Tips for Relieving Engorged Breasts

woman on sofa with baby breastfeedingBreastfeeding comes with rewards galore (for you and your baby), but nursing moms may also need to contend with uncomfortable related ailments from time to time. Engorged breasts is one of the most common.

Although it's normal for your breasts to get larger, heavier, and even a bit tender (due to extra blood and lymph fluids in the breast tissue) between the second and fifth day after giving birth, breasts should start to feel softer -- even with milk production in full-gear -- within the first two to three weeks. But engorgement, which is caused by the volume of milk exceeding the capacity to store it, can cause breasts to become hard and painful. You may also notice breast swelling, tenderness, warmth, redness, throbbing, flattening of the nipple, or low-grade fever. Research from The Cochrane Collaboration found that engorgement can actually prevent women from breastfeeding in the first place, cause them to give it up, or lead to infection, such as mastitis.


For that reason, it's even more important to reduce engorgement ASAP. Here, several techniques that could provide relief:

Take a morning shower. "Symptoms are usually the worst when you wake up, so get in the shower and let the warm water work its magic," advises postpartum doula and co-founder of Baby Caravan Emily Crocker. "While the water is running, you can use your hand to express some milk." Doing this is often easier than feeding right away and can help begin to alleviate engorgement.

Have an expert check your latch. "Engorgement is often a sign of a misguided latch," explains Crocker. "If the baby is not latched on right, he’s not draining your breast properly and engorgement sets in.  If you are experiencing lots of pain, have your doula or lactation consultant come and check out your baby’s latch."

Breastfeed often. Ensure that no more than two or three hours go by between feedings. It may not be especially comfortable, but by doing so, your baby and your body often do have the ability to work engorgement out on their own, notes Crocker. Also, during feedings, try gently massaging the breast your baby is on, which can promote milk flow and ease discomfort.

To promote milk flow, use warm compresses. Try a warm compress on the breast for up to three minutes before breastfeeding. "It also gets your circulation moving, and it's more appealing to your baby to have a warm breast instead of a cold one," notes Crocker. As an alternative, you can get the same effect with a bucket of warm water. "Fill high enough so that you can literally dunk your breast into it," Crocker says. "You can massage your breast at the same time." Just be sure not to warm the breast for too long, as it can promote swelling. And if milk isn't coming out at all, it's best to steer clear of heat altogether.

To reduce swelling, use cold packs. Use a cold pack -- such as crushed ice in a plastic baggie or a bag of frozen veggies covered with a cloth -- on the breast. You can hold it to your breasts for ten minutes before or after nursing.

Or try cabbage leaves. Anecdotal evidence and some research supports using cabbage leaf compresses to treat engorgement. The benefit may be attributed to the plant's high concentration of sulfur, which is known to reduce swelling and inflammation in tissues. To do: Use green cabbage leaves that are chilled or at room temperature. Wash and apply to breasts between feedings. Leave on for 20 minutes, no more than 3 times per day; discontinue use as soon as engorgement/oversupply begins to subside.

To manage pain, take an over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) as needed. Either in addition to cold packs and/or cabbage leaf compresses, you may want to consider taking a NSAID pain reliever, like ibuprofen, which is safe to for breastfeeding moms and is an effective way to ease pain and swelling.

In cases of severe engorgement, consider drinking sage tea. Sage tea contains a natural form of estrogen that may decrease your milk supply. It has traditionally been recommended to moms to drink a cup at bedtime for a night or two. (You can buy it at a health food store or make your own by rubbing 1 tsp. of sage into a cup of hot water and letting it steep for about 15 minutes.) You'll just want to keep a close eye on how the tea affects your milk supply, as overuse could decrease it too much.

Thankfully, engorgement usually eases within 48 hours if you're nursing well (or pumping) every two to three hours. But without treatment, engorgement could take up to 10 days to resolve. If you're struggling to get relief, find yourself running a temperature greater than 100.4 Fahrenheit, or if your baby has problems breastfeeding, it's best to speak with your health care provider.

Have you ever had engorged breasts? How did you address it?


Image via Corbis

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