Are you suffering from itchy, painful nipples while breastfeeding?
You’re in good company — thousands of other moms are going through the exact same thing. Breastfeeding can be an amazing, emotional bonding experience with your baby, but uncomfortable side effects and problems may make this more of a chore than a beautiful connection.
Getting rid of irritations during breastfeeding can help your baby have a better latch, a healthier meal, and give you the comfort you deserve.
Causes of Breastfeeding Itchiness
Let’s look at what might be causing your itchiness and irritation.
These are the likeliest culprits.
1. Dry Skin
Unfortunately, sore breasts and breastfeeding sometimes go hand-in-hand. From milk let down to constant stimulation, those with sensitive nipples may have a higher chance for obstacles like itchy breasts. The hardest time for breastfeeding moms is within a couple days of starting, especially if you’re a first-time mom.
Just like your lips when they get chapped, your nipples can suffer from excessive wetness and dry air, too. Your baby spends a lot of time on the breast, but when they’re away, your skin may be drying out. This can cause cracking, which invites itchy sensations to the party.
Some babies have a very strong suck even from the start. If this is the case, your nipple is going through constant tugging.
For moms who aren’t used to this, it can cause very minor nipple damage. The good news is this should only last for a couple of weeks!
This is the part everyone worries about. When your nipples crack open, it’s allowing more chances for bacteria to sneak in and cause infections. For example, thrush (or a yeast infection) can be the source of your itchy breasts.
Perform a quick self-examination and think about when you’re experiencing itchiness the most. If your nipples have a pink appearance or you feel the itchiness most frequently while breastfeeding or directly after, you may be suffering from thrush or a different infection (1).
3. Poor Latch
If your symptoms have occurred for the past 10 days, you may have more than just sensitive nipples. Your baby may be having trouble getting a good latch on your breast.
It’s an issue that many moms face, me included. If your baby isn’t opening his mouth wide enough and is narrowly latching to just the nipple, all of that stress put on your breasts is focusing directly on your nipple. That’s why a good latch is important!
A good way to know if your baby has a good latch is if their lips are spread out around your breast like a fish (2).
4. Stretchy Skin
When I was pregnant, I got stretch marks everywhere, even on my breasts. One thing I wasn’t expecting to experience was that my skin as it stretched became almost unbearably itchy!
Breasts are continually filling and emptying, again and again. That continuous change in your breasts, which are working very hard, can give dry skin additional problems.
Once I started treating my breasts just like I would my tummy and hips, I felt less itchiness.
Watch for allergic reaction to any creams you’re using. And keep in mind baby’s mouth goes there – so you may want to use something edible to moisturize (like olive oil or coconut oil).
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
5. Blocked Ducts
Though sharp pain is usually the main identifier for blocked milk ducts, itchiness may be another symptom. If you’re experiencing pain with the urge to scratch and you can feel lumps in your breasts, you most likely have a blocked milk duct.
These are a common problem for breastfeeding moms and it’s important you continue breastfeeding. Your baby will be safe even if an infection is involved because your milk is packed with antibodies that prevent anything from getting your baby sick (3).
Relieving a blocked duct can be done with warm showers or compresses, plenty of massaging, and frequent breastfeeding.
The symptoms should clear up within a couple of days but if they don’t, you’re at a higher risk of the duct becoming infected and should see a doctor. You might need an antibiotic to knock out the infection.
Solving the Problem
Getting to the bottom of what is affecting your breastfeeding experience is the first step. But the next is just as important — fixing whatever it is that’s making this an itchy, painful chore. Don’t give up on breastfeeding just yet!
Around the two-week mark, a lot of women start feeling defeated, especially if they’ve been battling itchy, sore nipples from dry skin or cracking. It’s worse if you’re suffering from infection or other more serious complications.
Feeling alone and helpless is entirely normal, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road for you and your baby and this amazing choice.
Sensitive nipples, poor latches, and dry skin can all be solved without a doctor’s help, but it’s always a good idea to have someone you trust to talk to about your issues.
Some ways you can help solve minor breastfeeding problems that are causing your itching, include:
- Take care of your breasts at all times: Even when your baby isn’t feeding! There are plenty of products available that help soothe itchy and sore breasts.
- Skin-to-skin contact: Encourage a better latch and relax with direct contact with your baby. It helps to create a closer bond and gives your baby a better feeding time.
- Keep a breastfeeding log: Documenting when your itchiness occurs, what you did to attempt to solve it, and how your baby reacted is a good idea. That way you’ll have something to reference.
- Practice makes perfect: If your baby is struggling with properly latching on, just work on it with them. Help them figure out the proper way to latch by watching closely to see the area they struggle in. If positioning is a problem, a nursing pillow may help.
- Seek the help of a lactation consultant: Talking to someone knowledgeable about breastfeeding problems can be a game-changer when you’re suffering from soreness. She will take a detailed health history to help you narrow down what might be causing your discomfort.
What If It’s An Infection?
If you suspect an infection is the reason behind your itchiness, let’s look at how you should handle it.
This is one of the more complicated issues new moms face while breastfeeding. Thrush is a fungal yeast infection often passed from the baby to its mother (4). It’s a tricky infection to get rid of because as you breastfeed, you and your baby will just pass the infection back and forth.
Identifying thrush can be done by a doctor, but if you see white or yellow patches in your baby’s mouth and it doesn’t wipe off, that’s a good sign your baby is suffering from it. The good news is that thrush isn’t dangerous, just annoying and exhausting for mom and baby, and painful to your nipples if left untreated.
Antibiotics can cause thrush in infants, as can their exposure to yeast during birth (5). Treating thrush can take about two weeks and can be done with prescription antifungal creams and oral medications for you both. If your itchiness is too much to handle, try ice packs against your breasts to help numb the sensation.
Up to 3 percent of breastfeeding moms suffer from mastitis (6). Any bacteria from your baby’s mouth or from your environment can enter your body through cracks in the nipple — that’s just the way thrush is passed. The difference here is that mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue while thrush is kept in the nipple.
Moms with mastitis often suffer from fevers and other flu-like symptoms. This is less common with thrush, but both cause pain to the nipples and breasts and may cause extreme itching.
Resting, massaging your breasts, and taking doctor-approved painkillers can help you treat mastitis at home. Cold or warm compresses can help with itching, too. Avoiding bras or tight shirts, and breastfeeding as much as possible will help relieve symptoms faster (7).
After having my own child, I didn’t realize how sensitive I would be to everything. There were a hundred products to try and I wanted to give everything a shot.
Unfortunately, putting new products on your breasts, which are already going through a lot while breastfeeding, is a great way to cause an allergic reaction or make existing problems worse.
Red, itchy rash patches on your breasts and nipples may be a result of dermatitis. Another variation of this is eczema.
They both are uncomfortable and uncontrollably itchy and manifest in raw, painful patches.
How You Know Which You Have
The most important thing to do is figure out what is irritating your skin. There are many kinds of dermatitis, but if it’s only appeared while breastfeeding, you can try to eliminate new products you’ve been using and see if the itchy rash clears up. If not, you may need to see a doctor.
Does It Ever Get Better?
I couldn’t even tell you how many times I wondered this myself. Late nights, early morning, no sleep, itchy breasts, fussy babies … it all seems impossible, especially during that first month. Sometimes I’d sit there wanting to cry because I was convinced it just wasn’t going to work out.
The good news? I made it and so can you! Many new moms struggle with breastfeeding, and itchiness can be one of the worst problems you come across. It’s almost maddening, but it’s controllable.
Pay attention to your baby, your body, and the products you’re using. I know how hard it is to be alert when you’re running off of no sleep, but the relief is worth it. The best thing to remember is the majority of breastfeeding itchiness subsides after the first two weeks.
If you’ve tried everything, however, and nothing seems to help and it’s so bad you’re entertaining the idea of quitting breastfeeding altogether, there are some options. You can always pump your breast milk and feed it to your baby through a bottle (To do this, look for a good bottle for breastfed babies). It’s better than quitting entirely and it will provide your nipples with some relief (though for some moms pumping causes its own set of challenges).
You should also work closely with a lactation consultant to be sure you are pumping often enough to maintain your milk supply. A lactation consultant may also be able to help you resolve the itchiness you’re experiencing.
Inflammatory breast cancer and Paget’s disease are rare conditions that can also cause breast itchiness but are typically accompanied by other symptoms as well. Working closely with your healthcare provider will help to rule out these serious, though rare, conditions.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC