Female breasts are magical. Not only do they produce the ultimate first food for baby, they adapt to make it easy for your baby to get that nourishment (your areolas actually get bigger and darker during pregnancy). Problem is, breastfeeding isn’t always easy! And at some point during those first few months, most mamas wonder why do my nipples hurt?!
In this post, you’ll find:
- Common causes of nipple pain while breastfeeding
- Other reasons your nipples hurt
- Plus, natural tips and tricks to soothe the discomfort
Is It Normal to Have Nipple Pain?
If you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding, you shouldn’t experience nipple pain.
If you’re pregnant or a new breastfeeding mama, on the other hand, there are so many reasons why you might be experiencing nipple pain.
Read on to learn more about what causes nipple pain, but remember: If your constantly asking yourself why do my nipples hurt?, it’s worth monitoring your symptoms and talking to your healthcare provider. Consistent and chronic pain is a warning sign that something may not be right.
Common Causes of Nipple Pain While Breastfeeding
If you’re asking yourself why do my nipples hurt?, it could actually have more to do with baby than it does with you. Learn more about how breastfeeding can cause nipple pain:
1. Poor latch
Just like any new skill, breastfeeding takes practice to make perfect. Your tiny little baby has to learn to take in a lot of breast tissue (the nipple and the surrounding areola) to effectively express milk from the breast. If baby’s lip is tucked inward, or their latch is too shallow, this can cause friction against your nipple. It’s vital to get the right latch early on to establish the correct muscle memory.
A good latch is a deep latch – Mama Natural breastfeeding illustration
Learning to breastfeed is like mother and baby learning a dance. — Mary Renfrew, Journal of Human Lactation
What to do:
- With your breast in one hand and baby’s back supported in the other, bring baby (not just their head, but their whole body) close enough so they can easily reach your nipple.
- Tickle baby’s upper lip with your nipple until they open their mouth wide.
- Next, bring your baby to your nipple (not the other way around). Baby’s chin should touch the breast first and they should latch onto more breast tissue under the nipple than above it. Baby’s lips should be fully flanged and should wrap around your areola.
- Support your baby with pillows so that you aren’t hunching over and make sure nothing is blocking baby’s nose.
2. Lip tie
A lip tie is when the tissue connecting the upper lip to the upper gum is too thick and/or too tight. This results in restricted movement in the mouth, and can make it hard for baby to latch properly. And as we’ve already established, a shallow latch = sore nipples.
Classes of Lip Tie Baby Chart by Mama Natural
What to do: To get a proper diagnosis, consult a professional. Many pediatricians are not trained at diagnosing lip tie, so it’s best to contact an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant or a holistic dentist. If it’s affecting baby’s ability to breastfeed and/or causing persistent pain for mama, your healthcare provider may recommend a lip tie revision. In the meantime, you can try hand expressing or pumping a bit of milk before feeding to soften your breasts and switching positions—laid-back nursing can be particularly helpful in the case of lip tie.
3. Tongue tie
When the band connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too tight and/or too thick, it’s called ankyloglossia, or tongue tie. When a baby with tongue tie latches on, she often squashes the nipple causing sore, cracked nipples, and in severe cases, mastitis.
Tongue Tie – Classifications
What to do: Again, you will want to consult with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant or a holistic dentist to get your baby properly diagnosed. In many cases, tongue tie makes breastfeeding very difficult and painful. If left untreated, tongue tie may lead to baby not getting enough nutrition, low breastmilk supply, cracked/sore nipples, and other issues. If you’re experiencing nipple pain as a result of a tongue tie, it’s worth visiting a holistic dentist to discuss a tongue tie revision, a procedure that’s generally considered simple and safe. In the meantime, use a nipple balm (or consider making your own all-purpose salve) on the nipples and areola between feedings. If the pain is too much to handle, pump and give baby a bottle.
4. Cluster feeding
Cluster feeding is most common during the early evening hours, a time of day that’s otherwise known as the “witching hour.” More often than not, this behavior is totally normal, but the constant on-again, off-again feeding can wear out Mom’s nipples and make them sore.
What to do: The good news is this behavior won’t last forever. Cluster feeding typically occurs during growth spurts, and is most common during the first two months of baby’s life. In the meantime, use nipple creams (or my DIY recipe), try a warm compress, and avoid underwire bras (or consider 86ing the bra all together!).
5. Repetitive position
If you’re always nursing in the same position, you may be putting undue stress on your nipples. There are quite a few different breastfeeding positions, but humans tend to be creatures of habit and it’s common to get stuck in your routine.
What to do: Try switching it up. Baby may even get a better latch in a different position. There are more options than you might think—from the laid-back position, to the football hold, and even the side-lying position (a true gift for those middle of the night feedings).
6. Thrush or Bacterial Imbalance
Baby’s developing immune system makes them more susceptible to bacteria imbalances, particularly if mom or baby had a course of antibiotics due to GBS+ or other circumstances. (source)
Sometimes this looks like thrush, a fungus that causes white lesions or sores, but even just a slight increase in yeast or bacterial imbalance can cause pain, even if there are no visible signs of infection. (source)
Because yeast is a fungal infection, it often causes sore, cracked nipples. Nipples may also appear bright pink and your areola may be red, dry, or flaky. In other cases, you may not see any physical signs, but instead experience burning, itching, stinging, or even shooting pain in your nipples while breastfeeding. (source)
What to do: When it comes to infection, it’s important to treat the symptom and the cause.
Baby: Your baby needs plenty of good bacteria to fight off the bad bacteria. To do this, consider this amazing probiotic supplement for infants and if your child is old enough, feed him or her probiotic-rich foods.
Here’s more information on probiotics for babies.
Mama: Lower your sugar intake, consider taking a high potency probiotic and include anti-fungal foods (garlic, thyme, oregano, and coconut oil) into your diet.
My DIY nipple salve is also particularly helpful in these cases:
- the raw apple cider vinegar cleanses and disinfects the area
- the coconut oil has anti-fungal properties (source) and, much like breast milk, is full of lauric acid/fat;
- and the probiotic powder helps replenish the skin and baby’s microbiome
7. Clogged milk duct(s)
If your breasts are not emptied frequently enough or completely—maybe because you have an oversupply, maybe because baby isn’t getting a good latch, or maybe because baby is finally sleeping through the night (yay!)—it can cause a clogged duct. Clogged ducts are uncomfortable, but very treatable, though when they’re left untreated, it can cause an infection like mastitis (more on that below). If you have a clogged duct, you’ll likely notice a hard lump or wedge-shaped area that may be red or feel tender, hot, and/or swollen.
What to do: If you have a clogged duct, it’s important to keep breast milk flowing as much as possible—nurse frequently and use a warm compress to encourage milk flow. Gentle massage may also facilitate milk flow and “loosen” the clogged duct. Read more about natural remedies for clogged ducts here.
When a milk duct gets clogged and doesn’t drain properly, it can cause an infection like mastitis. Unfortunately, mastitis can cause severe pain and discomfort—swollen breasts, pain or burning while nursing, plus flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, and body aches.
What to do: Though a real downer, mastitis is totally treatable. Try taking a warm shower and/or using a warm compress and, despite the pain, it’s important to feed frequently to drain the breast. There are also a variety of homeopathic remedies that may help clear mastitis. (You can read more about mastitis—and how to treat it—here.) If fever is present, talk to your healthcare provider immediately—in some cases, antibiotics may be necessary to help clear the infection and prevent an abscess.
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Other Common Causes of Nipple Pain
If you’re asking yourself why do my nipples hurt and you’re not breastfeeding, it can be a little more perplexing. The good news: The cause of nipple pain is usually relatively benign and easy to treat with at-home natural remedies. Read on to find out what else could be causing your nipple pain:
9. Allergy/atopic dermatitis
If you’re wondering why do my nipples hurt and you spot flaky, crusty, or blistering skin on and around your nipple, it can be pretty jarring. But the culprit could be something as simple as your body lotion, laundry detergent, or even synthetic fabrics from bras.
What to do: First, determine what is causing the reaction by doing an “elimination diet” of sorts with your household products. Take inventory of anything that you put on or around your nipples—body lotion, laundry detergent, soap, shaving cream, fabric softener, perfume, and even certain clothing items. Until you figure out what’s causing the reaction, treat the irritated area with coconut oil, calendula cream, cod liver oil, or an oatmeal bath. Studies show probiotics can also help prevent eczema. To restore gut balance and fight off skin issues, try supplements and/or eat plenty of probiotic-rich food like kefir, kimchi, kvass, and sauerkraut.
Oftentimes, when something is off with our bodies, we tend to think I’M PREGNANT. And that very well could be the case if you’re wondering why do my nipples hurt. When pregnant, the breasts become larger, and the nipples and areola may darken and feel sore. Your estrogen and progesterone are through the roof and fat is slowly building up in the breasts to prepare you for baby!
What to do: First thing’s first. Take a pregnancy test to confirm your suspicions. If you are pregnant, treat nipple pain with a warm compress, increase your fluid intake (to prevent water retention), and shop for a comfortable bra to accommodate your growing breasts. And remember: nipple pain generally subsides by the second trimester.
Before you get your period, you may find yourself wondering why do my nipples hurt. It’s an easy answer: Hormones. Your cycle is divided into two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. Hormone levels are low at the beginning of the follicular phase (no nipple pain), but the closer you get to ovulation, the higher estrogen levels—and then, progesterone levels—become.
What to do: Thankfully, this is a temporary pain. As soon as your body realizes you’re not pregnant, progesterone levels fall, and newly created mammary cells start dying.
Sometimes nipple pain has less to do with breastfeeding or pregnancy and more to do with lifestyle. Athletes and fitness devotees occasionally experience soreness or stinging nipple pain as a result of friction. This happens most frequently during prolonged activity, or when you’re wearing a rough fabric or a poorly fitting bra during cardio activities.
What to do: Wear organic cotton bras and make sure you’re wearing the right size. If that doesn’t help, apply coconut oil to your nipples or try wearing surgical tape or bandages over your nipples during exercise. In between sweat sessions, consider forgoing your bra entirely to give your nipples a break.
My Favorite Remedy for Sore Nipples
Until my daughter Paloma came along, I didn’t know the meaning of true nipple pain. Her shallow latch gave me black blood blisters on both nipples. Ouch! I asked myself why do my nipples hurt? so many times. It turned out Paloma had a lip tie, but even after her revision, I still needed a little extra support due to my fast letdown. That’s when I discovered this beautiful DIY recipe. It worked wonders on my oh-so-abused nipples. ?? I recommend it for pain, but also as a great defense against yeasty issues and overall tenderness.
What Else Can I Do About Nipple Pain?
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons you may be asking yourself why do my nipples hurt? If you are breastfeeding, see a lactation consultant for help getting to the bottom of your nipple pain. If your insurance doesn’t cover a consultant and/or finances are tight, La Leche League or Breastfeeding USA are wonderful support options that don’t cost any money.
If you’re not breastfeeding, check in with your midwife or doctor. And for immediate relief, heat, ice and/or massage can ease discomfort no matter what the issue.
When Is Nipple Pain a Sign of Something More Serious?
Are you constantly wondering why do my nipples hurt?
It is much more likely that your nipple pain is a result of pregnancy, breastfeeding, your monthly cycle, or even lifestyle factors like exercise.
However, in rare cases, nipple pain can be a sign of something more serious, including breast cancer. If you experience constant nipple pain, notice a change in look or feel of the nipple or breast, or experience nipple discharge, check in with your healthcare provider. They can put your mind at ease and offer a more accurate diagnosis.
How About You?
Did you experience nipple pain during pregnancy or while breastfeeding? Share your story in the comments—your advice could help another sore mama out there!