If you read any books or talked with other moms before having a baby, you probably heard that breastfeeding comes 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 end up coping 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. Similar to the practice of hand expression, lactation massage utilizes basic massage techniques during breastfeeding to keep breast milk flowing freely.
"For a mother who is breastfeeding without difficulties, there isn't a definite indication for having a lactation massage," says Natasha Chinn, FACOG, M.D., an OBGYN practicing in New Jersey. "However, in cases where a mother 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 both relieve pain and help loosen the clog by breaking up the milk in the impacted area of the breast.
But that's not all a lactation massage is good for: Amelia Henning, 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 moms 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 mother uses a breast pump may play a role in the link between massage and increased supply.
This is especially important for mothers who pump beyond the newborn phase (for example, once they go back to work). 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 mothers, Henning says, a lactation massage may be key to successfully breastfeeding or pumping on an extended basis. It also may be beneficial for women who have babies with feeding issues—like ones 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 fairly safe to try at home without any formal instruction, though there are a few things you should keep in mind.
"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 healthcare 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.