Breasts that are over full or engorged with milk can feel swollen, hot, lumpy and painful. If the milk is not removed by your baby or by hand expression or a pump, engorged breasts can lead to mastitis (painful breast inflammation). It’s normal to have some engorgement when your milk first comes in but it can also happen unexpectedly at other times. This article describes ways to help with engorgement.
Breasts full and tender after the birth
Many mothers will have some engorgement in the early days or weeks after birth. As the milk “comes in”, extra blood and tissue fluids will also be present in the breasts to help with milk production. This causes congestion and swelling for a while. The fluid in the breasts may be worsened if you had an intravenous (IV) drip during the birth and can take some time to clear.12
Engorged breasts after the first few weeks
Although engorgement is very common in the first few weeks of your baby’s life, it can happen at any time, even during weaning. Possible causes include;
- your baby sleeping longer than expected
- a missed feed
- feeding a baby on a schedule instead of on demand
- baby not draining the breasts properly
- weaning too quickly
- tight clothing or a tight bra or bag strap pressing on the breast
- having too much breast milk (oversupply)
- pumping more milk than your baby needs
- a blocked milk duct
Anything that interferes with breastfeeding on demand can increase your risk of engorgement. If painfully engorged breasts are neglected, this puts a mother at risk of having blocked ducts or mastitis. If you regularly have a lot more milk than your baby needs it may be helpful to discuss breastfeeding management with an IBCLC lactation consultant and see our article on oversupply of breast milk.
Whatever the reason for your overly full breasts, and you may not be sure why, emptying engorged breasts by regular breastfeeds, and trying some of our tips below can help you feel comfortable again. If your baby can’t keep up with the milk volume, you may also need to hand express or pump for a while.
Nine tips for relieving engorgement at any time include:
#1 Breastfeed often
Frequent breastfeeds can help relieve engorgement. Breastfeeding every couple of hours or at least 8 to 12 times in 24 hours gives your baby lots of opportunity to remove the milk that is building up. Conversely, going long periods without removing milk will increase the discomfort. If your baby can breastfeed well, this will usually be more efficient than using a breast pump.
#2 Check positioning and attachment
The way a baby attaches to the breast (latch) and the way they are held to breastfeed (positioning) can help or hinder milk removal. When a baby has a big mouthful of breast tissue as well as the nipple they are more likely to drain the breast more thoroughly. If breastfeeding is not comfortable ask a breastfeeding specialist to check your positioning and attachment and see Latching Tips, Breastfeeding Positions for Newborns and Why Does Breastfeeding Hurt? Trying different breastfeeding positions to usual may be helpful to relieve areas of the breast that are engorged and seem difficult to drain. If the engorgement has changed the shape of the breast and nipple making it difficult for your baby to latch, see #5 below.
#3 Gentle breast massage
Using light massage on an engorged breast both before and during breastfeeding (or pumping) can help milk to flow. There are several gentle breast massage techniques, some are mentioned below and there is more information in Blocked Milk Duct. If using massage, it is important to do so gently so as not to bruise the breast tissue or increase inflammation.3
The lymphatic system is a network of little tubes in the body that drains waste products from the cells in lymphatic fluid. Lymphatic massage can help engorgement by helping to drain lymphatic fluid from the breast towards the armpits (axilla). Lactation consultant and breast surgeon Katrina Mitchell has developed a handout showing how to do this type of massage using very light touch circular movements similar to that used to stroke a cat.
Therapeutic Breast Massage
A technique popularised by Maya Bolman of Breastfeeding Medicine of Northeast Ohio called Therapeutic Breast Massage in Lactation (TBML) involves alternating breast massage with hand expression (see video). This type of gentle massage can also help drain lymph/tissue fluid from the breast via the lymphatic system in the armpits4.
In the following Facebook video, lactation consultant Maya Bolman recommends gently moving the breast with your hands from side to side and in a circular motion to help with engorgement, she calls this breast gymnastics for engorgement.
Global health Media summarises six steps to take to relieve engorgement in the following video and describes a massage involving making circular hand movements at 01:40.
Other physical therapies
Mogensen et al discuss a number of other physical therapies that may help relieve engorgement including therapeutic ultrasound and cupping therapy. Ultrasound is used by medical professionals to reduce pain and increase circulation and some mothers have found it helped improve the symptoms of engorgement. Cupping therapy is a traditional Chinese medicine technique performed by a physical therapist that uses suction cups to create a vacuum to improve lymphatic fluid drainage. (Mogensen et al, 2019)
#4 Breast compression
Breast compression involves applying pressure to the milk-making tissue in the breast to help milk flow. During a breastfeed, applying a little pressure to particularly engorged areas with a free hand can help to release more milk from that area. Care should be taken not to cause any trauma or bruise the breast. Gentle breast compression is explained more fully in What is Breast Compression?
#5 Hand express or pump to comfort if needed
If your baby can’t breastfeed, isn’t feeding well yet, or can’t keep up with the volume of milk, you will need to remove enough milk to stay comfortable by other means than breastfeeding.
- Hand expression. Frequent hand expressing is a good way to remove excess breast milk in the early days after birth, see Hand Expressing Breast Milk. for videos and further information. A pump may attract more swelling to the area before your milk is in properly by pulling more blood or tissue fluid towards the nipple. If you do use a pump at this time, keep the suction at its lowest setting.
- Pumping. Pumping with a good quality breast pump can help to keep the breasts comfortable if they are engorged after your milk has “come-in”. If you still feel engorged after a breastfeed, a breast pump can remove enough milk until you feel comfortable.
- When milk won’t flow. See Engorgement Relief When Milk Won’t Flow for more ideas if you are unable to get milk flowing.
- Keep baby well fed. If your baby is not latching, any expressed milk can be given to your baby to keep him well fed until you can find some good breastfeeding help.
Expressing your milk won’t make the engorgement worse. It is important to remove enough milk to feel comfortable, this will protect your milk supply in the days to follow and will help avoid blocked ducts or mastitis. Expressing a little milk may also make it easier for your baby to latch deeply.
#6 Help baby to latch
If your breasts are extremely full and engorged they may feel very tight and sometimes your nipples may seem to flatten out and disappear. When this happens it can be difficult for a baby to latch on. When engorgement is preventing a baby from latching on, it can help to move some of the milk away from directly behind the nipple either by hand expressing or a technique known as reverse pressure softening.
Gently hand expressing a little milk before feeding can help soften the breast around the nipple so that baby can latch. See Hand Expressing Breast Milk. for videos and further information
Reverse pressure softening
If your breasts are so full and engorged that your baby can’t latch on, a technique called reverse pressure softening can help. Reverse pressure softening can bring out a nipple flattened by severe engorgement by temporarily redistributing the extra fluid away from the nipple area back into the breast. Jean Cotterman explains more about the technique in the article below.
#7 Cold therapy and cabbage
Cold compresses (e.g. frozen peas or crushed ice in a damp cloth) placed against any sore areas of the breast for up to 20 minutes at a time, or chilled cabbage leaves 56 in your bra can help reduce inflammation between feeds. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, a popular breastfeeding book, explains more about cabbage and cold therapy:
- Use green cabbage (red can stain), which may help reduce swelling [Stop use if a skin rash or other signs of allergy appear]. Remove the outer leaves in case there are any pesticides on them. Tear off some inner leaves, tear out the hard central stem, crumple the leaves gently in your hand, and apply them to your breast (not over your nipple, so the taste isn’t left behind to bother your baby). Doesn’t that feel wonderful? You can wear them inside a bra or under a tight shirt to keep them in place. replace the leaves with fresh ones whenever you want to.
- Inflammation responds best to cold. Wrap a bag of frozen peas (or carrots) in a small towel and use it as a cold compress, alternating about twenty minutes on and twenty minutes off, as much as you like. Refreeze as needed. If you feel like a hot shower, let the water play over your back, not your chest. Same for a heating pad.
#8 Pain relief
If engorgement is very painful, appropriate pain relief or anti-inflammatory medication can help with the pain and accompanying inflammation. Pain relief may also help the let-down reflex.7 Note that any particularly painful or red areas appearing on the breast could be signs of mastitis (breast inflammation) so be aware of Mastitis Symptoms and Treatment and when to get help.
Warmth before a feed
Some authors recommend placing a warm compress or warm towels on the breast just before pumping (or breastfeeding) as a little warmth can help with the let-down reflex and also provide some pain relief (Lawrence, 2016). It’s important not to go too warm as too much heat could bring more blood to the area and make the engorgement worse.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding suggests lying flat on your back to rest allows gravity to help drain fluids away from the breasts.8 Trying therapeutic breast massage while lying down can be helpful to release engorgement.
Lumps in the armpit
Breast tissue extends into the armpit (called the Tail of Spence). It is possible therefore for this breast tissue to become engorged in the form of a lump in the armpit. Engorgement here will respond to the same measures used for engorgement in other areas of the breast such as careful breast drainage, gentle massage and cold therapy. Occasionally the lump in the armpit will be swollen glandular tissue that does not drain into the rest of the breast; cold compresses will help this to resolve. Note: extra milk making glandular tissue can also be found in other parts of the body on the ‘milk line’.9 Persistent lumps should always be checked with a health professional.
Breasts that are over full with milk are known as engorged. Engorgement in the early weeks may also include blood and tissue fluid in the breast as well as breast milk. If engorgement is left unchecked it could develop into painful mastitis (inflammation of the breast). Breastfeeding frequently, hand expressing or pumping to stay comfortable, and gentle breast massage can all help to reduce breast engorgement and avoid mastitis. If you are having trouble expressing any milk see Engorgement Relief When Milk Won’t Flow. If you do develop symptoms of mastitis and are not starting to feel better after 12-24 hours of treatment, contact your health professional for advice. See Mastitis Symptoms and Treatment for further information.
*Extract reproduced by permission from Pinter & Martin