New moms often find themselves frustrated to experience pain in one breast while they are breastfeeding their baby on the other. Others feel real and significant concern. Is this a sign of mastitis? Is there something wrong with me or my milk? A nursing mother’s body does all kinds of things seemingly on autopilot, leaving a new mom feeling a bit lost and in the dark about what her own body is doing.
Pain in the breasts is something to investigate always. However, feeling discomfort in the other breast during a nursing session is fairly common for a lot of women, and is usually not a sign of something significant requiring medical treatment.
Often, the let down reflex is the cause of the discomfort
When breastfeeding, there is a milk-ejection reflex that causes the milk to let down in your breast so that your child can nurse. This is also known as “let down.” When breastfeeding, it is common to experience this letdown in both breasts at once, even though you are only breastfeeding from one side at a time.
When your baby latches on to your nipple, the compression of the nipple causes the release of hormones (prolactin and oxytocin). Those hormones signal the release of the milk from the milk ducts. That hormone doesn’t differentiate between the breasts. (This is why it is a great idea to tuck a towel or rag down your shirt for the off-breast to avoid soaking your bra and shirt). This is one cause for the pain some women feel in the other breast when breastfeeding.
When let down occurs, it can feel like pins and needles or an uncomfortable tingling feeling. Some women report that it feels like a tugging deep in the breast tissue, while some use the words “warmth,” “pressure,” or “burning” to describe the feeling. Others say that the feeling is sharp, like getting poked with something. Letdown feels different for every woman, and for every baby.
For me personally, the let down feeling was different with every child. With my first baby, the let down feeling was sharp and pointed, like something was poking me. With subsequent babies, the poke was more like a tug, and with the last one, I could barely feel it at all.
Letdown should be a brief pain, not a long and steady one
In most cases, discomfort associated with letdown is a momentary pain, which eases as the milk comes down. The feeling can be strong, or weak, and some women may not feel anything in their breasts at all to let them know that letdown is occurring. If the pain is constant throughout the nursing session, you are probably looking at some other cause for the discomfort in your other breast.
Engorgement could be the cause of the pain
Another cause of pain while breastfeeding is engorgement. While many people think that engorgement is caused by too much milk in the breasts, it is actually caused by fluid building up the breast. This fluid needs to be released so that extra lymph and blood don’t build up as well, which can cause pain.
You might find that, if your breasts are engorged, that when you start on one breast, the other breast aches or hurts. This is caused by the pressure of having too much milk in the tissues, and a sign that a release is needed. However, if you are feeling pain in your other breast while your breasts are not engorged, then the engorgement is not your problem.
Infections are common but easily dealt with
Finally, some women experience pain due to having an infection (such as thrush or mastitis) or a plugged duct that needs treatment. A plugged duct is an area where milk can’t flow out normally. The nipple pore could be blocked somehow, or the block could be up higher in the breast.
A thrush infection can cause a deep, shooting pain during a feeding. Thrush is a common infection caused by a yeast (candida fungus). This yeast lives in your mouth, stomach and on your skin, and is usually controlled by other bacteria in the body. But nursing can create conditions where this yeast can really thrive (wet clothing, sugars from the milk, warmth).
Worried that your breast pain is more than the normal letdown reflex? Take a few minutes to examine your breast. Feel around. Are there are any hard or wedge shaped lumps in your breast? Do those lumps get smaller or less obvious after nursing? If so, perhaps your issue is plugged ducts. Generally, the solution to plugged ducts is to nurse a lot!
Mastitis is worth a call to the doctor
Do you have lumps, plus a fever, swelling, or red streaks? If this is the case, you might have mastitis. In most cases, you’ll want to contact your doctor and let them know about your symptoms. Some physicians will want to monitor your condition carefully if you have mastitis because untreated mastitis can cause abscesses in the breast. Severe cases can even cause the death of the nursing mom if they are not treated.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Is there something weird going on with your breasts during nursing? Reach out to your OB or pediatrician and ask for some help. A lactation consultant can observe you and your baby, and give you some suggestions to improve the latch. Sometimes the solution is just a simple adjustment. As for pain in the opposite breast, they should also be able to provide you with additional suggested to make breastfeeding more comfortable overall.
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Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.