Engorged breasts are uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Fortunately, true engorgement can be prevented with frequent breastfeeding in the first few days/weeks after the birth of your baby. Some breast tenderness is to be expected in the first week postpartum as your breasts prepare to provide nourishment for your baby. Much of the swelling you are experiencing is simply that—swelling. It’s not just milk “coming in” that is making your breasts feel full. After the birth of your baby; water, blood and lymphatic fluid rush to your breasts in preparation for breastfeeding. With adequate breastfeeding, the discomfort usually passes in a day or 2. Many mothers don’t experience anything but mild fullness.
Currently, however, many mothers in the U.S. experience births that are anything but “normal.” Many common interventions during labor require an IV of fluids. If a mother receives any extra fluids via IV, she will continue to retain the fluid for some time even after the birth of her baby. That extra fluid often results in swollen ankles, fingers and even breasts!
The edema in the limbs may be noticeable right away; but the breast swelling will probably not be apparent until day 3-5. When breasts are full in a normal way as the milk “comes in,” your baby will still be able to latch on and breastfeed. The breasts will feel full, but the areola will be soft and compressible. True engorgement is very different. Your breasts are hard. The skin is stretched and shiny. The areola is hard and taut. The baby is unable to latch. Pumping is ineffective.
What can you do if you are truly engorged? Try using cabbage leaves to relieve the swelling so that milk can be removed by the baby or a pump. Cabbage? Really? Yes!
Green cabbage contains sulfa compounds which pass through the skin, and constrict vessels–relieving inflammation. This reduction of inflammation and swelling allows the milk to flow. To use the cabbage to relieve engorgement, rinse the raw leaves thoroughly in cold water. Place a leaf or two on your breasts under your bra. Change the leaves as they wilt. Most mothers notice immediate relief using this method.
A couple words of caution: This technique is not recommended for women who are allergic to sulfa or cabbage. It’s also important to not over-do the cabbage cure. There are reports of decreased milk supply with excessive cabbage use.
If you find yourself in the difficult situation of clinical engorgement, you need help! Contact an experienced lactation consultant right away. In the meantime…try some cabbage!
Written by Renee Beebe, M.Ed., IBCLC. Renee is a lactation consultant in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is available for home/hospital visits and phone consultations. Renee can be reached at www.second9months.com