Comfort For Mom: Treating Engorged Breasts

Engorgement is common among breastfeeding mothers and can be very uncomfortable, but there are simple solutions that can help relieve the soreness. Learn what causes engorgement, symptoms, treatment, and how to prevent it from happening again.

Engorged Breasts - Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Engorgement is common among breastfeeding mothers, but there are simple solutions that can help relieve the soreness. If you recognize engorgement early and follow these steps for treating engorged breasts, your discomfort could subside in as little as 24 – 48 hours.

What Causes Engorged Breasts?

If you haven't experienced engorgement, it's a good idea to be prepared in case you eventually encounter this common breastfeeding challenge. Engorged breasts are the result of increased milk production, blood flow, and lymph fluids to the breasts after childbirth, all of which makes them feel full, hard, and even uncomfortable. 

It's not uncommon to experience engorgement within the first week after giving birth. You might also experience it when your baby's feeding pattern changes, such as when starting solid foods and demanding fewer feedings. 

Breast engorgement can also be caused by any of the following situations:

  • Skipping a breastfeeding session and not pumping
  • Breast milk oversupply
  • Waiting too long between nursing and/or pumping sessions
  • Baby struggling to latch properly and not fully draining your breasts when feeding
  • Baby not feeding well due to illness

Symptoms of Breast Engorgement

Breast engorgement is usually temporary and will go away when your body adjusts your breast milk production to suit your baby's needs.

Symptoms of breast engorgement include:

  • Tender breasts
  • Swelling and hardness
  • Reddened areas
  • Larger, flattened nipples (baby may struggle to latch)
  • Sore nipples

Treatment for Engorgement Relief

If you're exhibiting symptoms of breast engorgement, there are several ways to find relief, including:

  • Continue to breastfeed or pump frequently to relieve “fullness.”
  • Apply warm, wet compresses and gently massage breasts 10 minutes before feeding to help with milk flow.
  • If baby is having trouble latching, express a little milk by hand or by pumping on a low setting, until the areola has softened enough for him or her to latch easier.
  • Cold compresses applied for 15 minutes every hour between feedings can help relieve pain and reduce swelling. Small bags of crushed ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a thin dish towel work well for this. Some moms use cool cabbage leaf compresses 3-4 times per day for relief as well, but - while effective for treating engorgement - it's important to know that cabbage leaf compresses can also lower your milk supply.
  • Rest, rest, rest!
  • Call your medical provider if you have a fever higher than 101° F or severe pain. That may be a sign of a breast infection called mastitis.

Preventing Breast Engorgement

Of course, preventing breast engorgement is always preferable to treating it after it's already occurred. The best ways to avoid breast engorgement include: 

  • Nurse or pump often. Lactation consultants recommend breastfeeding at least 8-10 times in a 24-hour period.
  • Keep a compact, easily portable breast pump on hand - in your car, at your workplace, or at home - as a back-up, so you can pump if and when needed to prevent engorgement during times away from your baby. A single, manual breast pump like the Harmony® is designed for occasional use and short periods away from your little one. Best of all, it comes with our PersonalFit Flex™ breast shield, which is designed to optimize pumping comfort and milk flow, which gives you more milk faster. Just be sure to do your research and find the best back-up breast pump option for you and your unique needs!
  • Establish a proper latch. If a baby latches deeply to the breast, that helps ensure your breasts are releasing milk efficiently.
  • Nurse on or pump each breast until it is “empty” before switching.
  • Express milk from breasts after each feeding if your baby has not completely relieved fullness.

As a breastfeeding mama, it's important that you practice meaningful self-care and always, always ask for help when you need it. 

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