Breast engorgement occurs when your body makes a large amount of milk that does not get removed, and gets pressed on your milk ducts.
Women in the postnatal period usually feel their breasts to become larger, heavier, and a little tender between the second and fifth day after giving birth. It is because they begin to produce greater quantities of milk. The breast milk could flow out while breastfeeding or pumping milk from the breasts. This is called breast fullness. It is a perfectly normal condition.
But if your breasts feel hard, swollen, throbbing, lumpy, uncomfortably full, or painful, you are likely engorged. The swelling may extend all the way to your armpit and you may even run a low fever.
What Causes Breast Engorgement?
If you do not nurse frequently or thoroughly enough to drain your breasts in the first few days after birth, you may become engorged. When your body makes large amount of milk which does not get get removed, presses on your milk ducts. Due to this reason, it is difficult for the milk to move through milk ducts.
Milk ducts carry breast milk from the glands (small sacs), where it is made, down to your nipple. Engorgement can also happen if your baby misses a feeding or you change how often you breastfeed your baby.
How does breast engorgement affect breastfeeding?
Your milk supply will decrease if the excess breast milk is not removed. Your baby may not be able to latch on correctly to your breast, which can cause damage to your nipples. Engorgement can also lead to mastitis (breast infection) if the milk is not removed.
How to Prevent Breast Engorgement
Not every postpartum woman becomes engorged. Some women may find their breasts only slightly full, while others may find them really big and hard. The situation is preventable. Here is what you can do:
- Breastfeed your baby within two hours after birth. Ask your doctor if that is OK.
- Nurse the baby frequently- about eight to 12 times a day after the first 24 hours. Look for your baby's hunger cues. Keeping your baby snuggled with her skin against your skin helps encourage her to breastfeed. Wake your baby if more than three hours go by from the start of one feeding session to the start of the next.
- Ensure that your baby finishes nursing on one breast before switching to the other. This could take somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes. If your baby doesn’t nurse on the other breast at one time, just start on that breast next time.
- If there is no medical reason, do not introduce a bottle or pacifier in the first month. The muscles used to suck on a bottle or pacifiers are different than those used to breastfeed and your baby may have a hard time nursing after she's learned how to get milk from a bottle.
- If a feeding is skipped or your baby doesn't nurse well, hand express or use a breast pump to get the milk out.
How to Treat Breast Engorgement
- When you are about to nurse, place a warm compress on your breasts for a few minutes so that the milk flows. But, do not apply heat for more than three minutes. You could also take a warm shower. If you're engorged to the point that milk isn't coming out, don't use warm compresses.
- Nurse within two to three hours between feedings. If your baby is not nursing and your breasts are full, you can express a little milk for relief. If your milk ducts have become overly full, you may find expressing milk uncomfortable or painful. Keep trying because your breasts will become tender once the milk is out.
- To soothe the pain and help relieve swelling, apply cold packs to your breasts for about ten minutes before or after nursing. You can use crushed ice in a plastic bag or a bag of frozen peas or corn, covered with a thin cloth.
Fortunately, engorgement passes pretty quickly for most women. You can expect it to ease up in 24 to 48 hours if you're nursing well or pumping at least every two to three hours. If not treated, engorgement can take up to ten days to start to go away.
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