Breastfeeding is wonderful – but it doesn’t come without its challenges. Here are 13 common breastfeeding problems – along with solutions that might help.
Breastfeeding Common Problems
While the majority of mothers in the United States initiate breastfeeding, the number drops significantly throughout the first year.
In 2015, only about 24.9% of infants were being exclusively breastfed (meaning no formula or solid food).
There are many reasons why a women stops breastfeeding, but in my experience so much of it comes down to having a lack of support – especially during difficult times where they experience breastfeeding problems.
I feel very passionately about helping mothers who are struggling so they can meet their goals – whatever those may be.
I thought I’d share 10 common breastfeeding problems and solutions. These are problems I see women experiencing over and over again – and that I’ve even struggled with myself.
Most of these don’t have to do with baby – I’m not touching on things like baby falling asleep at the breast or baby biting (those are topics for another time).
But they are things that many women legitimately experience while breastfeeding – and they can usually be overcome with a little troubleshooting. So hopefully if you experience any of these, you’ll find some good advice here!
As always, please consult with an IBCLC to make the best decisions for your child. They are the experts when it comes to breastfeeding and nothing can replace in-person support.
Be sure to join our breastfeeding mama’s support tribe on Facebook. I also highly recommend the Simply Breastfeeding online course – it’s run by two wonderful IBCLCs. They have a free class as well if you aren’t ready to commit!
Trouble Shooting Breastfeeding
1) Latching Pain
Ahh….the joys of breastfeeding. It’s common to experience discomfort in the first few weeks or so of nursing…but what if it doesn’t go away?
What if it’s toe-curling pain that makes you want to cry or scream out in pain?
That is not normal.
It’s important to look at the circumstances surrounding the pain. More often than not, it’s associated with when baby latches.
Unfortunately, latching isn’t easy for every woman and baby.
Sometimes a painful latch that doesn’t go away while baby nurses can be associated with a lip or tongue tie.
But often, the pain will go away after baby has started nursing…but it’s still painful.
In this situation, you should try some different positions. The football hold is very popular and highly recommended to help solve latching pain.
This video shows how to get a very deep, pain-free latch, and it’s one I share with everyone I know!
The woman in the video is the IBCLC I saw when Oliver was smaller, and I saw many women in her support group use it with success.
Having a deep latch is essential for painful latching and can make a world of difference once you have it resolved.
I think most breastfeeding women cringe at the thought of this. I had it twice with Jack, and I had it once with Oliver when he was ten days old.
Mastitis can result from an untreated plugged duct or from bacteria that gets into a cracked nipple. It is not fun and requires immediate treatment.
If you experience mastitis, here are a few things you can do:
- Call your doctor. Not all cases of mastitis require antibiotics, but that is for your doctor to decide. You can get very sick if you leave a case of bacterial mastitis untreated. Antibiotics can make a world of difference. Just make sure you take probiotics as well. There are plenty of antibiotics that are breastfeeding friendly – just doublecheck with LactMed!
- Keep nursing. It might be very painful – especially if you have cracked nipples – but this is one of the best things you can do to get through it. Mastitis can cause a temporary decrease in supply, so it’s important to keep it up as much as possible.
- Use Lasinoh 3-in-1 hot and cold therapy gel packs. These are a HUGE lifesaver!
- Rest as much as you can. It really does feel like you have the flu, so I think resting can make your recovery time faster.
While some women are more prone to recurrent infections, prevention plays a big part in avoiding mastitis. Often it comes from not emptying the breasts often enough or not treating cracked and bleeding nipples.
Be sure to read this post for more information – Surviving the Boob Flu.
3) Plugged Ducts
These are more common in the early days of breastfeeding or when baby starts nursing less (such as when they sleep through the night!)
They can feel as small as pebbles or be much larger. I had a plugged duct the size of a kiwi at the same time that I had mastitis, and it was horrible. It really affected my supply, and I thought it would never go away.
If you have a plugged duct, nursing baby will help the most. Some doctors will say if you point the babies chin toward where the plugged duct is, it will help them draw it out. But there is some debate on this. Beyond nursing, you can:
- Massage it out – doing this in the shower with warm water can be even more effective.
- Heat – add heating pads or use Lasinoh TheraPearls, as I mentioned earlier.
- With the large one that I mentioned earlier, it was NOT going away. I finally saw a tip that you should nurse on all fours, which seemed totally hokey…but it totally worked.
- Ultrasound treatment – I just heard about this recently, but apparently, there is some treatment done via ultrasound that can get them out as well.
Plugged ducts *can* turn into abscesses, so if you have one – be careful and get it out as soon as you can!
Plugged ducts happen when a mother has an excess of milk supply. This can happen in the early days as your supply is regulating, and it is often a side effect from pumping too much in addition to nursing or not having your child nurse or pump frequently.
4) High Lipase Milk:
If you pump, store, and feed your baby with breast milk – listen up.
If your baby doesn’t want to eat it after it’s been thawed, or it just has an “off” smell to it (not spoiled. Just off, even right after it’s been defrosted), it may have high lipase.
It’s often described as having a soapy smell and taste.
If you are finding that you have high lipase milk, you can scald it before freezing.
While this may lower the nutritional value *slightly*, it’s better than having milk your baby doesn’t want to eat.
Here is how you scaled your breastmilk, according to Kelly Mom:
- Heat milk to about 180 F (82 C), or until you see little bubbles around the edge of the pan (not to a full, rolling boil).
- Quickly cool and store the milk.
5) Cracked Nipples
These are no fun, but they are always very common, especially if a latch is incorrect. If you have cracked nipples, there are a few options.
However, you should be careful.
My lactation consultant told me that if you are constantly dipping your finger into the cream and then putting it on a cracked nipple, it introduces bacteria pretty easily (which can lead to mastitis). So be careful when applying these.
Other treatments that I know people swear by are using high quality, extra virgin coconut oil, or just using your own breastmilk.
I also would make a warm, saltwater “bath” to soak my nipples in for about a minute after I was done nursing.
Letting your nipple be exposed to the air can really help it heal. I recommend avoiding trapping the moisture in the nipple – I used these Medela breast shells for awhile in between nursing sessions, and they really seemed to help.
If you really can’t stand to nurse because the pain is so bad, you can pump on that side for a day or so to help it heal faster.
Just make sure you feed baby on the other side as much as possible. If the baby is small, you can find pumped milk through a medicine syringe or cup to avoid nipple confusion.
I think the one thing that women worry about most when it comes to breastfeeding is their supply – many women want to know how to increase milk production while others could probably feed every baby on the block.
Chances are, if you are feeding on demand, your supply is perfect for your baby. However, that is not always the case. Many women will deal with either low milk supply or an oversupply.
If you are struggling to feed your baby what he or she needs, I recommend reading my post about how to increase breastmilk supply. It’s important to discover any underlying reason why your milk supply may be low.
7) White, Painful Nipples
Sometimes, right after you are done nursing, you may notice your nipple is white (or blanched), and it hurts like nothing else.
It may continue to sting or hurt extremely bad, even long after baby has stopped nursing. This problem is called Vasospasms, and they are no fun. While I didn’t experience it with Jack, I definitely did with Oliver.
What can you do? Apply heat. You can use the Lasinoh Therapearls (I often would use them during the nursing session and in between) or just a hot pad or a warm washcloth immediately after nursing.
Some people find success with massaging olive oil into the nipple.
For me, this issue resolved itself eventually. However, there are prescription medications available.
Do your breasts feel so full that they might burst?
Chances are, you are engorged.
This is very common when your milk first comes in, as your body hasn’t yet told your milk ducts how much to produce.
Obviously, nursing your child will relieve the pressure – but often, you may feel engorged even when the baby doesn’t want to eat.
Engorgement is also more common when the baby starts to sleep through the night or drink less at the breast.
What to do? Well, resist the urge to pump. Pumping may only contribute to the problem – the more your nipples are stimulated, the more your body is going to be told to make (be sure to check out these tips for breast pumping for proper pumping tips and techniques).
However, you can hand express a little bit to relieve pressure. If you must pump, only do it until you’ve been able to relieve the pressure – NOT until you are empty.
Engorgement will go away as your body figures out how much your baby needs.
Try and nurse on demand and don’t pump if you don’t need to and your supply will regulate itself within a few weeks.
Some people suggest using cabbage leaves to help with engorgement, but this is also a technique to help lower milk supply, so do that with caution.
9) Breasts feel soft
It is not normal to feel engorged all the time after the first few weeks – as your milk regulates, your breasts should feel softer. However, many women get nervous when they don’t feel as full. As long as baby is having enough wet and poopy diapers (and poopy diapers can become much less frequent around six months), don’t worry about it. Your supply is probably just fine!
As long as baby is having enough wet and poopy diapers (and poopy diapers can become much less frequent around six months), don’t worry about it – feeling less full is actually a good sign. Your supply is probably just fine!
10) Itching, Stinging, and Burning Nipples
Sounds like you might have thrush.
This is like the song that never ends. Once you or your baby gets thrush, it can be a vicious cycle to get rid of. It can be transferred back and forth between mom and baby.
If either mom or baby gets thrush, both should be treated for it, even if only one person is displaying symptoms. It’s basically a yeast infection caused by candida albicans.
In baby, it usually presents itself as white patches in the mouth or as a diaper rash.
On mom, it often is diagnosed when mom complains about an itching, burning, or stinging that just doesn’t go away. The nipples might be pink or red, and pains may shoot through the breast as well.
Gentian violet stains clothing very easily though, so be careful. There are also prescription medications available if it won’t go away.
Definitely consult with your provider before taking an action yourself.
Thrush can occur after taking antibiotics, so if you or baby has to take one, make sure you are taking a probiotic. Infant probiotics are widely available now, though I recommend a powdered, refrigerated version.
I think breast shells in between nursing sessions can be especially helpful, as they can help keep the nipple dry. Thrush seems to thrive in wet environments!
If either of you have had thrush, make sure to boil and sanitize bottles, artificial nipples, pacifiers, etc. – or even just get rid of them. If you are using reusable nursing pads, I think it’s a good idea to replace those as well.
10) Baby Choking, Refusing to Nurse, has lots of gas, spitting up extra, etc.
You might just have an overactive or fast letdown. This means that your milk is just coming out too fast (and maybe too much).
Some babies can handle this okay, but for many, it may cause them to choke or sputter, or refuse to nurse altogether.
Overactive letdowns can also be related to spitting up and having extra gas.
If you have an overactive letdown, you can try hand expressing before latching baby to get the initial fast flow out of the way.
There are different issues that can also cause choking or gas or reflux, but this is very common. For extra gas, we always love using Wellements Gripe Water. It's a lifesaver!
11) Inverted or Flat Nipples
You may have heard of having flat or inverted nipples. They can cause some issues with breastfeeding and latching.
I actually had a lactation consultant say I had flat nipples, and I would have a very hard time nursing Jack...but that wasn't the case at all. So if you have them, it may not be a problem. On the La Leche League website, it says:
Remember that babies BREASTfeed, not NIPPLEfeed. As long as baby can take a good portion of the breast into his mouth (baby's mouth and gums should bypass the nipple entirely and latch on to the areola), most types of flat or inverted nipples will not cause problems with breastfeeding. Some types of nipples are more difficult for baby to latch on to at first, but in most cases, careful attention to latch and positioning, along with a little patience, will ensure that baby and mother get off to a good start with breastfeeding.
However, if your nipple shape is causing issues, I highly recommend meeting with an IBCLC. The link I referenced above has a lot of different treatment options to consider.
I think the simplest ones are wearing breast shells in between sessions or pumping occasionally between sessions. Definitely, check the link out above for more options.
12) White Dot on Nipple
This is likely a milk bleb - they are no fun and often cause some pain or discomfort. It kind of looks like a white head, and it's typically from a plugged duct.
I've found that the best way to get them out is to massage it out under warm water.
I hope that this list of breastfeeding issues and solutions was helpful! Be sure to check out these other posts on breastfeeding:
- Breast Pumping Tips and Tricks
- The Best Places to Find Breastfeeding Clothes
- 17 Truths About Breastfeeding: The Good, the Bad, and Everything in Between
Originally written in 2016; updated in 2019.