For the first few days after giving birth, a new mother’s breasts remain soft. They will produce colostrum. Colostrum, the first milk, is available in just the right amount, and is rich in immune factors that protect newborns. Sometime during the next few days, the breasts will become full, firm, warm, and perhaps tender. When this occurs, people say: “the milk is coming in!” The scientific term for this event is breast engorgement.
Breast engorgement is normal, and lasts for various periods of time depending on the individual woman. Some women experience only a day or so of mild, easy-to-manage engorgement. For other women, engorgement may be more intense, and can last from several days to two weeks.
How to Relieve Breast Engorgement
Breast engorgement affects nearly all new mothers within the first few weeks of giving birth. The condition is painful and, if not treated, can lead to other conditions such as mastitis and plugged milk ducts. Read on to learn how to relieve breast engorgement.
Manually remove milk from your breasts.
- There may be several days when your breasts are going to be engorged if you have decided not to breastfeed your baby. Use your hands or a breast pump to manually remove milk from your breasts.
- Make sure you only remove enough milk to alleviate the pain and firmness if your ultimate goal is to let your milk dry up. You could be encouraging your milk ducts to keep producing milk if you remove too much milk.
Nurse your baby if you are breast feeding.
- Breast engorgement results from over-production of milk or under-feeding by the baby. The easiest, and quickest, way to alleviate breast engorgement is feeding your baby from the breast that is engorged.
- Most doctors will advise a new mother to nurse her baby every 2-to-3 hours. Breast engorgement can be prevented if you follow this schedule.
- Vary nursing positions to help promote drainage of the breast.
Be careful about the type of pump you use. Many of the small inexpensive electric pumps can damage your tissue, since engorged breasts bruise easily due to increased blood volume. If you don’t have access to a high quality pump which cycles automatically, you may want to stick with manual expression. Even with manual expression or massage, be very, very gentle.
Use cold compresses between feedings or breast pumping. Try cold compresses to help reduce swelling and ease the pain if your breasts still feel painful and are hard to the touch, even after nursing or pumping milk. Apply the compress several times for 5 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Bags of frozen vegetables work well for this method.
Take a warm shower. Allow the spray to start at the top of the breasts and adjust your body so it works its way down. You can also massage them at the same time. This will be a bit painful at first, but it will ease the tenderness and hardness in the breasts.
Chill cabbage leaves and place them inside your bra. You may want to use cabbage leaf compresses if the above suggestions don’t bring you enough relief. This sounds really strange, but this is a remedy that has been used for over a hundred years with much success. No one is exactly sure why it works, but since it is inexpensive, safe, and effective, you may want to give it a try. Here’s what to do:
- Buy plain green cabbage.
- Rinse and dry leaves. Put them in the refrigerator.
- Remove base of hard core vein and gently pound leaves.
- Wrap around breast and areola, leaving the nipple exposed. The leaves fit nicely around the breast, and the cold feels good.
- Cover entire breast, and if needed, the area under your arms.
- Change every 30 minutes or sooner if they become wilted.
- Check your breasts often and as soon as you feel the milk beginning to drip, or if your breasts feel ‘different’, remove leaves and try to nurse or pump.
- Re-apply as needed (up to 3 times between feedings). Check often, as over use can cause a decrease in your milk supply.
Wear a loose-fitting bra. Tight-fitting bras can compress the lower part of the breast to the rib cage. This has the effect of trapping milk in the lower milk ducts and will aggravate the problem.
- Breast engorgement normally appears within the first couple of days to a week after giving birth. If you experience this condition after you have established a good feeding routine with your baby, it could be something more serious and you should see your doctor.
- When the breast is engorged, it may make it difficult for your baby to latch on properly to feed. If this happens, manually remove a little milk so the hardness of the breast is reduced enough for the baby to feed.