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Common breastfeeding problems

Cabbage, your saviour

SUMMARY

From sore nipples and leaking breasts, to problems latching on, many mums encounter breastfeeding issues in the early stages. Just like any new skill, breastfeeding can take a while to master. But it is well worth persevering as it provides tailor-made nutrition for your baby.

Breastfeeding can take time and practice to perfect, just like any new skill, and it’s not uncommon for new mothers to experience breastfeeding problems. But the more time you spend in close contact with your baby, the more you’ll get to know and understand each other’s signals. Your breastmilk is the only food that’s designed for your baby and can help to protect them against infections. That’s why it’s especially important to persevere in the early stages.

But it’s not just your baby who benefits from breastfeeding; some research2,3 suggests it also helps you to regain your pre-pregnancy shape, can reduce your risk of osteoporosis and offer other benefits too. Once you get the hang of it, it’s often the most convenient feeding option, requiring no preparation or extra equipment. And, of course, it’s free.

If you’re having any sort of issues with breastfeeding, speak to your midwife or health visitor as soon as you can. You’ll find that there are many local breastfeeding support networks that will be happy to offer help and support too. There’s also more information available at laleche.org.uk or you can talk to one of our expert feeding advisors, anytime, on 0800 996 1000.

How often should my baby feed?

You might feel like you’re constantly feeding in the beginning. But gradually, your baby will settle into a pattern and your milk supply will adjust accordingly. All babies are different, and so is each day!

Your baby will be happier if you stay close and feed them whenever they’re hungry. If their weight gain is good, they produce regular, wet and dirty nappies, and settle between feeds, you can be quite sure your baby’s getting enough milk. It can take a while for you both to get used to feeding. But if you feel, in the early days, that your milk supply is not satisfying your baby, speak to your midwife.

Sore nipples

Sore nipples are a common breastfeeding problem; this may be due to your baby not latching on properly or being in the wrong position. Make sure your baby's mouth is wide open and they are sucking on your breast rather than just the end of your nipple. Your baby should be facing you with their nose level to your nipple and their chin on your breast. It’s best not to hold your baby’s head, but gently support their neck so they’ll be able to move their head freely as they feed. You can also try lying down to feed or experiment with other positions that feel more comfortable for you both.

To prevent soreness try squeezing out a drop of milk after you feed and rubbing it into your skin, letting your nipples dry before you cover them. If you’re using breast pads in your bra, remember to change them after every feed and opt for a cotton bra, which will let the air circulate.

If you’re experiencing shooting pains in your breasts during feeding there is a possibility that you might both have thrush. It’s a common infection that’s easily treated. Just visit your doctor who should prescribe something for you both to clear it up.

Engorged breasts

A couple of days after birth, it's common for your breasts to become full and swollen. This is due to your body producing an abundance of milk, and increased blood flow to the area. If your baby is finding it difficult to latch on, you may find hand expressing a little milk will soften the areola (the brown area around your nipple). A warm bath or shower before feeding can encourage the milk to flow, while massaging the breast you're feeding from can help to relieve some of the tightness. You could also try applying cold packs to soothe your breasts and provide some relief from discomfort. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that raw, chilled cabbage leaves can work in the same way4. But the best way to ease the full, swollen feeling and to relieve the pressure is to feed regularly – in time your body will adjust to your baby’s needs.

Leaking breasts

When your breasts are full of milk, it's not unusual for them to leak. It can also happen unexpectedly when your body's letdown reflex is triggered by a baby's cry – whether yours or someone else's. It's most common during the first few weeks of breastfeeding, while your body adapts to your baby's feeding routine.

There's no way of controlling leaks. But feeding frequently and before your breasts are full can help. And once breastfeeding is established, leaking will reduce. Breast pads for your bra are designed to absorb any leaks and come in disposable or washable varieties. By carrying a spare pair and a change of top, you'll be prepared if there’s a mishap!

Remember, you’re not expected to be a breastfeeding expert straight away, and some mums find it easier than others. So if you need help or advice, don't be afraid to ask your health visitor, midwife or healthcare professional. You may find our Guide to Breastfeeding helpful too.

Next steps

Ways to help alleviate breastfeeding problems1:

  • Ensure your baby is latching on correctly
  • Feed frequently
  • Use cold packs to soothe engorged breasts
  • Rub a little breastmilk into sore nipples after a feed and let your nipples dry before getting dressed again
  • Change breast pads at each feed
  • Avoid washing with soap, which may dry out your skin
  • Wear a cotton bra if possible
  • Treat any cracks or bleeding with an ointment recommended by your healthcare professional
  • Let your baby feed on the tender breast first
  • Applying warmth to the breast can help the milk flow: applying a warm flannel or having a warm bath or shower before a feed may help
  • While your baby is feeding, massage any lumpy or tender areas, in a firm motion towards the nipple
  • Get as much rest as possible

View references

Hide references

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1. NHS. Breastfeeding Problems [online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/breastfeeding-problems.aspx [Accessed: April 2014]

2. Dewey KG, Heinig MJ, Nommsen LA. Maternal weight-loss patterns during prolonged lactation. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993;58 (2): 162–6.

3. Baby Friendly Initiative. Breastfeeding Research – An Overview [Online]. Available at: www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Breastfeeding-research---An-overview/ [Accessed July 2014]

4. La Leche League International. My breasts feel extremely full and uncomfortable. What is happening and what can I do about it? [Online] Available at: www.llli.org/faq/engorgement.html [Accessed July 2014]

Last reviewed: 28th July 2014
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