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The healthful benefits of breastfeeding imparted on women and infants is undeniable, however if a woman experiences ongoing difficulties when trying to establish breastfeeding she may become frustrated and discouraged, which can lead her to stop trying.

As a mother, one of the best things a woman can do for her infant is breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice and more importantly, it is a decision that provides healthful benefits for an infant as well.


The benefits of breastfeeding an infant extend far beyond basic nutrition and besides all the vitamins and nutrients that are packed in breast milk, it provides infants with disease-fighting substances which provide an infant with extra protect against illnesses and infections.

Aside from the many healthful benefits breastfeeding imparts to an infant, research has shown women who breastfeed for a year or more, are less likely to develop hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, hyperlipidemia (elevated level of lipids in the bloodstream) and cardiovascular disease (disease involving the heart or blood vessels) when post-menopausal.  

There are common problems that many women may experience while trying to breastfeed, with proper education and support these problems can be solved and successful breastfeeding can be established.

Common Breastfeeding problems

Breast tissue is constantly subjected to fluctuating levels of progesterone and estrogen, the changing levels are contributed to pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding and menopause. Breastfeeding should be a comfortable and relaxing experience.   However, common problems can occur during breastfeeding which make the experience difficult, unpleasant and sometimes painful for some women. 

Below are some of the common problems a mother may experience during breastfeeding and some tips that can be used  to avoid these issues:

  • Nipple soreness:  results from improper positioning of infant, improper feeding techniques and poor nipple care. 

Solution: to heal and avoid sore and cracked nipples, make sure the infant has latched-on using the proper technique.  If pain is felt, gently remove the infant from the nipple, reposition and try again.  Once the breastfeeding session is complete, applying some fresh breast milk to the nipple will sooth the soreness and alleviate cracking as well.  Human breast milk has antibacterial properties and can also reduce the risk of infections.  If breasts are still painful, consult with a physician about using vitamin E, lanolin cream or olive oil to relieve the pain, and if necessary, check for possible signs of infection.

  • Breast engorgement or fullness:  the condition is caused by a congestion of the blood vessels within the breast tissue, which results in the breast becoming hard, swollen and very painful.  The issue makes it difficult for the nipples to protrude enough to allow the infant to latch-on and  makes breastfeeding uncomfortable.  Engorgement differs from breast fullness, breast fullness is an accumulation of blood and milk within the breast, occurs a few days preceding delivery and is a sign milk is coming in.  Fullness does not interfere with breastfeeding because the tissue is pliable enough to be compressed by the infants mouth. 

Solution:  to avoid breast engorgement, frequent feedings (between 8-10  feedings within a 24-hour period) that last for more than 15 minutes is recommended.  To alleviate breast engorgement expressing breast milk manually or with an electric pump is recommended, taking a warm shower and using cold packs on breasts can also provide pain relief.

  • Nipple confusion:  occurs when an infant is given a bottle or pacifier in the early weeks of breastfeeding.  The results can be an infant becoming confused when switching between the various changes of going from breast to bottle to pacifier.  Nipple confusion could interfere with an infants ability to latch-on properly and prevent the infant from completely draining the breast during a feeding session, which results in the mother experiencing engorgement. 

Solution:  to prevent nipple confusion, do not offer a pacifier or bottle until breastfeeding is firmly established, this is usually a period of 3-4 weeks after delivery.  To avoid nipple confusion, a consultation with a lactation consultant might be necessary.  In the mean time, it is necessary to monitor the infants diapers to make sure he/she is getting enough to eat during breastfeeding sessions.

  • Leaking:  most women experience breast leakage at one time or another, especially during the time when milk production levels are just becoming established. 

Solution:  to avoid leaking, it is important to not miss a feeding session or go too long between nursing sessions.  To prevent leakage, experts recommend using disposable nursing pads placed in the cups of nursing bra to absorb any milk that might be running from the breast.  Avoid any type of pads that are made with a plastic lining, which can result in milk being trapped against the skin and result in nipple soreness.  When a mother senses milk letting down, gently pressing  the breasts to the chest wall can oftentimes stop the leaking. 

  • Breast infections:  mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue that often occurs when a woman breast feeds.  The infection can cause redness, pain, swelling and an increase in the temperature of the breast.  Mastitis often occurs when bacteria from the mouth of an infant enters the milk duct through a crack in the skin of the nipple.  Sometimes, in a case of mastitis, a woman can also experience an abscess (cavity of pus under the skin), which does not subside with breastfeeding.

Solution:  to treat mastitis at home, use of pain relievers, frequent feedings, warm compresses and drinking sufficient amounts of water is recommended.  If home care does not provide relief from mastitis, then the mother should consult with a physician to see if a round of antibiotics is necessary. 

If an abscess is present it will need to be surgically drained.  Sometimes the development of mastitis is unavoidable, but ways to prevent mastitis include equal breastfeeding from both sides of the breast, emptying breasts completely to avoid engorgement and blocked milk ducts, using preventative techniques to avoid sore, cracked nipples, drinking enough fluids and practicing careful hygiene are strongly recommended.

  • Let-down reflex:  the let-down reflex is a normal part of breastfeeding and is necessary for the milk to be released into the milk ducts.  The let-down reflex is a result of the hormones prolactin and oxytocin.  A woman experiencing pain, stress or increased anxiety may encounter difficulties with the let-down reflex.  The retained breast milk stays within the milk glands which can result in additional pain and anxiety. 

Solution:  to treat the condition experts recommend practicing relaxation techniques and  finding a comfortable breastfeeding position.  Reducing environmental distractions, performing gentle massage and using heat packs can also help relieve the situation.  If these tips do not work, a consultation with a lactation consultant or a physician may be necessary.

  • Latching-on problems:  the term “latch” refers to the ability that an infant has to position the nipple in the mouth correctly to receive the most milk with the least amount of effort. There can be many issues an infant has with the latching-on process, the most common is the infant has  difficulty figuring out how to use the breast for nourishment.  Sometimes, it can take an infant several attempts before proper latching-on occurs. 

Solution:  to solve the problems, lactation consultants recommend a mother make sure the entire nipple and aerola are not in the infants mouth, if so, the infant will need to be readjusted.  Nursing pillows or rolled up towels and blankets can effectively correct the position, making it easier for the infant to latch-on.

If improper latching still continues, gripping the infant by the back of the head and inserting as much nipple into the mouth as possible might help.  For women with inverted nipples proper latch-on can be especially troublesome, using breast shells over the nipples, which apply gentle pressure and cause the nipple to protrude could help, stretching exercises and a breast pump could also be effective at alleviating latch-on problems.

  • Inadequate milk supply:  the milk demands of an infant will determine the maternal milk supply.

Solution:  to ensure a sufficient milk is available, frequent feedings, adequate rest, good nutrition and adequate fluid intake are essential for an optimum milk supply.  A mother should check the weight and growth of a breastfed infant quite frequently to make sure the infant is receiving enough milk.  If the mother has concerns about how much breast milk the infant is consuming, consulting with a physician or lactation consultant may be necessary.

  • Thrush infection:  results because of a yeast infection on the breast, which causes painful, uncomfortable, itchy breasts and nipples.  Yeast (candida albicans) thrives in a warm, moist environment, which makes the mouth of an infant and a mothers nipple the perfect place to grow.  A yeast infection can occur after completing a round of antibiotic treatment as well. Symptoms of a yeast infection include deep-pink nipples which are tender and uncomfortable during and immediately concluding breastfeeding, white-colored patches and redness inside the mouth of an infant are signs of a yeast infection (thrush).  Additionally, a pronounced change in mood, want to breastfeed more often are also indications of a thrush infection.

Solution:  contacting a physician is necessary because the only way to successfully treat a thrush infection is with anti-fungal medications for the mother and infant.

  • Flat or inverted nipples:  one type of inverted or flat nipple is known as a dimpled or folded nipple.  There are varying degrees of nipple inversion ranging from slightly to severely inverted.   A woman can determine the type of inversion by doing a “pinch test,” compress the area approximately one inch behind the areola, if the nipple does not become erect or protrude, it is considered to be flat.  If the nipple inverts and retracts into skin tissue, or becomes concave (curving inward), it is inverted.

Solution:  there are several treatment options available for inverted or flat nipples, which make it easier for an infant to latch-on.  Breast shells are designed to apply gentle, constant pressure to the areola, which causes adhesions to break under the skin and prevents nipple inversion. 

The Hoffman Technique involves stretching out the nipple approximately 5 times per day and can be done before and after birth, and prior to breastfeeding.  Using a breast pump can be another effective solution for inverted or flat nipples.  Other methods recommended are manual nipple stimulation, use of an Evert-It Nipple Enhancer available from the La Leche League and the last option, which should only be used as a last resort is a nipple shield.

  • If the mother has an illness or fever, a consultation with a physician could be necessary. However, breastfeeding can usually be continued safely during most illnesses and is likely to benefit from the antibodies received from the mother.

Breastfeeding children from birth to the age of 2 years old has the greatest potential for making a positive impact on health and wellness.  With its proven benefits, breastfeeding can prevent death in an  estimated  1.4 million children around the world every year, which result from respiratory infections and diarrhea.

Current breastfeeding patterns indicate a significant improvement in some countries within the past decade alone.  However, the statistics are not meeting the levels recommended for the world as a whole, and the potential breastfeeding can have on child survival rates has yet to be fully assessed.