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Overcoming breastfeeding problems


Problems with breastfeeding are common in new mothers. Most problems can be easily treated or solved. If you have a breastfeeding problem, contact a lactation consultant. This is a person who specializes in breastfeeding.

Alternative Names

Plugged milk ducts; Nipple soreness when breastfeeding; Breastfeeding - overcoming problems; Let-down reflex


Breastfeeding (nursing) your baby can be a good experience for both mother and baby. It takes time and practice to get comfortable with breastfeeding. Things you can do to help the process include:

  • Start breastfeeding your baby in the hospital, right after birth.
  • Ask for help from a lactation consultant or nurse to get you started.
  • Read about breastfeeding before your baby is born.


It is common to have some discomfort when your baby begins feeding in the first few days or weeks. Some breastfeeding mothers say nipple soreness feels like a pinching, itching, or burning sensation. This discomfort will go away over time.

Nipple soreness may be caused by many things, including:

  • Poor feeding techniques
  • Wrong position of the baby when breastfeeding
  • Not taking care of your nipples

For many women, there is no clear cause of nipple soreness. A simple change in your baby's position while feeding may ease soreness.

You might have sore nipples if your baby keeps sucking as he or she comes off the breast. You can help your baby learn to let go by gently inserting a finger into the side of the mouth to break the suction.

Skin that is too dry or too moist can also cause nipple soreness.

  • Bras made from man-made (synthetic) fabrics may cause moisture to collect. These fabrics may increase sweating and slow evaporation.
  • Using soaps or solutions that remove natural skin oils can cause dry skin. Olive oil, expressed milk, and ointments containing lanolin can help soothe dry or cracking nipples.

Some baby's chew or bite on the nipples when they start teething.

  • Giving the baby something cold and wet to chew on a few minutes before breastfeeding can help avoid this problem. A clean, wet washcloth from the refrigerator works well.
  • Offer the baby another cold, wet washcloth before feeding on the other breast.


Breast fullness is the slow buildup of blood and milk in the breast a few days after birth. It is a sign that your milk is coming in. It will not prevent you from breastfeeding.

Breast engorgement is caused by back up in the blood vessels in the breast. The breasts are swollen, hard, and painful. The nipples may not stick out enough to allow the baby to latch on correctly.

The let-down reflex is a normal part of breastfeeding. Milk made in the milk glands is released into the milk ducts. Pain, stress, and anxiety can interfere with the reflex. As a result, milk will build up. Treatment includes:

  • Learning to relax and finding a comfortable position
  • Reducing distractions during nursing, performing a gentle massage, and applying heat to the breast

Nursing often (8 times or more in 24 hours) and for at least 15 minutes at each feeding can also prevent engorgement.

Other ways to relieve breast engorgement:

  • Feed more often or express milk manually or with a pump. Electric breast pumps work best.
  • Alternate between taking warm showers and using cold compresses to help ease the discomfort.


The mother's supply is based on the baby's demand for milk. Frequent feedings, adequate rest, good nutrition, and drinking enough fluids can help maintain a good milk supply.

Checking weight and growth frequently is the best way to make sure your baby is taking enough milk. Talk to your health care provider if you are concerned about how much milk your baby is getting.


A milk duct can become plugged. This may happen if the baby does not feed well, if the mother skips feedings (common when the child is weaning), or if the mother's bra is too tight. Symptoms of a plugged milk duct include:

  • Tenderness
  • Heat and redness in one area of the breast
  • A lump that can be felt close to the skin

Sometimes, a tiny white dot can be seen at the opening of the duct on the nipple. Massaging the area and putting gentle pressure on it can help to remove the plug.


A breast infection (mastitis) causes aching muscles, fever, and a red, hot, tender area on one breast. Call your provider if you develop these symptoms.

Breast infections often occur in mothers who:

  • Are stressed and tired
  • Have cracked nipples, plugged milk ducts, or breast engorgement
  • Have been skipping feedings
  • Wear a tight bra

Treatment often includes:

  • Taking antibiotics for the infection
  • Applying moist, warm compresses to the infected area
  • Getting rest
  • Wearing a comfortable bra between feedings

Continuing to nurse from the affected breast will help healing take place. Breast milk is safe for the baby, even when you have a breast infection.

  • It is important to continue breastfeeding from both breasts. This will prevent further breast engorgement.
  • If nursing is too uncomfortable, you may try pumping or manual expression to move milk out of the breast. You can try offering the unaffected breast first until let-down occurs, to prevent discomfort. Talk to your provider about ways to manage the problem.


Thrush is a common yeast infection that can be passed between the mother and the baby during breastfeeding. The yeast (Candida albicans) thrives in warm, moist areas.

The baby's mouth and the mother's nipples are good places for this yeast to grow. Yeast infections often occur during or after antibiotic treatments.

Symptoms of yeast infection in the mother are deep-pink nipples that are tender or uncomfortable during, and right after, nursing. White patches and increased redness in the baby's mouth are symptoms of a yeast infection in the baby's mouth.

The baby may also have a diaper rash, a change in mood, and will want to suckle more frequently. Call your provider to get a prescription for an antifungal medicine for affected members of your family.


If you develop a fever or illness, contact your provider. You can safely continue breastfeeding during most illnesses. The baby is likely to benefit from your antibodies.



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Payne PA, Tully MR. Breastfeeding. In: Ratcliffe SD, Baxley EG, Cline MK, Sakornbut EL, eds. Family Medicine Obstetrics. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2008:section C.

Stettler N, Bhatia J, Parish A, et al. Feding healthy infants, children, and adolescents. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 42.