Breast engorgement is a condition experienced by almost all new mothers in the first few weeks after giving birth. The breasts will also swell during the weaning process. This condition is very painful and, if left untreated, can lead to other problems such as blockage of the milk ducts and infection of the breast (called "mastitis"). Fortunately, there are a few ways you can try to reduce it.
Part 1 of 3: Recognizing the Symptoms of Breast Swelling
Step 1. Understand the causes of breast engorgement
This condition is caused by an imbalance between the amount of breast milk and the baby's needs. In other words, your breasts produce more milk than the baby consumes.
- Breast engorgement can occur in the first days of breastfeeding because your body is just deciding how much milk to store to feed your baby.
- Breast engorgement can also occur when you are weaning the baby, and even when not nursing at night. When the baby's milk consumption is stopped, the breasts need time to adjust and reduce milk production.
- The breasts will also swell when the baby is sick because he tends to suckle less.
- Lastly, this condition is also common in women who choose not to breastfeed because the breasts have to adjust to the necessity of not having to continue milk production.
Step 2. Know the symptoms of breast engorgement
When the first milk comes out after you give birth, the breasts will feel warm, enlarged, and heavy, even uncomfortable. Symptoms of breast engorgement that last longer after the first 2–5 days include:
- Swollen, hard, and painful breasts.
- The areola (the dark part that surrounds the nipple) is firm and flat. Babies will find it more difficult to feed with the areola like this.
- The breast appears smooth, warm, firm, or slightly lumpy to the touch (in more severe cases).
- Mild fever and/or enlarged axillary lymph nodes.
Step 3. Learn about the complications of breast engorgement and when you should seek help
If you notice that your breast pain is getting worse, or you notice redness or a lump in the skin of your breast, or you have pain or burning while breastfeeding, you may have a blocked milk duct or mastitis (infection of the breast).
- Blockage of the milk ducts generally shows symptoms of redness, lump, and/or increased pain in the breast due to too much milk. It's basically a more serious form of breast engorgement, and you're also more susceptible to breast infections if the milk flow is not smooth ("mastitis").
- Blockage of the milk ducts can also occur for other reasons (the ducts are actually blocked by something else, not just breast milk), but these cases are rare.
- If you suspect you have a blocked milk duct or mastitis (both have the same symptoms, but mastitis is usually accompanied by fever and/or chills), you should see your doctor immediately for treatment. You may need antibiotic treatment.
- Mastitis that is not treated immediately can develop into an abscess that can only be cured with surgery
Part 2 of 3: Treating Swollen Breasts in Breastfeeding Mothers
Step 1. Breastfeed your baby regularly
Breast engorgement occurs due to excessive milk production or not being used often to breastfeed the baby. The easiest and quickest way to reduce breast engorgement is to breastfeed a baby with swollen breasts.
- Most doctors advise new mothers to breastfeed their babies every 1 to 3 hours. Breast engorgement can be reduced if you adhere to this schedule.
- Breastfeed your newborn whenever he is hungry. Don't try to give your newborn a specific feeding schedule.
Step 2. Make sure the breasts are soft before feeding
This allows you to provide the maximum amount of breast milk for your baby. Gently massage the painful area to make it softer. Massage can be done before and during breastfeeding. Applying a warm compress before feeding can also help.
- Do not apply a warm compress for more than 5 minutes. If your breasts are swollen due to edema (fluid retention), prolonged use of warm compresses will only make the problem worse.
- Many women use a pump or hand to "speed up" (excrete) excess milk before starting to breastfeed. This makes it easier for the baby to suck on the nipple and maximizes the amount of milk he drinks (which in turn reduces pressure and discomfort in the breast).
Step 3. Use a pump to express the milk if the baby is unable to suckle (such as when he is sick)
This way, the milk still comes out as usual and can be stored in the refrigerator for later use.
- Your breasts are used to producing a certain amount of milk every day, so you should regularly empty your breasts to prevent swelling.
- Usually, the stored pumped breast milk will come in handy at a later time. For example, if you have to leave your baby at home, he can be given the milk in your absence so that the feeding pattern is not disturbed.
Step 4. Try a warm bath
A warm bath can trigger a let-down reflex that can expel excess milk. After bathing, the breasts will soften and the discomfort will decrease.
- First of all, spray water over your breasts and position your body so that the water goes down on its own. You can also massage your breasts in running water. At first it may feel a bit sore, but the pain and tenderness in the breast will decrease.
- You can also fill two bowls with warm water. Place it on a stable surface, such as a table. Bend over and let your breasts soak in warm water for a few minutes.
Step 5. Use a cold compress between feedings and breast pumping
Try a cold compress to help reduce swelling and relieve pain if your breasts remain sore and hard to the touch even after breastfeeding or pumping. Apply the cold compress several times for up to 15 minutes. You can use frozen vegetable bags. Make sure the compress or bag is wrapped in a thin towel to protect the skin
Step 6. Try a cabbage compress
Applying chilled cabbage strands on the breast is an ancient natural remedy to reduce breast engorgement.
- Place the chilled cabbage strands around the breasts and let sit for about 20 minutes whenever needed.
- Remember that cabbage blades should not be placed on broken or irritated skin as this will make your condition worse. Use this method only if your breasts are swollen without complications.
Step 7. Use a loose bra
Tight bras can press the bottom of the bust to the ribs. This traps the milk in the lower ducts and will make the problem worse.
Step 8. Take medication to reduce pain and inflammation
You can buy over-the-counter ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). The drug is safe for use by breastfeeding mothers.
Follow the directions on the package and use as needed to reduce breast pain and discomfort
Step 9. Seek additional help if needed
Consult a doctor or a lactation consultant (an expert who helps mothers learn to breastfeed) if you would like additional support and guidance to manage breast engorgement.
If your breasts become increasingly painful, hard, red, and/or uncomfortable, especially if accompanied by a fever, see your doctor immediately. Your condition may progress to a breast infection (mastitis) due to blockage of the milk ducts, and should be treated with antibiotics
Part 3 of 3: Coping with Breast Swelling in Weaning and Non-Breastfeeding Mothers
Step 1. Learn strategies to reduce breast discomfort
If you start weaning your baby or decide not to breastfeed, your breasts may take a few days to adjust. Normally, it takes 1–5 days for the breasts to adjust to the lack (or no) need for milk, and begin to produce less milk (or not produce at all). Before milk production decreases or stops, you can:
- Put a cold compress on the breast
- Wearing a loose bra
- Try the cold cabbage
- Remove excess milk by pumping or using your hands (remember, there is no need to express a lot of milk because it will stimulate milk production, so a little is enough).
Step 2. Avoid pumping your breasts if you can
While pumping milk when you're in pain can help, it's generally not the right strategy because it encourages your breasts to produce more milk. So pumping your breasts will only make the problem worse, not solve it.
Trust that if you signal "don't need (a lot of) milk now" by resisting the urge to pump, your breasts will get used to producing only the amount of milk demanded
Step 3. Avoid the following when your breasts are swollen:
- Hot or warm to the breast because it can encourage milk production.
- Stimulation or massage of the breast because it can also encourage milk production.
Step 4. Try taking medication
Use ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) if needed to reduce breast pain and discomfort. These drugs can be obtained without a prescription at pharmacies.
When the breast swells, it may be difficult for the baby to suckle the nipple properly. If this happens, express a small amount of milk using your fingers to reduce the firmness of the breast so that the baby suckles more easily
- Breast engorgement normally occurs within the first few days to a week after delivery. If you experience this condition after regular breastfeeding, there may be a serious problem and you should see a doctor.
- Although in the past doctors prescribed medication to "dry the breast milk", today the practice is no longer there because it can cause very severe side effects.