Pain While Breastfeeding: What’s Normal and What Isn’t

July 31, 2021
Pain while breastfeeding, infections, low birth weight, and feeding duration problems are some of the situations that nursing mothers may face. Find out why they occur, if they're normal, and how to solve them.

Pain while breastfeeding is common especially for new mothers–as are many other problems. In the vast majority of cases, this doesn’t signify a problem for the baby. However, if you’re part of the minority, don’t worry. In general, everything has a solution!

Many of the recommendations provided below are based on the extensive Breastfeeding Counseling Manual from the World Health Organization (WHO). If you’re interested in a summary of what’s normal and what isn’t during this process, keep reading!

Pain while breastfeeding: what’s normal?

Some situations can cause pain while breastfeeding and this is normal, as long as it doesn’t cause problems for the mother or the baby. In each of the sections, we’ll explain what this means in detail.

Pain during breastfeeding

A baby gir nursing while looking her mother in the eye and putting her hand on her mother's other breast.
As long as it’s very brief, pain can be normal at the beginning and end of feeds.

We’re not saying that breastfeeding’s a painful process. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. However, the truth is that in less experienced mothers, during the first few breastfeeding sessions, this practice can become painful for a few seconds.

The moment when the baby starts nursing may cause slight and short discomfort. If it persists, you should interrupt the process and reposition the baby. If this doesn’t make the pain during breastfeeding go away, it’s likely that you’re dealing with a poor latch-on technique.

Cracked or chapped nipples

This is one of the most normal issues when it comes to breastfeeding! Even though a newborn doesn’t have teeth, the suckling they do is usually firm enough to cause small injuries to the nipples. These famous cracks are normal and, as long as breastfeeding persists, they may arise.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on their evolution and make sure that there are no cracks in the skin that can cause blood to leak out. This could facilitate the development of local infections that, in addition to hindering breastfeeding, would affect your quality of life.

Find out more: Preventing and Curing Sore, Cracked Nipples

Pain while breastfeeding: nipple blanching

Nipple blanching doesn’t occur in all women but, in some cases, after a breastfeeding session, it’s possible for the nipple to acquire a whitish coloration. As long as this is brief and not painful, it can be considered normal.

One likely explanation is compression of the blood vessels caused by the baby’s suckling. As may occur elsewhere on the body, the surface begins to turn pale. Don’t confuse this with Raynaud’s disease, which causes similar changes in the extremities associated with pain.

Low milk production

Low milk production can only be considered “normal” when it’s the result of poor latch-on technique. If the baby isn’t well-positioned, it’s difficult to stimulate the structures necessary for facilitating the breastfeeding process.

On the other hand, if you’re sure you’re using a proper technique, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. The causes can range from hormonal problems in the mother to defects in the baby’s sucking process. Don’t let it go too long!

What’s not normal?

When some of the above situations cause health problems, we’re obviously talking about something abnormal. Fortunately, most of these conditions can be treated, either medically or through breastfeeding counseling.

Pain while breastfeeding: mastitis

According to a publication of the Spanish Association of Pediatrics, the incidence of mastitis is around 10 percent of lactating women. In fact, it is more common in the first months of a baby’s life.

As its name indicates, mastitis is the inflammation of the breast tissue. It happens that during breastfeeding the baby can produce some microcracks, which serve as a gateway for many microorganisms. Some of them live on the surface of the skin, such as Staphylococcus Aureus.

What’s the result? One of the breasts begins to increase in volume, become painful to palpation and you may feel a small mobile mass whose surface is reddened. Mastitis is one of the most common complications of breastfeeding, although, fortunately, it’s usually resolved through the use of antibiotics.

Find out more: The Effects of Mastitis on Infants

Very short or very long breastfeeding sessions

Both of these situations can be the result of some illnesses or pain during breastfeeding. For example, if the mother isn’t producing the right amount of milk, the baby may suck longer than necessary to get more nutrients. Remember that this process is on-demand, so the baby will stay until “full”.

Very short sessions can also mean problems in the functioning of the baby’s digestive system. This is especially important when accompanied by weight loss or poor weight gain.

Your baby’s still hungry after feeds

A newborn crying.
Babies express themselves in many ways when they’re hungry!

Babies suckle on demand, so if they’re “hungry” after repeated feeds, there’s probably a problem. You can detect this if the crying is frequent, they don’t fall asleep, and the feeds are very long, as we discussed in the previous section.

One of the reasons is poor milk production. More normal causes may be due to poor latching, poor feeding schedules, and psychological factors in the mother, such as excessive anxiety, stress, or lack of confidence.

Your baby loses weight and doesn’t their wet diapers

Unless the baby’s in the first few days of life, weight gain is usually more or less constant. If they’re losing weight, then there’s a feeding problem and it’s usually due to a low amount of breast milk being consumed.

A good way to know if your baby’s getting enough milk is to check how many times a day they urinate. Just keep track of their diaper changes. Ideally, an infant should urinate six to eight times a day and the urine should be light in color and have a tolerable odor.

On the other hand, if you notice that your baby urinates about four times a day or less, the color is very yellow, and the odor’s intense, it’s very likely that they’re not getting enough milk. All this indicates that the liquid reaching their body is scarce, so their kidneys concentrate the urine in the best possible way. The same happens in adults!

Pain while breastfeeding is so severe that it interferes with the process

Persistent pain isn’t a good thing! Local infections are more than enough cause to seek professional help. Therapeutic options depend on the cause. In many cases, there are obstructions that can be solved by manual milk extraction. Just the same, be sure to check with your doctor.

Pain while breastfeeding: if necessary, seek help!

Breastfeeding’s a natural and very pleasant process but, sometimes, it can be difficult. Lack of knowledge and some health problems can work against you.

The good news is that there are many people willing to help, not only in hospitals but also in the dozens of breastfeeding counseling centers that you can find in your city. Now you know, if you detect any abnormality, don’t forget to consult a professional!