Breast Engorgement

Swollen, painful breasts caused by congestion with milk after childbirth

  • Age, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

All mothers normally produce breast milk after childbirth and develop some degree of breast engorgement before feeding is established and milk production adapts to match the needs of their baby. During engorgement, the breasts become full of milk and may swell to up to twice their normal size. They also become hard, red, and painful.

Breast engorgement may occur if a woman stops breast-feeding or if her baby needs special care in an incubator and she is unable to breast-feed. In these situations, milk accumulates inside the breasts until milk production ceases. In women who are breast-feeding, breast engorgement may develop because the baby is weak and unable to feed properly, so that the initial milk supply exceeds demand. In all cases, the accumulation of excess milk may lead to the development of infection in one or both breasts, causing a painful inflammation (see Mastitis).

What can I do?

After childbirth, you should wear a firm, supportive bra, whether or not you are going to breast-feed your baby. Local heat treatment may ease discomfort in the breasts, as may taking painkillers such as paracetamol. Do not try to express milk if you are not going to breast-feed because this may stimulate further milk production. Your breasts should gradually become less painful after a few days of not breast-feeding. Rarely, you may be prescribed a drug to stop milk production.

If you decide to breast-feed, try to encourage your baby to feed as soon as possible. You can remove some of the excess milk by gently expressing it using your hands or a breast pump. Once your baby is feeding regularly, the production of milk should adapt to match the demands of your baby, and your breasts will become less engorged.

When you stop breast-feeding, cut out feeds one at a time over several days or weeks in order to help prevent your breasts from becoming engorged.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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