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Common Problems Encountered by Breastfeeding Women

Routine Treatment of Sore Nipples
Assure that your infant is properly positioned to nurse and grasps your breast correctly. Carefully review the detailed guidelines for correct positioning and latch-on. Cup your breast in a C-hold, with four fingers below and thumb above. Make sure your fingers are placed well behind the areola. With your baby well supported, aligned with your breast, and turned completely to face you, gently tickle her lips with your nipple. When she opens her mouth wide, quickly pull her toward you so that she grasps a large mouthful of breast, with the nipple centered in her mouth. Do not let your baby munch onto your nipple or just grasp the tip without any surrounding areola. That is a sure setup for discomfort and ineffective milk extraction. It's always better to remove your baby and let her reattach to your breast than to continue to let her nurse with an improper grasp. The football hold makes it easier for a baby to attach correctly since this position affords the mother a good view of the baby's mouth on her nipple.

Begin feeding on the least sore nipple to trigger your milk ejection reflex. Once milk flow has begun and your baby has taken part of her feeding, she will be less hungry when brought to the second, more painful side. Your baby will nurse less vigorously after the let-down reflex has been triggered, making breastfeeding more comfortable. As soon as possible, resume alternating the breast on which you begin feedings to prevent a lopsided milk supply.

Frequent, shorter feedings are preferable to lengthy nursings spaced at wider intervals. Temporarily, limit feedings to ten minutes per side if your nipples are very sore. Many women with sore nipples postpone feedings because they dread the pain associated with nursing. However, this can result in a ravenously hungry baby who nurses more frantically and produces more trauma. Also, the longer feedings are postponed, the more engorged the breasts become, and the harder it is for the baby to correctly grasp the breast. Finally, less frequent feedings can diminish a mother's milk supply, which already has a tendency to be low in women with sore nipples.

Gently pat your nipples dry with a clean cloth after nursing to remove surface wetness. Excessive moisture on the skin surface can delay healing and cause chapping. If you wear breast pads, change them as soon as they become wet, and remove surface moisture after each feeding. However, don't go to extremes and excessively dry your nipples, as this can worsen the condition of your skin. In the past, many breastfeeding experts gave erroneous advice that led to excessive drying and cracking of nipples. Women were advised to use a hair dryer on a low setting or to expose their nipples to prolonged air drying in low-humidity environments. We now recognize that, just as excessive drying can crack and split chapped lips, it can contribute to breakdown and delayed healing of damaged nipple skin.

If you have cracks or other breaks in the skin, keep your nipples covered with a soothing emollient to maintain internal moisture. Applying a soothing ointment to sore, cracked nipples will protect them from excessive moisture loss and will speed healing. A coating of USP Modified Lanolin (medical grade) is the superior emollient to use on your nipples. This ultrapure grade of lanolin is sold as Lansinoh for Breastfeeding Mothers and PureLan. Apply the lanolin to your nipples after each feeding just as you would keep chapped lips covered with lip balm to maintain the normal moisture present in the skin and promote healing. Emollients like medical-grade lanolin are particularly effective in climates with low humidity to protect nipples from excess drying.

Many breastfeeding experts tout the well-known healing properties of milk itself. They recommend expressing a few drops of milk after each nursing, and gently coating the nipple with it, then allowing the milk to dry on the nipples. Although I have little firsthand experience with this practice, the many proponents of the technique claim it promotes healing of sore nipples. However, the nipples of nursing mothers inevitably are bathed in milk much of each day, affording them the benefit of milk's anti-infective properties. The reason I don't routinely recommend coating damaged nipples with milk after nursing is my belief that cracked nipples are similar to chapped lips. The constant wet-to-dry effect that results from frequent licking of chapped lips only provokes more drying and cracking. Rather than allowing milk to dry on nipples, it would seem prudent to remove surface wetness and then keep nipples protected with lanolin to avoid the wet-to-dry cycles that further damage skin.

Health professionals who specialize in wound healing have found that the use of moisture-retaining occlusive dressings are effective in promoting healing of wounds in other body sites. Recently some physicians and lactation specialists have tried this treatment with sore nipples. They are reporting good results using hydrogel dressings applied to the nipples between feedings to maintain a moist environment for nipple healing.

Wear wide-based breast shells over your nipples between nursings. These devices minimize discomfort from a crack or open wound and accelerate healing by preventing direct contact with nursing pads or your bra. Without these devices protecting your nipples, your bra or nursing pad might stick to a cracked or irritated area of nipple skin, causing the wound to reopen every time you remove the covering.

If your nipple pain is so severe that you are unable to tolerate nursing your baby, a hospital-grade rental electric breast pump can be used to express your milk comfortably. Pumping provides a convenient means of emptying your breasts and maintaining or even increasing your milk supply, while allowing your nipples to heal. Previously, I had been taught to believe that "no pump is as gentle or as effective as your nursing baby." We now appreciate that not every baby necessarily nurses correctly or effectively. Persistent pain during feedings is a sign that healing is not occurring. Trying to be tough and enduring the pain just subjects your nipples to continued trauma. In this case, the best electric pumps probably will be more gentle and more efficient than your baby's improper, uncomfortable sucking. We are fortunate to have highly effective hospital-grade electric pumps to break the devastating pain cycle, preserve milk production, promote healing, and provide the option of returning to breastfeeding after calm has been restored to a family. I recall one woman whose nipple pain was so excruciating that she admitted in private: "I expected breastfeeding to make me feel more connected to my baby. Instead, I look at her and dread the thought of having to feed again. The discomfort of breastfeeding is straining my relationship with my baby." This distraught woman was elated when pumping proved to be pain-free. Her whole attitude improved and she began to enjoy her baby more when she stopped associating her infant with pain. While her nipples healed, she fed her expressed milk to her infant, then cautiously resumed breastfeeding with expert guidance to assure proper technique. For this woman, breaking the pain cycle was the key to her ultimate breastfeeding success.

Blood in breast milk
I also recommend pumping instead of nursing when the breast milk contains blood from a cracked nipple (or other causes). Although many babies ingest blood-tinged milk without parents or health professionals ever knowing about it, drinking bloody breast milk is not entirely benign. For one thing, blood is irritating to the gut and can have a purgative effect. I recall a newborn who was admitted to the hospital for "bloody diarrhea" and was subjected to numerous diagnostic tests to determine the cause before it was found that the blood being passed was the mother's and not the infant's. The mother had been unaware that her painful, cracked nipple was bleeding, nor that her baby was obtaining bloody milk with breastfeeding. Ingested blood also can increase a newborn baby's bilirubin level, worsening infant jaundice. Furthermore, blood in breast milk can increase a baby's risk of acquiring certain infectious diseases while breastfeeding (if the mother is infected herself).

In general, hand pumps, battery pumps, and small electric pump models are not as comfortable or effective as the hospital-grade rental electric pumps.

If you decide to use a pump to interrupt breastfeeding and allow your nipples to heal, plan to pump your breasts every time your baby needs to be fed. This will be a minimum of eight times in twenty-four hours. You will want to express at least as much milk as your baby requires to be satisfied. A more generous milk supply is even better, and the excess milk can be frozen. When a mother's milk supply is abundant, her baby obtains milk more easily and is less likely to damage her nipples. Beginning about two to three weeks postpartum, the amount of milk you should expect to get from both breasts combined is about an ounce for every hour that has elapsed since you last pumped or fed your baby. Thus, if you pumped after a three-hour interval, you should get about three ounces. If you slept for a five-hour stretch at night, you would expect to pump about five ounces when you awoke. You can feed the expressed milk by bottle, cup, or other method approved by your baby's doctor. Keep in mind that a healthy baby shouldn't require more than thirty minutes to complete a feeding.

If you use an electric pump to heal sore nipples, I must emphasize the importance of obtaining expert help with your breastfeeding technique when you are ready to return to nursing. I recall one woman who spent nearly a week pumping and healing her severely cracked nipples, only to have the wounds reopen when she resumed nursing her baby using the same inappropriate technique that had damaged her nipples in the first place. Synthetic oxytocin nasal spray can be used to help facilitate the let-down reflex in women with sore nipples. As mentioned earlier, the pain of sore nipples can cause a woman to tense up at feeding times, resulting in inhibition of the milk ejection reflex. This only compounds the problem of sore nipples because a baby sucks more vigorously before milk lets-down. You can try simple strategies to help trigger your milk ejection reflex, such as breast stroking and massage, drinking a beverage, or using relaxation breathing. Synthetic oxytocin nasal spray is an additional aid that might prove helpful to some women with sore nipples by triggering their milk let-down.

First Do No Harm
One of the most important principles in medicine is "first do no harm." The sad truth is that inappropriate treatments often prove worse than no treatment at all. Over the years, some nipple creams have been marketed that were useless at best or that actually aggravated sore nipples. Many women are sensitive to the additives in various nipple creams. Some that were used in the past contained alcohol and other drying agents. One reason I recommend USP Modified Lanolin (medical grade) is that it is free of any other ingredients to which a woman might react. Although a popular belief exists that women who are allergic to wool will react adversely to lanolin, dermatologists insist that true lanolin allergies are very rare. Most women "allergic to wool" are sensitive to the fibers. If you suspect you may be allergic to lanolin, apply a small amount to your inner arm to see if you react before trying it on your nipples.

Most breastfeeding experts agree that medical-grade lanolin is the most effective and safest substance that can be applied to sore nipples to promote healing. PureLan and Lansinoh for Breastfeeding Mothers are the purest and safest brands of USP Modified Lanolin and do not need to be removed before feedings. I cannot recommend other creams, ointments, or topical applications because they are not as effective and some are not safe for infants.

Some breastfeeding counselors recommend applying ice to sore nipples. They claim that ice treatments temporarily desensi-tize sore nipples sufficiently to allow some women to tolerate nursing. While I advocate ice in the treatment of engorgement, mastitis, sports injuries, and other conditions, I do not recommend it for sore nipples. First, I don't believe in numbing the pain to make nursing tolerable. Discomfort while nursing is a warning sign that the baby is latched on incorrectly or that mechanical trauma is continuing and is preventing healing. I also think there is some risk of ice causing cold injury to the sensitive skin of the nipples.



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From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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