All About Postpartum Breast Engorgement

As uncomfortable as breast engorgement can be, having swollen, hard, and throbbing breasts after delivery is actually a good sign. Here's what parents need to know, with tips for relieving the pain.

After months of aches and pains—and morning sickness—you've done it. You've survived pregnancy and given birth. But if you thought discomfort was a thing of the past, particularly breast swelling and tenderness, you'd be wrong.

When your milk comes in (usually three or four days postpartum), you'll deal with some unwanted pain in the form of full, rock-hard breasts. The good news is that this condition, known as engorgement, is both normal and temporary. It is a mere response to all the extra milk filling your breasts. But it's still really uncomfortable.

breastfeeding/thrush illustration
PhotoAlto/Anne-Sophie Bost/Getty Images.

Thankfully, there are some ways you can alleviate breast pain and soreness in the postpartum phase. Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Breast Engorgement?

Engorgement is a fancy word for swelling, and breast engorgement is simply a term used to describe swelling of the breast tissue. The postpartum condition can cause some discomfort; your breasts may be tender or feel like they are extremely full.

What Causes Breast Engorgement?

While postpartum breast engorgement can be a big problem—your breasts plump up exponentially with this condition—the reason behind it is quite simple. Breast engorgement is caused by increased milk production and blood flow. Individuals tend to experience engorgement three or four days after birth, when milk production ramps up.

However, the good news is that engorgement is temporary. Pain will be alleviated over time, with feedings, and/or by using the following tips and tricks

How Can You Relieve Breast Pain Caused by Engorgement?

While you might cringe at the thought of having your baby latch onto your painful, swollen breasts, avoiding breastfeeding is the worst thing you can do. Nursing drains milk from your breasts, giving them relief. It also signals to your body exactly how much milk your baby needs, so your body adjusts the supply accordingly. If you skip feedings because you're afraid it will hurt, in the short term, your breasts will just well up more and, in the long term, you could hurt your milk production.

Luckily, there are ways to help engorged breasts. Here are a few tried-and-true remedies for breast engorgement pain relief.

  • Nurse. Breastfeeding drains milk from your breasts and sets milk production on the right schedule. You should breastfeed a newborn about every two hours, but some infants need more frequent feedings. Wake your baby up—if need be—and/or feed them on their schedule, for their sake and your own.
  • Take a warm shower. Warm water triggers letdown and releases some of the extra milk your body is making. Of course, washing your milk down the drain may seem like a bit of a waste, which is why you can also pump.
  • Pump. Draining a half-ounce before feeding will make it easier for your baby to latch on. Then, after your baby is finished, you can pump extra breast milk and store it in the freezer.
  • Keep nursing pads in the freezer and put them in your bra, as needed. The coolness will work as a compress to gently relieve swelling until your next feeding.
  • Wear wireless bras. Underwire will increase breast discomfort, if you're engorged. Stick with soft cotton nursing bras or ones made of stretchy material.
  • Try putting cold cabbage leaves in your bra. This simple method to relieve breast engorgement really works! Because cabbage has such a high water content, it stays cool between nursing sessions and makes a great compress. Just keep a head of cabbage in your fridge or freezer and, after feeding, pull off two leaves—they're conveniently breast-shaped! Wear them in front of or behind nursing pads, whichever works better.
  • Lie on your tummy. For some women, lying down on their engorged breasts is too painful. But for others, the light pressure eases soreness. Try different positions and see what works best for you.
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