There are several possible causes of sore nipples in a breastfeeding mother. The most common of these is when a baby is not latched (attached) to the breast properly—so the baby is ‘nipple feeding’ instead of breastfeeding. Sometimes however, the situation is not as simple as just fixing the latch. Positioning and attachment may look OK but a mother may still have severe pain, soreness, stabbing pains in the breast or perhaps itching or burning pain. In these cases perhaps the baby has poor tongue function resulting in these symptoms. Or, because damaged nipples are susceptible to infection, there may be a bacterial or fungal infection on the nipples causing soreness. This article provides a brief guide to common causes of sore nipples.
Causes of sore nipples
#1 Position and attachment
A poor latch can cause painful feeds, blisters, cracks, grazing or bleeding to the mother’s nipples. Once the latch has been improved—ideally with the help of an IBCLC lactation consultant—sore or cracked nipples can heal quickly on their own. See Why Does Breastfeeding Hurt? for more problem solving ideas and the articles Breastfeeding Positions for Newborns, Latching Tips and Breastfeeding Videos will help with positioning.
Variations in anatomy
Very large, inverted or unusually shaped nipples can sometimes rub in an infants mouth despite paying careful attention to latching on. Ask your breastfeeding specialist for help with finding the best position or consider whether nipple shields could be helpful. Dimpled or folded nipples may tend to trap moisture after a feed and become sore but patting them dry after a feed can avoid this.
#2 Tongue function
Sometimes a baby’s latch can look good from the outside but the mother complains of severe discomfort and her nipple or nipples are sore and damaged. In these cases, a suck assessment by an IBCLC lactation consultant might discover that the baby isn’t using his tongue properly and is pinching and grazing the nipples with his tongue. This can stem from various causes such as
- A baby with high muscle tone
- A baby who may benefit from body work to release tension in the neck, jaw or muscles controlling the tongue
- A baby who needs tongue exercises to strengthen his tongue
- A baby who just needs an even deeper latch to stabilise the tongue
- A baby with a tight frenulum also known as a tongue tie—which may need dividing by a quick medical procedure.
#3 Vasopasm of the nipple
A vasospasm is a sudden constriction (vasoconstriction) or narrowing of the blood vessels in the nipple and it is extremely painful. You may notice blanching of the nipples (when the tips of the nipples look white after a feed) and the pain may be felt a short time after breastfeeding or in between feeds. Vasospasm tends to be caused by;
- A shallow latch—getting your baby latched deeply at the breast will be helpful.
- Raynaud’s phenomenon—this is a condition where the mother may experience similar symptoms in her fingers and toes, often triggered by feeling cold.
Vasopasm or vasoconstriction of the nipple can also cause Mammary Constriction Syndrome (deep breast and muscle pain). See Vasospasm Symptoms for more information on causes, symptoms and treatments for nipple blanching and vasospasm.
#4 Bacterial infection
Another possible cause of sore nipples is infection by Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus); a bacteria commonly found on skin.
Once the integrity of the nipple skin has been breached, it becomes highly susceptible to colonization and infection by bacteria such as S. aureus. This can lead to prolonged nipple pain, delayed healing, complications, and the need for more aggressive interventions.
Amir et al (2013)1 examined which of S. aureus or Candida species (a fungus causing thrush) in breast infections was the primary organism responsible for nipple and breast pain. They found that more than one cause of nipple or breast pain is often present which makes diagnosis difficult.
Wash damaged nipples daily with plain soap
Washing damaged nipples daily with ordinary mild soap (not antibacterial) reduces the number of bacteria present and breaks down their protective shield. There’s no need to wash healthy nipples with soap. And see What Can I put on Sore Nipples? for treatment options if you have a bacterial infection or Staph, MRSA and Breastfeeding for more information about S aureus infections.
#5 Fungal infection (thrush)
Thrush is a fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of Candida albicans. A breastfeeding mother can get a thrush infection on her nipples and a baby can get one inside his mouth (often seen as white patches inside the cheeks). Thrush is normally kept in check by friendly bacteria in our bodies but a mother may be susceptible to thrush if she has cracked or damaged nipples or if mother or baby are on antibiotics (which kills the friendly bacteria that keep thrush in check). The symptoms of thrush are similar to those experienced when a baby is not latched correctly causing vasospasm of the nipple (#3 above). Mothers describe itching or burning pain after a breastfeed and sharp pains deep in the breast in between feeds. For a full description of causes, symptoms and the latest treatment recommendations see Thrush on Nipples.
Nipples may be sore due to an allergy to something that mothers may be using on their nipples, even purified lanolin—a popular choice for soothing nipples—can cause a reaction in some mothers. If there is an overgrowth of bacteria or fungi on the nipples this can increase the sensitisation of skin to food allergens 2.
#7 Milk blisters or blebs
If one of the little openings in the nipple gets blocked with thickened milk or a layer of skin it can cause a very sore nipple. In this situation you may see a little white spot on the nipple which is called a milk blister or bleb. See Blisters on Nipples for ideas to free the blockage.
Friction blisters (may be clear or blood filled) on the nipple may be caused by your baby feeding in a shallow latch and rubbing your nipple against their hard palate, see Blisters on Nipples for more information. Painful blisters may also be viral in origin e.g. caused by herpes simplex or the varicella-zoster virus see Herpes and Breastfeeding for further reading.
#8 Eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis
Other causes of sore nipples include the skin conditions; eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis. Contact your health professional for diagnosis and medication compatible with breastfeeding and see Treatments for Sore Nipples? for more information.
There are several dermatological conditions that can affect the nipples and areolas; the three ingredients in our all-purpose nipple ointment (APNO) should cover all these possibilities. The corticosteroid will help decrease the inflammation of most dermatological conditions. Sometimes eczema or contact dermatitis is aggravated by bacterial infection (especially Staphylococcus aureus) or perhaps Candida (yeast, thrush), which is why the other two ingredients are included.
#9 Paget’s disease (rare)
Paget’s disease of the nipple is a skin condition that looks like eczema but is due to an underlying cancer. Dr Jack Newman says:
It is quite uncommon in women of childbearing age but it can occur. Paget’s disease is easily mistaken for eczema because of the flaking skin and itching. Most mothers with eczema get it on both breasts, though, while Paget’s disease usually involves only one. If treatment with a steroid ointment does not result in rapid resolution (within a week) of the problem, the mother should see her doctor. The diagnosis is made by biopsy of the nipple. This does not mean the mother should stop breastfeeding on that side—she cannot transfer cancer to the baby by breastfeeding.
Sore nipples and an older baby
If breastfeeding becomes painful when your baby is a little older it can sometimes be a mystery to find the reason why you suddenly have sore nipples. Kelly Bonyata has a useful article covering possibilities from your baby teething to hormonal changes such as return of periods or pregnancy.
What can I put on sore nipples?
Marsha Walker, IBCLC (breastfeeding advocate and author) and Jack Newman, MD (Canadian paediatrician and breastfeeding expert) favour combination treatments of antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory ingredients to quickly deal with the problem, irrespective of the cause. See Treatments for Sore Nipples for more information about all the treatment options for sore nipples that aren’t healing.
Sore nipples are most commonly associated with poor positioning or latch. It doesn’t take many feeds in a shallow latch before nipples become sore, grazed, blistered or deeply cracked and, once damaged, there is a risk of bacterial or fungal infection as well. Breastfeeding is not supposed to hurt—if it is painful, seek urgent help from your breastfeeding specialist or IBCLC lactation consultant to find the cause of your sore nipples. Correcting the latch or your baby’s tongue function is a priority to prevent repeated damage. Your health care provider will advise on the most appropriate treatment for your sore nipples.