Nipple pain or tenderness is one of the most common issues cited by mums in the first few days of breastfeeding. Nipple pain that extends beyond this period should not be considered normal and warrants further attention. If left untreated, sore nipples can lead to other breast problems such as engorgement, mastitis or early cessation of breastfeeding. Nipple pain or sore nipples may occur with or without infection.
Some causes of nipple pain include:
- poor positioning and attachment
- high baby vacuums
- failing to release suction before removing the baby from the breast
- climate variables
- skin sensitivity
Signs of sore nipples
Symptoms of sore nipples may include temporary pain as a result of suction (vacuum) injury in the first few days post-partum. Nipple pain that extends beyond this may include signs of fissures, skin abrasions, cracked nipples, scab formation, or pale or dark blotches on the nipple. Signs of inflammation in the nipple or areola may be present as well. They include pain, particularly during latch, redness, oedema and higher temperatures than normal.
If a bacterial infection is present, a yellowish discharge and a reddened nipple may also be observed.
Evaluation of nipple pain
Consultation with a lactation professional is recommended. A feeding history, examination of the mum's breast and nipples and the baby's mouth, along with observation of a breastfeed, is recommended.
In conjunction with advice from a lactation professional, evidence-based strategies that may be implemented, depending on the issue, may include:
- Help with positioning and attachment, trying different feeding positions to help reduce pain
- Feeding with the unaffected side first (unless a blockage or mastitis is present)
- Washing hands before handling breasts to minimise bacteria, and changing nursing pads, if used, at each feeding session
- Gently breaking the suction on the nipple with a clean finger to detach the baby, rather than pulling the baby from the breast
- Avoiding topical applications – they are not needed if the skin is intact
If nipples are damaged or cracked
- washing them more frequently
- considering a warm and wet compress before breastfeeding to soften/soak the scab
- based on the principles of moist wound healing, applying purified lanolin, which may help the nipples heal. This does not need to be washed off prior to feeding. If any irritation or discomfort occurs, its use should be discontinued
- Ensuring breast shields are positioned correctly and are the right size, if pumping
- Avoiding tight clothing, such as underwired bras, to minimise pressure on the breast
- Cooling breast and nipples with cool packs after a feed to help relieve pain and inflammation
- Taking pain relief – an anti-inflammatory agent such as Ibuprofen is considered safe during breastfeeding and may help relieve pain prior to feeding
- Expressingtemporarily for 24 hours if breastfeeding is too painful, with the gradual reintroduction of breastfeeding as the pain subsides
- Using nipple shields as a method of reducing pain
- If nipple tenderness remains or the nipples are slow to heal, they may need to be swabbed and cultured to check if an infectionis present
- If nipples are infected, extra hygiene measures are necessary. This includes carefully cleaning the nipples using water and a pH-neutral soap or sterile saline solution