Breast engorgement

Once your little one has arrived, you’ll notice a few changes in your body. Your bump will get smaller and your breasts will fill up with milk. Sometimes, your breasts can feel overly full, heavy, and tight, even to the extent they are uncomfortable or even painful shortly after giving birth when the milk starts to come in. Read on to learn all about what breast engorgement is, how to prevent this condition, and how to help relieve engorged breasts.

What Is Breast Engorgement?

If you’re making more milk than your baby needs, your breasts can become overfilled with milk, which is known as breast engorgement. During pregnancy, your body starts producing colostrum, a thick and yellowish milk that’s full of antibodies and protein. This is the early milk that will nourish your newborn right after birth. Approximately two to four days after you’ve given birth, you’ll experience a change in your hormones and your breasts will fill with the standard white breast milk. When your hormones shift, the blood supply to your breasts increases and you make more milk; you’ll feel as if your breasts are fuller. A little fullness in the first few days is perfectly normal, but sometimes breast milk production can become excessive, leading to discomfort and possibly even causing pain in your engorged breasts. If you notice your breasts are engorged, take steps to treat this as soon as possible, as engorgement could lead to blocked milk ducts or mastitis.

What Are the Symptoms of Breast Engorgement?

During milk production, it’s perfectly normal to have full breasts, but you may have breast engorgement if you notice your breasts feel:

  • very full

  • hard

  • tender

  • painful or achy.

How Can You Prevent Breast Engorgement?

Breast engorgement usually doesn’t occur if the breasts are emptied frequently, meaning you’re nursing approximately every two to three hours. And if you experience engorged breasts, this may go away once you and your baby settle into a regular nursing pattern. If you’re breastfeeding your baby, then severe breast engorgement may go away within 36 hours. In situations when you can’t breastfeed right away, you can help prevent breast engorgement by using warm compresses, by expressing your milk manually, or by using a breast pump. Emptying your breasts can help with the initial discomfort.

How Can You Relieve Engorged Breasts?

If you’re not breastfeeding or expressing milk, then you may feel some discomfort from engorgement. But if the breasts are not stimulated to produce more milk, then the discomfort you feel from breast engorgement may go away gradually, usually within 7 to 10 days. You can try the following in the meantime to help with engorged breast pain relief even if you’re not breastfeeding:

  • Wear a well-fitting support bra or sports bra

  • Apply ice packs to your breasts to help reduce the swelling

  • Avoid expressing any milk if you don’t plan to continue nursing, as this will signal to your breasts to make more milk; you may want to discuss this with a lactation consultant or your healthcare provider

  • Take an over-the-counter pain medication, like ibuprofen, if you need it, but consult your healthcare provider if you’re unsure

  • You can try a popular home remedy—placing a refrigerated, clean cabbage leaf directly on the breast, so it's held in place by a bra. The coolness combined with the shape of the cabbage leaf, which fits the shape of breast, may help with the swelling, but this is a home remedy that may not work for all women.

If you’re breastfeeding and still suffer from breast engorgement, in addition to some of the above tips, you may also want to try feeding your baby in more than one position.

The Bottom Line

Breast engorgement can be uncomfortable, but it’s not something to worry about. It can be easily treated either by feeding your baby regularly or with cool compresses until the swelling goes down. However, sometimes a blocked milk duct or mastitis can feel like breast engorgement, so if you’re in doubt, consult your healthcare provider, especially if you notice any flu-like symptoms or your breasts are hot to the touch. The good news is that the uncomfortable swelling most likely will go down, either with regular feedings or just with time. Soon your breasts will feel less heavy and achy, and you’ll have more energy to focus on your little one.