Getting help for sore nipples and nipple infections
If you’d like some help with breastfeeding, support services are available. Your child and family health nurse, midwife or GP or the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) can support you with breastfeeding your baby. They can also help you find a lactation consultant if you need one.
An ABA counsellor can also help – phone the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 1800 686 268.
This article covers sore nipples and nipple infections. If you’re having other issues with breastfeeding, you could check out our articles on mastitis and blocked milk ducts, breast refusal and biting, how to increase supply and how to manage oversupply and engorgement.
Sore nipples caused by baby not attaching properly
The most common reason for sore nipples or damaged nipples is your baby not attaching properly to your breast.
You can expect some tenderness in the first few days or weeks of breastfeeding, but it’s not normal to feel actual pain.
If you’re in pain from sore nipples, you have at least two options. You could:
- seek help from a child and family health nurse, midwife, ABA breastfeeding counsellor or lactation consultant
- try the baby-led method of attaching your baby.
Checking your attachment is a good first step for the problem of sore nipples. Our article on breastfeeding attachment techniques explains two approaches – baby-led attachment and mother-led attachment. You might also like to look at our illustrated guide to breastfeeding techniques.
More options for sore nipples
If you’ve checked your baby’s attachment and you still have sore nipples, don’t give up just yet.
The problem of sore nipples doesn’t usually last, and there are more things you can try:
- Offer a feed before your baby is crying with hunger. A calmer baby will be gentler on your nipples. Your baby will give you cues that they’re hungry.
- Try to trigger your let-down before your baby attaches to the breast. Damaged nipples hurt most before your milk lets down, and pain usually eases when the milk is flowing. To trigger your let-down, try looking at your sleeping baby, taking slow and deep breaths, thinking about a tender moment, and massaging your breast while gently rolling your nipple between your fingers.
- Start the feed on the breast that’s less sore.
- If you need to take your baby off the breast, break the suction first by inserting your little finger into the corner of your baby’s mouth, between the gums. Gently take your baby off the breast.
- Check your nipples at the end of each feed for signs of damage. They might look squashed or you might see cracks. If you think your nipples are damaged, see your midwife, GP or child and family health nurse.
- Hand-express a few drops of your own breastmilk at the end of a feed and spread it over your nipple.
- Try applying purified lanolin ointment between feeds to help with pain. Always speak to your midwife, GP, child and family health nurse or lactation consultant before using any nipple products.
- Air-dry your nipples after breastfeeding, and change breast pads often to keep your nipples dry. Avoid using shampoos and soaps on your nipples.
- If you can, avoid using teats, bottles or dummies. Babies need to suck differently on breasts and bottles, and they can get confused if they’re being offered both in the early days of breastfeeding.
- Work with a lactation consultant if you want to try nipple shields. They might help with sore nipples in the short term, but they can sometimes create more problems than they solve.
- If your nipples are very sore, express your milk either by hand (the gentlest method) or with a good-quality breast pump on a gentle setting. Feed your milk to your baby by cup or spoon until your nipples feel better.
If the soreness doesn’t get better each day, it’s worth talking to an ABA counsellor, midwife or your child and family health nurse. They might suggest that an experienced lactation consultant or paediatrician examines your baby’s mouth. There could be a tongue tie or something else about the shape of your baby’s mouth that’s affecting their ability to breastfeed.
Even if you’re finding it too painful to feed your baby, you still need to keep your milk moving by expressing it. If you don’t take the milk out regularly, your breasts might become engorged and you’ll be at risk of mastitis. Not emptying milk regularly will also reduce your milk supply.
Sore nipples and shooting pain in the breast that develops after a period of comfortable feeding are most likely caused by a bacterial infection (Staphylococcus aureus or ‘staph’), thrush infection (Candida albicans) or both. In this case, you should talk to your GP.
It can be hard to diagnose whether bacteria or thrush is causing problems. Sometimes women might develop nipple thrush after they’ve had a course of antibiotics.
Nipple infections can be passed back and forth between mother and baby. If you have a nipple infection, both you and your baby will need treatment.
Your GP will prescribe your treatment depending on whether they suspect thrush or a bacterial infection. Your treatment might involve oral gel or drops, ointments or antibiotics. Some GPs might prescribe a combination of treatments for your nipples.