6 tips to treat breast engorgement while breastfeeding

Breast engorgement – swollen breasts – is a common problem for breastfeeding moms. When milk isn’t entirely emptied during a nursing or pumping session, engorged breasts may ensue.

Whether you’ve chosen to breastfeed or bottle feed, after delivery your body naturally makes milk. Swollen breasts can be caused by milk building up and putting pressure on the breast glands.

Breast engorgement usually happens two to four days after the baby’s birth. Sarah Musselman, RN, a lactation expert at OSF HealthCare, offers some suggestions to help with breast engorgement treatment.

“You can tell it’s an engorged breast when you feel pain, tenderness and swelling. Your breast will also likely feel full, tight and a lot of pressure, unlike when there’s a blocked milk duct,” Sarah said.

Tips to relieve engorgement

  1. Nursing more: The best solution is to let the baby nurse more often. This can sometimes be a challenge for both baby and mom. But nursing more can help reduce that build-up and encourage a more natural, frequent flow of milk.
  2. Pumping: Sometimes babies don’t want to eat as much as mom makes, so you can pump to relieve the pressure.
  3. Gentle massage: It’s easier for a baby to nurse on a softened breast as opposed to a tight, swollen breast. Gently massaging the breast before feeding and while baby is nursing helps improve the flow of breast milk. If your baby won’t stay latched while you are massaging, you can massage the breast just before getting them to latch.
  4. Warm towel or shower: Try feeding your baby from the breast right after getting out of the shower or covering your breasts with warm moist towels for a few minutes right before nursing. The gentle massage and heat from the shower or the moist warmth from the towels will help get milk flowing.
  5. Cold compress: Putting a cold compress – or even a bag of frozen veggies – on your breast in between feedings may help to reduce some of the swelling and pain. Keep this on for no more than 20-30 minutes.
  6. Cabbage: This is an old wives tale that doesn’t always help, but it likely won’t hurt, either. Take the clean leaves from the inside of a fresh head of cabbage and hold them in place on your breast – not your nipple – with your shirt or bra.

What not to do

Not emptying all of the milk from your breast can also cause engorgement.

Dealing with breastfeeding issues?

Use these tips to help

“When a baby nurses or when you pump, this sends a signal to your breasts to produce more milk,” Sarah said.

So even if a breast is emptied entirely, your body will continue to produce more milk.

“But, if you’re pumping to relieve swollen breasts, don’t pump to empty the breast. Pump enough to relieve the pressure. If you pump until you’re empty, you’ll just fill back up again,” Sarah said.

Here are some extra tips to prevent engorgement before it comes on.

  • Watch for baby’s feeding cues. Hands to mouth, making sucking movements with mouth and stirring to a wakeful state after sleeping are all natural movements babies make to indicate they’re ready to eat. Get baby to latch on before they start to cry. Babies feed better when they’re not upset.
  • Let baby nurse as long as they want, and allow them to try to empty the first breast before changing them to the second side. This will help the baby to get enough breast milk to be satisfied and will allow one breast to be emptied well.
  • Don’t skip feedings. If your baby wants to nurse, let them.

It can be uncomfortable, but engorged breasts won’t last forever, especially if you try Sarah’s tips. If you’re still experiencing engorgement after following these suggestions, talk with a lactation consultant for help.

Last Updated: April 13, 2023

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About Author: Katie Faley

Katie Faley is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare. She graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in English Studies. Before joining OSF HealthCare in 2021, she worked in magazine editing, digital marketing and freelance writing.
Katie is often found listening to ‘60s folk music, deciding on a new skill to learn, losing track of time in a library or spending time with her family and friends.

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Categories: Birth & Maternity