Breast engorgement is when your breasts become overly full with milk; it can be painful and they may feel firm and swollen.
"It often happens in the first few days, whether you’re breastfeeding or not, as your milk comes in," says lactation consultant Katherine Fisher. "And then later on, it can become an issue for several reasons, including your baby not draining your breast fully or because you’ve missed a feed or because baby has tongue-tie and isn't latching correctly."
Thankfully, it’s very common – and there are steps you can take to ease it. We spoke with Cathy Tabner, in-house midwife at My Expert Midwife to answer all your questions about breast engorgement and what you can do to relieve it.
What is breast engorgement?
"Breasts can become engorged after the baby is born and milk increases, usually around day three to five after the birth, but it can occur sooner," says Cathy. "Engorgement can also occur during the breastfeeding journey if the breasts are over stimulated. An example of this would be expressing too much milk with a breast pump in a short period of time or stopping breastfeeding abruptly. Both breasts generally enlarge and feel uncomfortable, and even painful, and one side may engorge more than the other."
What causes breast engorgement?
Cathy explains there are two types of engorgement that can occur: "Extra blood supply (venous engorgement) and new milk production (milk engorgement), occur at the same time, commonly around day three to five and resolve spontaneously within hours to days."
What are the symptoms of engorged breasts?
According to Cathy, these are the most common symptoms associated with engorged breasts:
• Your breasts feel solid, heavy, tight, and warm.
• You may feel run down and unwell.
• Teeth chattering and shivering has also been noted as the milk comes in engorgement develops.
One thing Cathy says breast engorgement should not do is lead to an increase in body temperature. "Any rise in temperature should be reported to the care team. Engorgement is eased by rest, painkillers and feeding your baby frequently to drain the breasts."
Is breast engorgement painful?
Breast engorgement can be painful for some women, but it's different for everyone.
"Painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen should relieve the pain and discomfort which tends to last from six hours to several days and should resolve spontaneously as the demand and supply mechanism of breastfeeding becomes established," Cathy reassures. "In rare cases mastitis can develop so if symptoms are not improving after 24 hours, we recommend contacting your midwife or GP."
Breast engorgement treatment
Here are Cathy's top tips to help soothe and relieve your engorged breasts:
Breastfeed your baby at least every two hours
This will relieve engorgement in most cases. Removing a small amount of milk by hand expression relieves the tension in the skin, areola and nipple and this may be required to help the baby latch on if the skin is tight and the breasts are overfull (otherwise it is like trying to suck from a bowling ball!).
Have a shower prior to feeding
Apply the shower jet of warm water onto the breasts for a few minutes to aid milk flow. Many women apply a warm compress using a wet face cloth (take care not to burn the skin), alternatively a cold compress may be preferred, or a combination of both.
Do not withhold fluids
There is a common misconception that drinking less will help when the opposite is true . Hydrate well, take painkillers and rest whilst feeding the baby regularly and engorgement should not be an issue for more than a few hours.
Keep it simple
Traditionally women were advised to wear a cabbage leaf in the bra to ease the condition, but modern pain relief and frequent feeding is most effective. A roomy, non-wired nursing bra or nursing vest is also recommended.
Adejumoke Ilori is a Commercial Content Writer for Mother&Baby. She is a mum to a little girl, and has worked for various digital platforms. She has produced content that empowers women from all walks of life by sharing real life stories based on relationships, loving yourself and motherhood. She has also worked for OK! and New Magazine, writing product reviews, covering fashion and beauty, the latest celebrity news and lifestyle. Adejumoke enjoys spending quality time at home with her daughter creating precious memories – doing things like spa nights and grabbing popcorn and cuddling up.