Sore nipples because of breastfeeding

Sore nipples

When breastfeeding is going well, and feeding feels comfortable, you are likely to feel that breastfeeding is a very positive experience.

However, if you are experiencing sore nipples every time your baby latches at the breast, this can be distressing, and many women can be on the brink of giving up breastfeeding because of this.

Please be assured, however, that once you’ve worked out what the cause of the painful nipples, and address the problem, you and your baby will be able to progress. 

So let’s consider the six common reasons for sore nipples and how to overcome the problems to enable you to move forward.

Poor attachment

The most common reason for sore nipples is if your baby is not attached well at the breast. 

If this is the cause, you will likely experience a nipple or nipples that look squashed or misshapen after a feed.

Your nipple may look like a new lipstick (wedge-shaped) or just a very different shape from the shape it was before the feed.

If this is your problem, look at the information relating to nursing positions, and learn how to get a good, deep, comfortable latch.

Woman covering a sore breast with her hand

You are both learning to breastfeed

The first month or so after giving birth is the time when you and your baby are learning together.

You are both hard wired to breastfeed, but there is a learning element too.

There may be some discomfort at times as you work out positions for feeding, and you may discover certain positions that don’t work well for you and your baby.

Don’t worry; this is a normal period.

Sometimes breastfeeding women say that they thought breastfeeding was going to be easy, so when these hurdles happen, they believe that something awful is happening.

While you may feel that things are not working out, the truth is that you ARE hardwired to breastfeed, but there is a learning element.

When your baby first latches on, he will do fast sucks at the beginning, which sends impulses to the brain, which in turn releases hormones.

The hormones cause a let-down of milk in both breasts. In the first couple of weeks after the birth, these fast sucks can last anywhere from a couple of seconds right up to 30 seconds before the milk lets down.

The time it takes for the milk to let-down can be variable from woman to woman, and the fast sucks may feel quite uncomfortable for some women.

Any discomfort could be due to hormonal influences. The good news is that it usually settles down after a couple of weeks. So know that this is normal. 

However, once the milk lets down, there should be an easing of any discomfort.

If the discomfort does not ease (you may still feel pulling and tugging as your baby accesses the milk) and you still feel pain, then you should unlatch your baby at that point and start right back at the beginning again to get a better latch.

Remember that you and your baby are learning how to breastfeed as each day passes.

You are learning about positions that work better, and some that don’t work so well. Too often,

Many women, while feeding their babies, try to grit their teeth and bear the pain from the beginning of the feed to the end of the feed, thinking that this is the best thing to do. 

Woman covering her breast with her hand

However, even just a couple of painful feeds like that can be enough to cause you to dread the next feed and may cause you to want to stop breastfeeding.

It is a far better option to unlatch your baby if it is painful once the milk has let down, and relatch again, which will protect your nipples. Let pain be your guide!

Believe it or not, pain is a good thing – it is your body’s way of telling you that something is not quite right, and gives you a chance to rectify it.

Watch out for your baby’s feeding cues, bringing him to the breast when you can, when he is sleepy or just quiet, and relaxed because relaxed babies latch better.

If babies get to the point where they are crying and upset, this can make latching more challenging.

Engorged breasts

The third cause of sore nipples is if your breasts become engorged, and therefore have become overfull.

What happens is that the nipple and the areola area also become engorged, meaning your nipple may not protrude as well as it did before.

Consequently, some babies may find it hard to latch. Look at the information on engorgement to learn how to deal with this.

Mum and baby lay in bed breastfeeding

Baby readjusting during a feed

Fourthly, even if your baby has latched on well initially and there isn’t any pain, some babies will readjust as the feed progresses, and may end up attached to the end of the nipple!

If this happens, try not to be tempted to carry on with the feed.

Bring your baby off the breast and go back to the beginning, where you can focus on helping your baby to get a really wide mouth, ensuring a better latch.

Tight clothes and breast pads

Another common cause of sore nipples can be tight clothes or a tight-fitting bra that rubs against your skin and causes damage.

Sometimes even plastic-backed breast pads have been known to cause damage too.

If you think that it is the breast pads that are causing the problem, you may need to consider buying cotton ones that are machine washable. These are usually far more comfortable.

Scented soaps and deodorants

Finally, you may find something simple such as a highly scented soap or deodorant spray or even lotions, and nipple creams could be causing the problem.

It is possible to have an allergic reaction to any of these. So bear those things in mind too.

Apart from identifying the cause of the sore nipples, ultra-purified lanolin can also be useful for breastfeeding mothers – and this is fantastic stuff.

Feed your baby, pat your nipples dry, and then add a little bit of the lanolin to your nipples.

The lanolin will provide a moist barrier, and helps with the healing. It is, however, usually more suitable to put it on sore unbroken skin. 

If you have cracked nipples (and many women do use it on cracked nipples), you must pay attention to hand hygiene.

It is possible that while applying the lanolin to your nipples, you could potentially introduce bacteria from your hands into the open wound on your nipple.

A useful comfort tip is to hand express your milk just before you put your baby to the breast.

If you’ve got sore nipples, this will avoid your baby having to do the fast sucks at the beginning of the feed to ‘call’ the milk down.

The quick sucks can often be intense, and many women feel that if their nipples are already sore, this intense sucking can be very uncomfortable.

Instead, you can hand express to encourage the let-down of milk, and then bring your baby to the breast once the milk has let down.

A useful comfort measure that you can do if one nipple is sorer than the other one is to let your baby start on your least painful side first, to generate the let-down.

Once the milk has let down, unlatch your baby and bring it to the other side.

If you have sore nipples and you’ve ruled out positioning and all of the possible causes mentioned here, please also look at the information on other causes of sore nipples.

It can take a bit of detective work, time, and perseverance, but once you’ve found the answer, then you will be able to rectify that and move forward.

Review dates, references & further resources

Review Dates

Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022


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