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Breastfeeding: Understanding Breast Engorgement

Written by Liz Purnell-Webb on Sunday, 02 August 2015. Posted in Baby Basics

Liz Purnell-Webb from A Mother's Touch tackles engorged breasts

Breastfeeding: Understanding Breast Engorgement

In recent weeks many of my mums have had breast engorgement and have not really understood what it is, so thought I would offer some basic understanding to what is happening and some tips to help.


Between the second and sixth day following your birth, when milk production increases, most mothers feel the fullness of the breasts, this usually subsides within the first few weeks. This fullness is caused by an increasing volume of milk, (better known as your milk coming in) but it is not only the production of milk that causes this fullness, it is also caused by an increase in blood flow and lymph to the breasts to aid milk production. If baby feeds deeply and often, then these extra fluids will easily drain away. In the following weeks of your birth, as the hormones of childbirth decrease, your breasts will begin to feel softer, even with full milk production.

However if baby feeds infrequently or leaves your breasts full, the blood circulation slows down, causing the proteins in the blood and milk to seep into the breast tissues, causing swelling. This swelling can cause discomfort right into the armpit, it can cause warmth and throbbing and your breast may look taut and shiny. It can occur in one breast or both and may cause a fever. If you have been given IV fluids during labour as in Induction, this can aggravate and prolong engorgement.

To help prevent and minimise engorgement:

  • Keep you and baby together after the birth and encourage frequent and long breastfeeding
  • Breastfeed from one breast for as long as baby wants before offering the other breast
  • If for any reason you cannot breastfeed, express milk at least every 2-3hours.
  • Apply cold compress between feeds for about 20mins
  • Just before feeding you can apply a warm compress
  • Breastfeed every 2hours, if still feeling full, you can express milk for comfort
  • Drain the breasts as fully as possible with an effective breast pump to reduce congestion and aid fluid drainage
  • Cabbage leaves (the common green cabbage Brassica Capitata) have shown to help immensely, place in refrigerator (this is for comfort) strip the large stem, and gently crush in your hand, then cut a hole for the nipple if required and apply directly to the breast and wear inside your bra. Change leaves following every baby’s feed until engorgement subsides.  Published studies, and anecdotal reports support the value of cabbage compresses in reducing breast engorgement.

Ref: Breastfeeding Answers Made simple- Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA

About the Author

Liz Purnell-Webb

Liz Purnell-Webb

Liz is the Owner and Founder of A Mother's Touch - offering a range of courses for expectant and new parents giving them the support and reassurance for giving birth in Hong Kong.

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