Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world and as expectant mothers, we’re used to hearing how beneficial breastfeeding is to our baby. But we’re rarely told about the side effects of nursing. Itchy breasts and nipples can be one of the negative experiences mothers struggle with and it’s a lot more common that you think. Within this article, you’ll find out the causes of itchy breasts while breastfeeding and when to seek treatment for it.
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Common causes of itchy breasts and nipples
Firstly, the good news is that the common causes of itchiness are easily solved. With some detective work, you should be able to figure out what’s causing your discomfort so you can choose the right treatment.
Cause #1 – Poor Latch
It’s often said that babies are born knowing how to breastfeed. This is true for the most part but they sometimes need a little bit of help getting that latch perfect. Your baby needs to not just suckle on your nipple but they should also get a mouthful of your breast too. It sounds like a lot for their little mouths but this is the optimum position.
If your baby is only taking your nipple in their mouth, the sucking motion is concentrated in that area. Your poor nipples won’t be used to that and while they build up a tolerance, you might experience some itchiness. The good news is, it shouldn’t last too long before you don’t have any itchy breasts while breastfeeding.
Cause #2 – Engorgement and Stretched Skin
When your milk is coming in, your breasts fill up more than you ever thought possible. They’re rock hard and tender to touch, it’s very uncomfortable. Obviously, your skin needs to stretch to accommodate the engorgement from this extra milk. You know how itchy stretchmarks can be? Well, this is basically the same thing.
As your breasts fill up and empty again as your baby feeds, this is putting more tension on your skin. Not only are they working hard on the inside, but the skin on the outside is also constantly stretching and shrinking and as you can imagine, this causes a lot of uncomfortable itching.
Cause #3 – Let Down Reflex
Another common cause of itchy breasts while breastfeeding is the let-down reflex. This is a feeling that is so difficult to describe to someone who’s never experienced it and is the reflex that causes breastmilk to flow.
It can be triggered by a baby suckling, by using a breast pump or simply by hearing a baby crying; this can either be your baby or a stranger’s baby! The sensation is similar to a tingling throughout the breast or as a deep itch within your breast tissue.
Let-down often regulates as you settle into breastfeeding. When I started breastfeeding one of my babies, I had a really strong let-down reflex and it was really uncomfortable at times. I’d also feel it in both breasts as the one that I wasn’t feeding from would drip and leak. Luckily, I’d experienced it before so I knew what it was.
I’m now well into this breastfeeding journey and I don’t feel it at all anymore. My milk supply has settled and breastfeeding is virtually painless. There’s not a lot you can do to treat the let-down reflux apart from having patience and giving it some time.
Cause #4 – Thrush
This could be the most common cause of breasts itching while breastfeeding. I’ve experienced this and it was the most horrendous feeling. I was 4 weeks into my first breastfeeding journey and every time my cluster-feeding baby wanted to nurse, I was in tears. Not only were my breasts itchy but it felt like cut glass was being rubbed across my nipples.
The tell-tale signs of thrush were that the end of my nipple was white at all times and my baby also had creamy white spots in his mouth. If you or your baby have either of these symptoms, it’s likely to be thrush. The good news is that you can carry on breastfeeding while you’re both being treated for the infection.
Cause #5 – Mastitis
The final possible cause of itchy breasts while breastfeeding is mastitis. Mastitis is caused by a blocked milk duct or a build-up of milk in the breast. It can also be caused by bacteria entering the breast through a cracked nipple.
Mastitis is fairly easy to diagnose as the common symptoms are a burning sensation or itching throughout the breast, lumps, redness and a fever or chills. If left untreated, it can require surgery to unblock the duct.
You should seek medical advice as soon as possible if you think you have mastitis. It’s a nasty infection that can turn serious quite quickly so it’s important to start taking antibiotics right away. Like thrush, you can carry on breastfeeding while you’re being treated for it.
How to treat itchy breasts while breastfeeding
It’s easy to treat the simpler causes of itchy breasts:
Use nipple balm – Every breastfeeding mum needs to apply a good nipple balm before and after every feed. We recommend Lanolin Nipple Cream by Lanisoh.
Moisturise – We moisturise almost every other part of our bodies to prevent dry skin so we should be doing the same to our breasts, especially while nursing. Make sure to use a natural one which is safe to use while breastfeeding like Weleda Skin Food.
Change breast pads often – Keeping damp pads next to your nipples is only going to make the dryness worse and potentially invite more bacteria to play. Lanisoh have these pads available – or for something more environmentally friendly, why not try their reusable ones
Get some outside help – The National Breastfeeding Helpline are open every day of the year to give non-judgmental and helpful advice to any breastfeeding mother who’s struggling. There’s also the option of hiring a lactation consultant who’ll come to your house and figure out what you can do to help the itchiness. They’ll be able to show you different nursing positions, how to get a good latch or even just listen to your frustrations.
Apply a compress – They can be either warm or cold compresses, only you’ll know what you need in that moment. Run a flannel under water and press it to your breast while in the shower; even letting the warm water run over you will relieve some of the discomfort. Gel packs that you can put in the fridge or freezer are great as well, especially if your breast feels warm to touch.
Wear a supportive bra – When your milk supply has settled, get measured for a nursing bra. You can either follow guides online or get measured by a professional but having a well-fitted bra is imperative. Not only will your breasts be supported, but they’ll also feel comfortable even when they’re engorged. Avoid wearing a bra that’s too tight as that can cause blocked ducts and ultimately mastitis.
When to see a doctor
It’s important that you recognise the difference between itchiness caused simply by breastfeeding and itchiness caused by infection. If you suspect that your discomfort is a result of thrush or mastitis, it’s vital that you speak to your doctor right away.
Thrush is treated by a course of antibiotics. You’ll be given an anti-fungal cream to rub onto your nipples after a feed and this should clear it up. If your baby has oral thrush, they’re usually given a gel which you apply to their mouth around 4 times a day. Thrush can spread easily so make sure you also wash any bedding or towels that you or your baby have used recently to reduce the risk of anyone else in your household getting it.
Mastitis is also treated via antibiotics. There are other ways you can try and unblock the duct; feeding while dangling your breast over your baby, massaging the lump and expressing while in the shower can help too. But the antibiotics will kill any bacteria which is causing unpleasant symptoms internally. It’s perfectly safe to continue breastfeeding while you have mastitis or if you’re being treated for it; in fact, it’s actually recommended.
Go with your gut instinct. If you feel that your itchiness is being caused by more than dry skin or a poor latch, seek medical advice. Doctors would rather that you err on the side of caution rather than suffer in silence.
Itchy breasts and nipples are unfortunately part and parcel of breastfeeding. However, if you think that the cause of your itching isn’t something that can be fixed at home, seek medical advice and get treatment for it. If you ignore that potential infection, it could turn into a bigger issue that could have been prevented with treatment.