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Breast Engorgement - Causes, Signs, Prevention, and Treatment

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Breast engorgement is a painful and distressing condition affecting women in their early postpartum. Learn more about its signs, treatment, and prevention.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Monica Mathur

Published At September 19, 2022
Reviewed AtJune 12, 2023

Introduction:

A mother's body undergoes many physiological changes during the pregnancy and the lactation period. It is usual for your breast to feel different when you produce milk, and there is increased blood flow to your breast. But if you feel that your breasts are painful, firm, swollen, and filled with milk, and it seems like they are engorged, you need to visit your doctor. Breast engorgement is an unpleasant experience for a mother that affects the milk supply and compromises the infant's nutritional needs. It may even lead to the cessation of breastfeeding.

What Is Breast Engorgement?

You may feel swelling in your breast during the early postpartum period. Because of the initiation of the formation of breast milk, the increase in blood flow and lymphatic fluid to your mammary gland, and is expected when the breast starts to secrete the first milk "colostrum." However, if it is painful and affects your ability to breastfeed, it might signify breast engorgement. Breast engorgement is the swelling and distension of the breast during the initiation of the lactation phase. It suggests an overfilled breast with breast milk and is a painful condition for the mother. If timely and appropriate management is not given, it may lead to early weaning, cracked and sore nipples, mastitis, and even breast abscess.

What Causes Breast Engorgement?

You usually experience engorgement because of the collection of milk in your breast. Various factors can cause improper removal of milk from the breast. It can happen during the initial breastfeeding phase and is a typical sign indicative of induction of your body's ability to milk production. Some conditional events may make you prone to developing swelling and fullness in your breast.

  • The large interval between breastfeeding.

  • Dependency is more on formula milk.

  • Early weaning.

  • Improper latching.

  • Skipping a feeding or pumping session.

  • Wearing a tight-fitting bra.

What Are the Signs of Breast Engorgement?

Breast engorgement can affect one or both women's breasts during their lactation period. If your breast is engorged; then you might experience the following signs:

  • Your breast appears swollen and stiff.

  • You may feel warm and tender on the touch.

  • You find your breast full and heavy.

  • Your nipple may become flat and hard.

  • The areola may become stiff to touch.

  • You may develop a low-grade fever.

Sometimes the breast swelling may extend up to the armpit and involve your lymph nodes. If this condition is left untreated, it may develop blocked ducts, reduced milk supply, or lactation mastitis.

How Can I Prevent Breast Engorgement?

Breast engorgement is unpleasant, lowers the milk supply, and ultimately affects breastfeeding. During the initial days of breastfeeding, signs of a slightly engorged breast are usual. But if the same concerns progress later, some specific tips can help you:

The main goal in preventing breast engorgement is the removal of the collected milk and following measures that inhibit the collection of milk in the breast.

  • Breastfeeding the infants often.

  • Practicing proper latching techniques.

  • Living in close association with your baby.

  • Eating and sleeping well.

  • Drinking enough water.

  • Giving more breastfeeding and less other formula milk.

  • Planning to wean your baby slowly.

  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes, especially bras.

These simple modifications can help you in getting relieved from engorged breasts and also help you to enhance your breastfeeding experience.

How Can I Treat My Engorged Breast?

The most effective treatment for engorged breasts is emptying your breast as much as possible and feeding your babies as often as possible. This supports the flow of milk and relieves the formation of engorgement.

Many women get easily relieved from breast engorgement by following some lifestyle modifications. However, for some mothers practicing specific measures could be helpful; these are:

  • Breastfeeding your baby with your engorged breast at first.

  • Practicing proper latch.

  • Try breastfeeding in all known positions to determine your comfortable position.

  • Massaging your breast during, after, and sometimes in between breastfeeding.

  • If you feel that your breast is hard, you should express some milk before starting nursing your baby. While practicing this, you need to express extra milk to soften your breast.

  • You may place cold compresses on your breasts between the feedings to reduce the swelling and pain.

  • You can increase your milk supply by putting a warm and moist cloth on your breast before breastfeeding.

  • Maintaining skin-to-skin contact with your newborn is also helpful.

You may also visit a breastfeeding specialist or lactational counselor to check how you latch for breastfeeding. Appropriate latch techniques promote proper draining of the breast milk and prevent the occurrence of breast engorgement.

What Do You Understand by the Oversupply of Milk?

Sometimes a mother makes more milk than their baby's requirement. It is called an oversupply of milk. This condition can make it hard for you to breastfeed your baby and may cause frequent development of breast engorgement. These problems need immediate attention and treatment. If you are suffering from any such symptoms, you should visit your doctor.

Conclusion:

Breast engorgement is an unpleasant condition for mothers and leads to swelling in the breast due to milk collection. It affects breastfeeding, and hence your baby is unable to get proper nutrition which is crucial for their growth and development. Some studies suggest that women experiencing intense breast engorgement at the end of the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle are more prone to have severe postpartum breast engorgement. In such cases, extracting the colostrum milk before the stage of transitional milk can lower the risk of painful engorgement in breastfeeding women. It is a painful experience for a mother, but breast engorgement can be avoided if specific precautions are taken in time. Even if you have developed this problem, it can be managed easily with specific lifestyle changes.

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Dr. Monica Mathur
Dr. Monica Mathur

Obstetrics and Gynecology

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