back again with ease.
Blocked milk ducts and mastitis
Blocked milk ducts and mastitis are often linked. Mastitis is a condition where one or both of your breasts become swollen, red, hot and often painful to touch. It does not necessarily mean there is any infection present; rather, it is an inflammatory response to milk in the breast tissue.
Feeding from the affected breast will help to resolve the mastitis, as this drains the milk from the breast. Make sure your breasts are not restricted by tight clothing or a bra that doesn’t fit properly, as this could be causing the problems. If symptoms persist, contact your midwife or GP.
If you are unwell in yourself, possibly with flu like symptoms and signs of mastitis you should consult your doctor urgently in case you need antibiotics. If mastitis is not relieved by feeding the baby or passively draining the breast of milk it might mean that an abscess has developed that needs treatment.
If you stop breastfeeding suddenly this can lead to problems with engorgement and potential mastitis, so most will advise that if you are weaning your baby off the breast, you do it gradually. You can discuss methods of this with your midwife, lactation consultant, health visitor or midwife.
Breastfeeding pain and nipple or oral thrush
Thrush can develop while breastfeeding, both in your breast and in your baby’s mouth. You will be able to see thrush in your baby’s mouth as a white-coloured film in patches that can’t be removed with gentle wiping. It might be on the tongue or palate or sides of baby's mouth. Your symptoms are usually characterised by pain in both nipples or breasts which doesn’t resolve itself. The pain may last up to an hour after a feed.
If you or your baby have been given antibiotics during or after the birth, you or your baby are more likely to develop thrush. Both you and your baby need treatment for thrush, usually in the form of a cream or gel, otherwise it can be passed back and forth. Your GP can prescribe treatment for this.
Breast feeding can be a wonderful time for mother and baby, but don't pressure yourself if you are having difficulty at what can be an overwhelming time. Make sure you ask for help and you will often find there is a simple solution to any problems.
Breastfeeding pain additional support
For additional help with breastfeeding, your first port of call should be your GP or midwife. Alternatively, try one of the following resources:
- National Breastfeeding Helpline: non-judgmental support and information.
- NCT Infant Feeding Line: support with breastfeeding or bottle feeding.
- La Leche League: friendly breastfeeding support from pregnancy onwards.
Last updated: 20-08-2020
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