Nipple Pain in Breastfeeding

By Jessica Martin-Weber

This post is generously made possible by Bamboobies

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All kinds of advice and myths abound when it comes to breastfeeding and preparing nipples for the experience or what to do when there is pain. Dire warnings and emphasis on getting a “good latch” can make it seem as though it is tricky, inevitably painful, and consuming. (Do you need to worry about your baby’s latch? See here for more on what to look for in a good latch and what to do if it is causing problems.)

But there’s good news! While some do experience nipple pain, many do not and for those that have pain, there is usually an answer and steps that can help resolve the underlying cause. Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt but that doesn’t mean it won’t and it doesn’t mean that if it does it is your fault or that you did something wrong. Seeing a professional breastfeeding helper such as an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) may help identify the cause of the pain and find a resolution that will help you reach your breastfeeding goals.

Here are a few points on nipple pain in breastfeeding and tips for how to handle such pain. It is our hope that nobody goes through pain in feeding their babies but if you do, most of the time it doesn’t have to stay that way.

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Is it serious? Figure out if this is the type of pain that indicates an issue or is within the range of normal sensitivity with initial latch. If it lasts for 30 seconds or so and doesn’t bother you when you’re not breastfeeding or pumping then it is possible it isn’t serious and just an adjustment period while your nipples are a little sensitive. If it is toe-curling, swear-worthy pain that makes you hold your breath and try not to scream obscenities or toss your baby far, far away from you, then it is serious and you need to be seen by an expert professional breastfeeding helper. Any tissue damage, cracking, bleeding, scabbing, inflammation, bloody expressed milk, etc., will require proactive treatment and you need to see a health care provider. Keep in mind that if your pain tolerance is high, you may push through pain that is a warning sign that something is wrong, don’t wait too long to get help from a breastfeeding helper such as an IBCLC.

What is the cause? It could be a number of causes from baby’s physiology such as a high palate or tongue-tie (frenulum restriction) to your anatomy such as flat or inverted nipples, bifurcated nipples, or Raynaud’s syndrome (vasospasms), or from a pathology such as a bacterial infection or yeast overgrowth, to a damaging latch. Unfortunately sometimes the case is baby just needs to grow more and it will take time but there may be ways to improve things until that time comes and a breastfeeding helper should be able to help you with that.

What’s the treatment? Working with an experienced breastfeeding helper, once the cause is determined, the first step is to address the underlying cause. This may mean changing positioning and learning latch techniques (such as this “Flipple” technique for latching), a prescription to treat thrush or a bacterial infection, using a device to pull flat or inverted nipples out, a procedure to correct frenulum restriction, therapeutic suck training, and a number of other possibilities. We should start with the easiest to implement first, such as positioning and latch but an early diagnosis can mean resolving the underlying cause for the nipple pain quickly and getting back to reaching those breastfeeding goals.

How to heal? Pain, particularly pain that was ongoing for a while, usually means some tissue damage that’s going to need to heal and until it does, the pain will continue. Treating the underlying cause of the pain is essential for complete healing but there are ways to encourage healing even as the cause is addressed.

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Air drying is important for healing, as much as possible, allow your nipples to air dry before closing up your bra. Air is healing and having the area dry prevents bacteria and yeast from growing in a dark, damp environment. Additionally, rinsing them several times a day (not after each feeding but frequently) can also reduce possible irritation from baby’s saliva.

A good nipple cream, one that is plant based, breathable, and safe enough to leave on during breastfeeding can not only help with healing but can prevent chapping in the early days of breastfeeding as a preventative measure. Wiping off an ointment from sensitive and damaged tissue is painful and can cause further injury so picking one that is safe for baby to ingest in tiny amounts is ideal. Apply after every feeding after allowing the area to dry and pick nursing pads that won’t stick to damaged tissue and your nipple cream.

Your own breastmilk may help your nipples heal. Breastmilk is full of good things that can expedite healing, including stem cells! Be careful though, the sugars in breastmilk will feed a yeast overgrowth, making thrush worse.

Air and sunlight may help nipples healing from thrush as yeast thrives best in dark, damp areas. Make the environment hostile for yeast by exposing your nipples to sunlight and taking a probiotic and cutting out refined sugar.

Heat or cold packs can provide comforting relief, it’s personal, some will love these and others will find them uncomfortable for addressing nipple pain. For those with Raynaud’s Syndrome there is no cure or way to permanently resolve the problem but a heat pack like this one may help minimize the symptoms, apply immediately after feeding.

Cold shredded carrots in the bra (will stain!) promotes healing and is soothing. After breastfeeding or pumping, put shredded carrots stored in the refrigerator in your bra (if you don’t mind your nursing pad turning orange, they can help hold the carrots in place).

Protect the nipples with a nipple shield may be necessary. Nipple shields should be used with caution and hopefully with the guidance of an experienced breastfeeding helper such as an IBCLC because there is a risk of lowering milk supply with using a breast shield (not everyone experiences this, just a factor to be aware is a possibility), but they can be a good option for some to help with tissue healing for a short time.

Take a break if you need to. Sometimes damaged tissue just can’t heal until it has the chance to rest. Regularly empty your breast to protect your supply and have breastmilk for your baby, be sure that you’re using the proper flange size so as not to potentially cause more damage.

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What are your tips for preventing and healing nipple pain and tissue damage?

Share with us in the comments, together we can support each other in reaching our baby feeding goals.

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Drawing from a diverse background in the performing arts and midwifery, Jessica Martin-Weber supports women and families, creating spaces for open dialogue. Writer and speaker, Jessica is the creator of TheLeakyBoob.com, co-creator of BeyondMoi.com, and creator and author of the children’s book and community of What Love Tastes Like, supporter of A Girl With A View, and co-founder of Milk: An Infant Feeding Conference. She co-parents her 6 daughters with her husband of 19 years and is currently writing her first creative non-fiction book.
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