How to Relieve Breastfeeding Pain: Advice for When Breastfeeding Hurts

Last Updated: June 11, 2024
Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

By Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

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Hey, mama! You’ve worked really hard to get that baby out, and now you’re having breastfeeding pain. Seriously!?

I’ve been there. I know. It’s so frustrating for something that is so natural (supposedly) to be frustrating and downright painful.

But I’m here to tell you, hang in there! Once you get through the first few weeks and month of breastfeeding it should get SO. MUCH. EASIER.

I’ve got all the info you need to get to the bottom of your breastfeeding pain, so that you know what to do when breastfeeding hurts. We’ve got tips to identify the problem, to fix the problem, and where to turn for help.

I don’t want your breastfeeding pain to end this journey, so let’s get to it!

Follow @mommy.labornurse on Instagram to join our community of over 640k for education, tips, and solidarity on all things pregnancy, birth, and postpartum!

Is it normal for breastfeeding to hurt in the beginning?

When you experience breastfeeding pain, there’s usually something going on there. In general, breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt.

Nipple soreness is normal in the beginning and is something a lot of mamas just have to power through (with a good nipple cream of course!)

But pain beyond that is usually something that needs to be addressed. The very BEST way to get to the bottom of your breastfeeding pain is by visiting a lactation consultant. You can find these at your hospital, in a local La Leche League chapter, and maybe even at your pediatrician office.

But believe me. I know that if you’re having pain now, you want to know what’s going on and start a home remedy stat. So UNTIL you can have baby’s latch looked at by an LC and get personalized advice, I’m here to help.

What causes breastfeeding pain?

Pain while breastfeeding, breast pain after feeding, pain BEFORE breastfeeding? These are all pretty natural. Sore nipples after breastfeeding is probably the most common, but some pains come from deeper down. We’re gonna get to the bottom of all of it!

So what causes breastfeeding pain? Well, there are a few things. Let’s take a look at the different symptoms of sore breasts after breastfeeding and some of the things that cause your boobs to hurt after breastfeeding, shall we?

4 reasons breastfeeding hurts DURING a feeding

There are a few things that can make your boobs hurt. Breastfeeding naturally tends to cause a lot more action in the area, so there’s always the possibility of chafing. Chafing can definitely make your boobs sore after breastfeeding. The pain WHILE breastfeeding, though? That’s usually something more specific.

After all, like we talked about earlier, this is NATURAL, right? So why does it hurt so much?

Problems with latch while breastfeeding, thrush, yeast infection, improper support on the baby’s weight are typical reasons for breastfeeding associated pain.

1. Strong let-down

First of all, there’s a perfectly normal pain while breastfeeding that’s worth chatting through. This is a strong or painful let-down reflex.

Hopefully you didn’t just say “a LET-WHAT?” If so, no sweat, but it might be a good time to contact a lactation expert to understand a little more, or take some time to do some online learning.

There’s actually a great course that takes you through breastfeeding, which will leave you feeling like a pro. Honestly, I would recommend this course to anyone who plans to do some breastfeeding! You can find Stacey’s Milkology course HERE.

Otherwise, that let-down reflex is when your body responds to baby’s feeding signals by flooding the milk ducts. Most women describe it as a hot breastfeeding pain or tingling like pins and needles. The effect will happen basically every time you breastfeed (and sometimes when you are standing in line at the supermarket and hear a baby cry!), at least for the first month or two.

This pain is pretty normal, although I would definitely recommend you contact a lactation consultant or your medical professional if it’s particularly painful.

2. Problems with the latch

Here’s the fact: some babies bite. They don’t pop out of the womb knowing how to aim their lips or what a good latch feels like. They are like little leeches at this age–the CUTEST leeches, mind you. They know how to clamp on, pulse their tongue, and swallow whatever comes out.

It’s up to us to make sure that we’re helping baby find the appropriate latch and doing so at times when both baby and boob are ready.

If you have sharp pain while breastfeeding, it can definitely be as simple as this: little toothless is chomping at the bit. The tit. You know what I mean. Or a curled lip creating friction.

You need to get a deeper latch, mama! That’s one of the number one keys to successful and pain-free breastfeeding.

Latching tips

If you feel like the latch is causing sharp pain during breastfeeding, here are some things to try:

  • Check your baby’s posture and how you are holding them. You should be supporting all of the baby’s weight, which can be done across the upper pad of your forearm. Try keeping your hand down the middle of baby’s back, so your elbow and kind of points back down toward your hip.
  • Be sure your baby’s nose lines up with your nipple, and wait for a yawn before you draw your nipple in. If baby’s nose gets stuffed down into your breast, baby’s going to have to grasp with the tongue to try and milk your breast. This will cause either immediate and sharp pain while breastfeeding or gradually chafe and possibly even bruise the underlying tissue, which will result in much more soreness while breastfeeding and even a sore breast after breastfeeding. Be sure baby’s nose is up and away from the breast, and that baby’s chin is tucked into the bottom of your breast.
  • If necessary, hold your breast in a pinched grip to point the nipple up as you latch; sometimes this is worth maintaining if baby tends to slip.

3 QUICK tips for a good latch

  1. Baby is latching deeply. This means they are taking in the whole nipple and ~1 inch of the areola/breast into their mouth while suckling
  2. Baby has fish lips on the boob! This means their top and bottom lip are splayed OUT. You can encourage this by pulling their lips out with a clean finger
  3. Baby’s chin should be against your boob, nostrils clear

3. Thrush

Another factor that can lead to sharp pain during breastfeeding is thrush.

Thrush is a pretty common fungal infection that can happen on your breasts and the baby’s mouth. AAAND technically between your toes or in your armpits or anywhere else that stays damp and dark. It’s not just limited to breastfeeding, although that’s where it happens most often.

Long story short, thrush is a microbial infection that usually results from insufficient beneficial bacteria, which eat this and other microscopic flora. Basically, the weeds are growing in because you’re short on gardeners.

It can be managed pretty easily with various homeopathic treatments, or you can roll out the big guns by visiting your medical professional.

Read my complete guide to breastfeeding and thrush for more info if you think this might be what’s going on!

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4. Tongue-Tied Little Tiger

There’s a rare condition that can sometimes cause or make breastfeeding pain worse. That’s what we call being tongue-tied.

And you thought that was just a cute little saying about when people are shy. Well, a baby with this certainly may be shy, because they can’t raise their tongue high enough to properly milk the nipple. The result is that their little tongue grinds and grinds too far down on the nipple, and so they have to work harder and tend to work a part of your body that isn’t designed for this kind of abuse.

You can spot a tongue-tied baby by checking the underside of their tongue. If that little flap from the bottom of the tongue (the frenulum, for those biology nerds out there!) is really tight, that’s what we’re looking for.

According to the Journal of Human Lactation, a study was performed that identified a whopping 77% of ladies experienced some form of nipple trauma while breastfeeding an infant with this condition. That is nuts!

I would love to say there’s an easy at-home solution to this, but yeah, no. In fact, capital NO with a capital PERIOD.

Let’s get littles to the doctor and have the baby checked out. The fix (most of the time) is to snip that little bit, and definitely don’t try this at home, momma.

**As always, and with any of these recommendations, you can always try to diagnose and solve for it at home, but the very best advice is always ALWAYS what you can get from a medical professional under clinical circumstances. **

3 common reasons for breastfeeding pain AFTER (or between) a feeding session

If you are experiencing breastfeeding pain after or between feedings, there are a few other things to watch out for.

Ultimately, a lot of this stuff is normal, and I would be surprised if any single woman ever got through breastfeeding without at least a little breast pain.

1. Breast engorgement

One of the most common causes of a sore breast after breastfeeding is breast engorgement. This is when one or both breasts have so much milk in them that the volume is straining at the capacity of your glands. Ouchie.

If you’ve ever had to pee so bad you thought you would pass out, it’s kind of like that. Only in your breasts. And it hurts much worse. It’s also not something that you can just step out to relieve yourself of.

To deal with breast engorgement you need to empty that breast! The best way is by feeding baby, but if that’s not possible (for whatever reason) get pumping, mama! In a pinch, hand expression can help relieve some of the pressure, too.

Is breast engorgement normal?

Common, yes. Normal, yes, and no. When your milk first comes in engorgement is pretty normal. Sudden engorgement after your supply comes in can indicate trouble. It’s definitely not something we WANT to happen – but it’s not always avoidable.

Why does breast engorgement happen?

Sometimes this can happen because you’re producing too much milk, which is a problem for some women when they first start breastfeeding. Your body is still learning how much milk it needs to produce to keep baby full, and sometimes it’s a painful learning process.

Sometimes it happens because your baby isn’t eating properly. Unfortunately, engorgement makes it harder for baby to nurse, so this problem can end up getting worse if you aren’t taking care of it.

Baby might suddenly sleep for longer stretches or skip a feeding for another reason. This leaves you with engorged breasts that were expecting to be feeding a baby. In this case, hand expression to relieve the pressure is the way to go. A little bit of hand expression shouldn’t signal your body to produce MORE milk.

Whatever the case may be – if you don’t deal with your engorged breasts it can progress to a clogged milk duct or full on mastitis (a painful infection) so be sure to address the issue!

Relieving and treating engorged breasts

The best thing you can do for the prevention of engorgement is to ensure you are feeding baby or pumping regularly. If you aren’t feeding your baby every 2-3 hours for at least 20-30 minutes altogether, you may experience engorgement and clogged milk ducts.

If you’re maximizing all feeding opportunities and baby is gaining plentifully, but you still feel engorged, pumping is a great way to get some relief. To reduce the pressure from engorgement, only pump for 3-5 minutes to reduce pressure. Too much pumping will signal to your body to make MORE milk and the vicious cycle continues.

Beyond that, there have been significant studies, but little conclusive support to say that any one homeopathic remedy excels above others (some claim cabbage leaves or acupuncture can mitigate pain and swelling).

The reality is that the best thing that really seems to help is cold packing. If you have something that can wrap around or conform to the shape of your entire breast, whip that sucker out, mama. It’s your best friend. This is a great tactic when you’re engorged because your milk just came in!

Reducing the temperature works to reduce swelling and shrink those little molecular building blocks down to a smaller package.

Related Reading: How to Know When to Stop Breastfeeding

2. Clogged milk ducts and mastitis

Sharp pain while breastfeeding or a more localized pain during breastfeeding can be the result of a clogged milk duct. The same is true if your boobs hurt after breastfeeding.

This is exactly what it sounds like. Stuff is stuck. Crazy talk? Probably not.

This can happen when a particular duct has consistent pressure against it (from a bra or a shirt), or when pressure causes the milk to compact down inside of the duct. It can also occur as a side effect of engorgement.

It’s best to treat a clogged duct pretty aggressively, because you don’t want it to stick around long enough to become infected.

How to clear a clogged milk duct

  • Nurse often! And start with the infected side because baby usually sucks most vigorously at the beginning of a nursing session
  • Wear an appropriately fitting supportive bra
  • Avoid deep massage of the lactating breast (more on this below)
  • Drink TONS of water
  • Apply a warm compress
  • Soak your breast in warm water (bath, or just a bowl will do)
  • Avoid saline soaks, castor oil, and other topical products
  • Use hand expression in the shower to get it cleared
  • Rest as much as possible! Your immune system will actually be working hard to prevent infection in the sitting milk. So rest to let your body help heal the issue

What is mastitis?

If you do not clear a clogged milk duct it can develop into full-blown mastitis.

This is a condition where that blockage becomes infected. In my experience, there’s no question when an infection is present. Here’s what you might experience:

  • Redness and hot skin on affected breast
  • Fever
  • Chills and shivering (with or without fever)
  • Fatigue
  • Aches and pains throughout the body

Can I still breastfeed if I have a breast infection?

YES! It’s important to continue nursing through Mastitis. In fact, breastfeeding your baby plays an important role in keeping the milk flowing, clearing the ducts, and allowing your body to heal.

If for some reason baby won’t nurse on the affected side, BE SURE TO PUMP at the same frequency baby usually nurses.

In very rare instances mastitis can progress to an abscess that needs to be medically drained. If this happens you will need to go to the hospital and may need to exclusively pump for the short time you are away from baby.

In short: never stop regularly removing milk from the breast, it may make matters worse!

2022 Update to Mastitis Protocol

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine revised and updated its mastitis spectrum protocol in 2022. Part of this protocol includes the recommendation to avoid deep massage of the lactating breast. “Deep massage causes increased inflammation, tissue edema, and microvascular injury.”

Those little lactation massagers seem to be all the rage now. I actually used the LaVie Lactation Massager when I was nursing my second son and loved it. According to The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, the LaVie, or any lactation massagers, are not recommended for clogged ducts or mastitis. You can, however, still use them to help with letdown and milk flow.

The article elaborates more on why avoiding deep massage is the recommendation and the damage it can cause. To learn more though, you can read the full article here.

3. Referred pain

One thing that can make it really hard to diagnose why your breasts hurt during or after breastfeeding is when the pain is being referred from another place in your body.

If you’ve ever had referred pain, it can be pretty maddening. Basically, some other stuff is going on that’s cause soreness or swelling somewhere else, but the pain is being transmitted down the nerve path to some other part of your body. So you rub it, and it seems to feel better, but never really goes away.

The same thing can happen with an itch, and there is seriously nothing worse.

So be sure to take some time to stretch your surrounding muscles and joints to see if there’s a tugging somewhere else that a little jiggling or pulling can ease away referred breast pain while breastfeeding (or not, for that matter).

Otherwise, you can sometimes have a trigger spot somewhere, due to the constant pressure of a particular bra or favorite chair. Be sure you’re massaging areas around the breast to ensure that you’re loosening the muscles and soothing the skin outside and around the breast pain spot.

Related Reading: Gifts to Help Boost Breastmilk Supply

How to relieve breastfeeding pain? TOP TIPS

So we’ve talked a lot about potential causes, and I’ve given you a FEW little tidbits that might help to resolve breast pain before/after and eliminate pain during breastfeeding.

Let’s get real specific with a bullet list of anything and everything that might help:

  • Check your latch and try different feeding positions
  • Consult a lactation expert or breastfeeding specialist (or take the Milkology course!)
  • Wipe your nipples after every feeding with a damp cotton or wool cloth to make sure no residue is left behind to potentially chap your skin
  • Let your nipples air dry to ensure we aren’t trapping anything beneath the clothing
  • Use restorative and palliative balms to keep your skin healthy and to fill in cracks from chapping (such as lanolin)
  • Get nipple covers to help prevent chafing and rubbing against the actual surface of your nipples while clothed
  • Learn to be patient and remember that pain passes–it’s only a signal to let you know to have something checked out, it doesn’t have to rule your attitude or your life!
  • Consult a healthcare professional! No one can give you as much advice as someone in the room with you, and they are trained to watch for risk factors and warning signs of something more serious!

Wrapping up: how to deal with breastfeeding pain

If you’ve come this far, your commitment to resolving pain while breastfeeding is amazing, mama! You are a total champ for working through the very difficult experience of painful breasts after breastfeeding, and I KNOW you’re going to be OK. Hopefully, I’ve given you some great things to think about.

If pain during breastfeeding is holding you back from living the life with your littles that you want, you owe it to yourself to FIX it, not just LIVE with it.

Happy breastfeeding, mama!

Related Reading: Everything You Need to Know About Breastfeeding

Related Reading: The Top 10 Breastfeeding Bras for Breastfeeding Mamas

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Liesel Teen, RN-BSN

Liesel Teen

BSN, RN, Practicing Labor and Delivery Nurse

As a labor and delivery nurse, I’ve spent countless hours with women who felt anxious — even fearful — about giving birth. I want you to know it doesn’t have to be that way for you!

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