Is Lactation Massage Worth It?

Experts weigh in on whether breast massage can help prevent breastfeeding issues like mastitis or offer benefits like increasing your milk supply. 

pumping breastmilk
Photo: Warut Chinsai/Shutterstock

If you read any books or talked with other parents before having a baby, you probably heard that breastfeeding and chestfeeding come with a learning curve. Sure, it's a natural option for feeding your baby, but in this case, "natural" doesn't always mean "easy." In the early weeks and months of breastfeeding, you could deal with plugged ducts, milk supply problems (either too much or too little), engorgement, and latch or positioning issues.

Unfortunately, there's no one magic trick to resolving all those potential breastfeeding snafus—but there is one thing that might help with a few of them: a lactation massage. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Lactation Massage?

Similar to the practice of hand expression, lactation massage utilizes basic massage techniques on the breast during breastfeeding or pumping to keep breast milk flowing freely.

"For a [parent] who is breastfeeding without difficulties, there isn't a definite indication for having a lactation massage," says Natasha Chinn, M.D., an OB-GYN practicing in New Jersey. "However, in cases where a [parent] suffers from frequent clogged ducts or frequent episodes of mastitis, then lactation massage [might serve a purpose]."

Dr. Chinn notes that massaging a clogged duct or another hardened part of the breast can relieve pain and help loosen the clog by breaking up the milk in the impacted area.

Lactation massage is also called "hands-on pumping" when done while pumping with a manual or electric pump in an effort to remove more milk.

The Benefits of Lactation Massage

That's not all a lactation massage is good for: Amelia Henning, CNM, IBCLC, a certified nurse midwife and lactation specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes that it can improve milk production, assist in the overall "transfer" of milk (i.e., the process of getting milk from your breast to your baby), and provide a much-needed boost for parents who pump their breast milk.

"We've seen massage increase milk supply when it's done along with pumping," she says, adding that the skin-to-skin contact normally missing when a parent uses a breast pump may play a role in the link between breast massage and increased supply.

This is especially important for parents who pump beyond the newborn phase (once they return to work, for example). Those changes to the breastfeeding schedule—when the time between feedings is lengthened, and some feedings are dropped entirely—can contribute to an overall decrease in milk supply.

For these parents, Henning says, a lactation massage may be one of the keys to successfully extending breastfeeding or pumping. It also may be beneficial for babies with feeding issues—like those who are sleepy or sluggish at the breast or who have trouble latching onto or emptying the breast during nursing sessions.

How To Do a Lactation Massage

If you're considering trying a lactation massage, it's relatively safe to try it at home without any formal instruction, though there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  1. To start, apply a warm compress like a washcloth dampened with warm water across the breast you're going to massage.
  2. When you're ready, begin by using your fingertips to gently massage from the top of the breast toward the nipple. You can use circular motions over the nipple and areola.
  3. Do not press too hard and if anything feels painful, stop.

"There are slightly different techniques of massage, and what you're using it for could influence which technique you choose," explains Henning. "For clogged ducts, you want to move across the ducts and toward the nipple. For increasing supply when you're pumping, you want to use both hands, if possible, and massage downward toward the nipple."

Whatever your reason for using lactation massage, remember that it should always be comfortable—it should never hurt or leave red marks, says Henning. Try to be firm but gentle because you could cause minor tissue damage if your massage is too vigorous.

If you're uncomfortable with or unsure about your technique, you might want to schedule a home visit with a certified lactation consultant, who can teach you how to use the correct technique to troubleshoot your specific breastfeeding issue. Otherwise, never hesitate to contact your health care provider with questions.

"If you're concerned or having persistent clogged ducts or episodes of mastitis, you should definitely speak with your healthcare provider," says Dr. Chinn.

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