Sore breasts may come and go throughout a woman's life, from puberty through pregnancy and beyond. Here's what you need to know and how to get some relief. 

sad pregnant woman
Credit: Shutterstock

While sore breasts is one of the earliest signs of pregnancy most women experience, it is not always a surefire symptom. In fact, if most women experience breast pain or soreness each time Aunt Flo makes her monthly visit. Your fluctuating hormones are to blame for the breast pain and soreness, both before your period arrives and directly after it's left the building.

You also might notice that your breasts become bigger in the days leading up to your period—this is the result of an increase in the amount of estrogen your body is producing. Progesterone takes over once your period has come and gone, which also causes breast soreness.

Some feel this symptom as a heaviness or tenderness in the entire breast, while others feel a tingling in the area around the nipple. This very same symptom, however, is one of the very first that most women experience when they're pregnant, which can lead to confusion for those actively trying—or trying not—to get pregnant. Here's everything you need to know:

What causes breast pain during pregnancy?

If you are pregnant—congrats!—your reason for dealing with pesky breast soreness is slightly different, though also caused by a surge in hormones. After the egg is fertilized, your body begins to produce pregnancy hormones, namely estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin, that stimulate your breasts and cause the milk glands inside them to grow to prepare for their starring role in feeding your newborn. (FYI, this also what's behind that wow-cleavage you're likely experiencing these days.) What you're feeling is actually growing pains as your breasts prepare for lactation, and the discomfort may come and go over the course of your pregnancy.  "Most women experience tissue swelling in the first trimester, which causes breasts to become sore and tender," says James E. Ferguson II, M.D., professor and department chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. And all that ruckus in your chest can be blamed on your ever-changing body chemistry.

First, the pregnancy hormones progesterone and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) cause an increase in blood volume throughout the body and make your girls plump up. Next, hormones trigger changes in the melanocytes, or pigment cells, that give your nipples their color. Pale cells slough away and darker ones rise to the surface, making your nipples more pronounced, which will ultimately help your baby see them more easily. "This could explain why some women experience sensitive nipples during pregnancy," says Sharon Phelan, M.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center School of Medicine.

Then, still more hormones signal the milk ducts in your breasts to activate around your third month of pregnancy. "Estrogen and progesterone made by the placenta promote the development of the ducts within the breast tissue," says Patrick Duff, M.D., an ob-gyn at the University of Florida, Gainesville. "The ducts get larger and begin to produce and store colostrum, the early form of breast milk," says Duff. This can cause your breasts to ache because those cells have to stretch out to make room.

  • Find the answers to more health questions you're too embarrassed to ask with PeopleTV’s newest series ‘Is It Normal’

All of these rapid changes result in your breasts feeling rather uncomfortable—tender to the touch, prickly, and just plain sore. But luckily, the pain eases up as pregnancy progresses. "Most women get used to the discomfort after the first few weeks and don't even realize it when the pain goes away completely later in their pregnancy," says Phelan. This means you should have some time to enjoy your new ample bosom for a bit before the little one arrives.

What relieves breast tenderness during pregnancy?

The good news is the soreness will likely ease up as your pregnancy progresses, but in the meantime there's not all that much you can do about sore breasts in early pregnancy. Luckily, there are a few tricks of the mom-to-be trade that can help ease your discomfort.

  • Wear a more supportive bra. You might be hesitant to pack away all your lacey underwear, but those skimpy bras probably aren't helping your situation. Giving your breasts the support they need will most likely feel better. Patrick Duff, M.D., an ob-gyn at the University of Florida, Gainesville, recommends getting properly fitted for a more supportive bra. "A full-coverage bra will be more supportive, by lifting up the breasts and taking pressure off the area." Or, you may find that wearing a larger-size bra or sports bra helps. If you find it painful to go braless even at night, wearing a comfortable sleep bra to bed may bring you more peaceful slumbers.
  • Create a "no touch" zone. Your full breasts are going to be really attractive to your partner, but touching and adding pressure will only make matters worse. Treat your pregnancy breasts with care until soreness eases up.
  • Opt for loose-fitting clothes. As your breasts expand during pregnancy, clingy tops might become more constricting than cute—and inside seams could aggravate sensitive breasts. Stick with flowy clothing that won't rub or irritate.
  • Try a cold compress. Lay a towel over your chest and apply an ice pack to the area (a frozen bag of peas also works well!). 
  • Take warm showers. Not everyone responds to cold therapy, so if you don't find relief from an ice pack, try spending some time in a steamy shower. "The heat could help relax surrounding muscles and ease tension," says Duff.
  • Doctor-approved pain relief. If the pain is really getting to you, ask your doctor if you can take Tylenol.

What causes breast pain after pregnancy?

Ah yes—you thought you'd finally escape breast pain now that you delivered your beautiful baby. Sadly, this is not the case, as during the days that your milk comes in (usually starting three or four days after the birth) tend to be associated with full, even rock-hard, and painful breasts. This is known as engorgement and is normal and fortunately, temporary, and is a mere response to all that extra milk filling your breasts.

How long after giving birth will breast pain last? 

It's normal for your breasts to swell for up to two to five days after you give birth (this is called engorgement). It happens because your body is figuring out how much milk you need to produce and when, and this can make your breasts swell or feel rock-hard. Most women can tell when their milk comes in—your breasts might feel like foreign objects attached to your body.

Parents Magazine