You should never experience pain from using a breast pump. Soreness or pain is a sign that something is wrong and you should stop immediately. Not only is pain uncomfortable, but once you learn to associate discomfort with pumping, your let down response will diminish and you will be unable to express any milk. Over time, chafing or incorrect suction settings can even damage your breast tissues and nerves!
Do you get sore nipples from pumping?
This can be caused by three issues, all easily fixable.
- Your suction is too slow. Most electric pumps let you adjust the speed of suction. If your pump doesn’t or you are using a hand-powered manual pump, then you might need to find another breast pump. When you use a pump to express milk, you want to mimic the natural sucking rhythm of your baby. If your pump isn’t fast enough, this can draw out the sensation in your nipples as well as chafing your nipples as it moves in and out of the breast shield. The solution to this problem is to adjust your pump so it sucks faster.
- Your suction is too strong. While I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really relish the thought of spending 15-20 minutes with a pump strapped to my boobs like a cow, it’s really not a good idea to adjust your pump to the highest setting. The belief that a stronger suction means you’ll express more milk in less time is wrong. A vacuum that’s too strong will tug harshly at your nipple and skin. To find the best suction strength for your personal comfort, increase the suction strength of you breast pump until you start to feel discomfort. Then dial the setting back one or two notches until the pumping feels comfortable again.
- You are using the wrong size breast shield. While most women can use the breast shields that come with their breast pumps, some women have larger or smaller nipples than average. You will know that you have the right breast shield when your nipple moves freely in the nipple tunnel of the breast shield. Your nipple should not rub against the sides of this opening. If your nipple is rubbing against the plastic, or if your nipple is turning white, then you need a bigger breast shield. However, only your nipple should get sucked into the opening. If the skin around your nipple (the areola) is getting sucked in too, then your breast shield is too large. You need to get a smaller breast shield. An incorrectly sized breast shield will lead to rubbing and chafing and eventually raw irritated skin and bleeding. Breast shields come in sizes ranging from 21mm-36mm depending on your pump manufacturer. Check the size you’re using now and go up or down a size depending on your symptoms.
- Your breast shield does not create a vacuum against your breast. Depending on the shape of your breasts and the shape of the breast shield, you might have a problem getting a good vacuum. A tightly fitted seal around the breast shield and your breast is required to effectively express milk, otherwise you’ll just end up with weak suction and problems with your skin rubbing against the plastic shield. The easiest tip is to rim the edges of the breast shield with something thick and greasy like nipple cream. The cream will seal up any openings and leaks against your breast. Many pump brands also make silicone inserts or massagers (like these for Spectra pumps, and these for AVENT pumps, and these for Medela pumps) that you can stick to the inside of your breast shield. These silicone inserts prevent the skin of your breasts from rubbing against the plastic of the shield and they’ll fill up any empty space and help create a good vacuum if you have smaller breasts.
Other nipple problems
If you’ve made all of the adjustments recommended above, then you might have a health problem with your breasts or nipples that’s not caused directly by pumping.
Do your nipples itch or burn? Do you notice a white growth on or around your nipples or in your baby’s mouth?
These are common signs of a yeast infection, also known as thrush. Get your family doctor to test for thrush and get them to prescribe an anti-fungal as soon as possible as thrush can spread between mom and her baby.
Are your breasts full to the point of being painful?
Engorgement is a common problem with breastfeeding mothers, especially once they return to work and can’t express out the excess milk that’s building up in their breasts. The best cure is to breastfeed to relieve the engorgement or to use a breast pump. If you cannot tolerate either of these options, then try to gently massage your breast and express out the extra milk with your hands. Manual expression is usually enough to take the edge off before you can pump or breastfeed.
Are your breasts engorged, red, and hot to the touch?
Chronically engorged breasts can lead to mastitis, an infection of your breasts. Contact your doctor immediately and they’ll put you on antibiotics to clear up the infection. Do not wait as the swelling and inflammation can lead to abscesses or the spread of infection to surrounding tissue.
Do you have any piercings or breast augmentations?
Since the suction from a breast pump can be strong, this can irritate any previously injured areas, either through surgery, an accident, or a piercing. Speak with your doctor to see if pumping is possible in your situation.
Are your breasts already chafed, chapped, or irritated?
If your skin is already cracked, either due to eczema or normal dry skin, the suction of a breast pump plus the contact with moisture from your breast milk will only irritate your skin and cause you more pain. Allow your skin to heal as much as possible before you begin pumping again. You can also coat your skin with a thicker application of nipple cream to protect it from the plastic of your shield.
Do you get white or blue nipples after pumping or breastfeeding?
If the cause of your problem is not a breast flange that’s too small, then you may have a circulatory problem such as Raynaud’s Syndrome. Raynaud’s affects mostly women and it can be triggered by sensations such as cold or stimulation to your nerves from your baby feeding or the suction of a breast pump. Since Raynaud’s Syndrome causes your breast vessels to contract and reduces blood flow, the best way to get blood flowing to your breasts again is to keep a heat pack or warm towel by your side when you pump or breast feed. Warmth is the best way to stop your blood vessels from constricting. Do not let the cold air of the room hit your breasts and try to cover them up as soon as possible after you’re finished feeding. You can also try to pump or breastfeed with a warm shawl or nursing cover covering your chest to block cold drafts. If these tips don’t work, you can also ask your doctor about possible medications to relieve vasoconstriction.