Relieving and Preventing Breast Engorgement

Article By
Published On
21 Mar, 2023
Read Time
5 minutes

It's quite common for people who have had a baby and are breastfeeding to get breast engorgement. It's a side effect of some of the many physical changes your body goes through after giving birth.

We've written this guide to explain why breast engorgement happens and to help you learn how to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms that come with it.

What is breast engorgement?

When your breasts become overly full of breast milk, they can swell and get inflamed. This is known as breast engorgement. It's a painful condition that's caused by increased milk supply and blood flow and may make it difficult for your baby to latch on if they're breastfeeding.

If your boobs are engorged, they may feel painful, hard, and tight, and breast milk may leak from your nipples. Other symptoms of breast engorgement include your boobs feeling warm to the touch and your nipples becoming painful, flat, or hard. Some women also experience a mild fever below 38°C that usually settles within 24 hours.

Why am I experiencing engorged breast pain?

The pregnancy hormones estrogen and progesterone drop when your placenta is delivered after the birth of your baby. From that moment, prolactin (the hormone that tells your boobs to make breast milk) begins to kick in. This can lead to breast engorgement.

Within three or four days post-birth, blood flows to your breasts and they go through  different stages of producing milk, from producing colostrum to making transitional, and then mature milk. This fast-paced process is known as your breast milk coming in and can cause your boobs to feel very full and swollen, otherwise known as breast engorgement.

Reasons for engorgement

  • Your baby isn't feeding enough or latching on correctly to draw enough milk
  • You've got an oversupply of breast milk - some parents produce more milk than their baby needs
  • The gaps between feeds get longer because your baby starts to sleep through the night for longer without feeding
  • You're weaning your baby off breastfeeding
  • You suddenly start nursing or pumping less frequently because you're going back to work
  • There's a change in your breastfeeding routine
  • Your baby has less of an appetite for breast milk because they're feeling unwell or have started to eat more solid foods.

How long will my breast engorgement last?

While there's no set time when breast engorgement will subside, the worst of engorgement usually comes soon after birth.

Although breast engorgement can be uncomfortable and it can take a few days for your breast milk supply to match your baby's needs, it's important to note that the uncomfortable symptoms that come with it should gradually ease as you breastfeed or express milk from your breasts.

If you're breastfeeding, it should ease within two to three days. But it's important to note that it can reoccur for as long as you're breastfeeding or pumping.

If you're not breastfeeding your baby or using a breast pump to express and giving them formula in a bottle instead, the symptoms of breast engorgement should pass within a few days.

How to relieve breast engorgement when breastfeeding

  1. Feed your baby little and often
  2. Express between feeds by hand or using a pump to relieve the discomfort, but not too much as this can encourage your body to produce more breastmilk
  3. Offer both breasts to your baby equally to ensure one side doesn't become more engorged than the other
  4. Use a warm compress before feeds to soften the areola, encourage let down and relieve tightness
  5. Choose a comfortable, well-fitting bra
  6. Try different breastfeeding positions and check that your baby is latching on correctly when feeding
  7. Take the recommended dose of pain relief medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen

Top Tip

Pop a cool, clean cabbage leaf onto your boob after feeding or expressing. This is a popular home remedy that may help with the swelling, but it's not guaranteed to work for everyone

What to do if your breasts are too engorged for your newborn to latch

If they're engorged, your boobs may become overly full very fast. While having lots of breast milk may sound like a good thing when you have a hungry baby to feed, it can make it difficult for them to latch.

To help you can:

  • Pump regularly, either by hand or using a pump before feeds to relieve some engorgement and help your baby latch comfortably.
  • Gently massage your breasts in circular motions to help get your breast milk flowing while your baby feeds.
  • Try Reverse Pressure Softening - a massage technique that softens the nipple and therefore helps the baby latch.

What if I have breast engorgement but I'm not breastfeeding?

Even if you're not breastfeeding, your breasts will still start to produce breast milk for a couple of days after birth, and therefore, engorgement can happen. It typically gets better within several days, and after a couple of weeks, your body will stop making breast milk altogether if you're not pumping or feeding.  

If you're not breastfeeding, you can try these tips to help relieve the discomfort caused by post-birth engorgement:

  • Apply ice packs to your boobs to help soothe them.
  • Wear a comfortable bra that provides good support.
  • Avoid nipple stimulation or pumping a lot of milk. Instead, try to hand express a small amount to provide some relief, but not enough to trigger the production of more breast milk.
  • Take the recommended dose of pain relief medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Can I prevent breast engorgement?

As we've covered, breast engorgement is common (especially in the first few days after giving birth to your baby). But there are things you can do to reduce the chances of it happening later in your breastfeeding journey. 

To prevent breast engorgement:

  • Breastfeed or pump regularly.
  • Hand express or pump to remove small amounts of breast milk between feeds.
  • Use ice packs to reduce your milk supply if you're not breastfeeding or pumping.
  • Don't suddenly stop breastfeeding - wean your baby off breastfeeds slowly if you can.
  • Make sure that your baby is in a good breastfeeding position and that they're getting the right amount of milk.

What are the risks of breast engorgement?

Overly full breasts may not sound particularly risky, but they can lead to uncomfortable clogged ducts and a painful condition known as mastitis.

Your boobs may leak if they're overly full, which isn't a health risk, but it can be inconvenient and cause discomfort.

In rare cases, engorgement can get so bad that breast milk isn't able to flow at all, as the breast changes shape and the milk ducts become so narrow that nothing can get through.

If you've followed the tips above but are still struggling to relieve the symptoms of breast engorgement yourself, don't hesitate to ask your midwife, health visitor or Lactation Consultant for advice and support.

How to help engorged breasts when stopping breastfeeding

Engorgement can happen whenever you decide to stop breastfeeding, so it's best to slowly wean your baby off breastfeeding to avoid an oversupply of breast milk. Expressing a little between feeds and spacing them out, using ice packs regularly on your breasts, and avoiding hot showers can also help to relieve engorgement when you choose to stop breastfeeding.