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Is It Painful When Your Breast Milk Comes In? An Expert Weighs In

After the birth of my first child, I remember telling a friend that my milk had "come in with a bang." It wasn't painful, just tingly, but it really caught me by surprise. Because breastfeeding can be different for every woman, it's hard to know what to expect. So is it painful when your breast milk comes in, or will you even realize it's happening? According to WebMD, "It's normal for your breasts to feel heavy, warm, and swollen when your milk 'comes in,'" but what exactly does that mean?

To understand the difference between normal sensations associated with breastfeeding, and pain that means something is wrong, Romper talks to Certified Lactation Counselor Danielle Downs Spradlin of Oasis Lactation Services. The first thing she mentions is the myth of "normal pain" when it comes to breastfeeding:

"Breastfeeding pain is not normal. It can be common, but not normal. Body parts don't hurt with normal use, and breastfeeding is normal use. If your knee hurts when walking — that's normal use — we have a host of specialists that will work to fix the problem. In some communities, we have no breastfeeding specialists to help with painful lactation. The lack of care providers for breastfeeding support is one of the primary reasons we've normalized painful lactation."

So what should a new breastfeeding mom expect to feel? Spradlin explains that "some women don't feel anything when the milk 'comes in.' Colostrum is milk and is made starting around the 20th week of gestation, so there isn't a requirement for waiting on sensations of fullness to breastfeed." However, "as colostrum transitions to mature milk, many women feel sensations of fullness or heaviness in the breasts." Again, it's important to note that feeling full or heavy in your breasts is not the same thing as being in pain. Spradlin says the best cure for discomfort arising from breast fullness "is to feed more often, even if the baby doesn't seem hungry."

This is why "when optimal breast care and breastfeeding practices are used, breastfeeding feels good for many women." Spradlin describes the feeling of a well-latched baby as "a gentle pull on the skin around the breast and there is very little to no sensation on the tip of the nipple. Most women feel a sensation of release when the breast is drained during feeding. Some women feel a sensation of 'let down' or milk ejection when feeding or pumping. For most women, the sensation is pleasant. It is caused by oxytocin, the same hormone that is responsible for orgasm."

Now that you know what breastfeeding should feel like, what does it mean if you experience some kind of pain while nursing your baby? According to Spradlin:

"When breastfeeding hurts, this is an indicator that something is wrong. Maybe the baby isn't well-positioned at the breast. Maybe Mom is engorged because of IV fluids in labor. Many common practices around birth contribute to suboptimal breast care and breast feeding, and suboptimal care and feeding lead to discomfort. Breastfeeding pain is almost always treatable in some way. Usually simple changes in feeding pattern or position are all that are needed. Chronic breastfeeding pain deserves to be thoroughly explored with your healthcare team to find the underlying cause and treat it."

Finally, Spradlin tells Romper that "the current research shows that hourly feeding is normal for at least the first few days of life, and it's not possible to overfeed directly from the breast. A frequently latched baby is the best solution to engorgement, which is more common so it's being treated as normal. A lot of engorgement is due to the extra fluid mom receives in labor from IVs like antibiotic IV, Pitocin IV, or epidural fluid. The fluid will move to the stretchiest part of the body, and breasts are very stretchy."

In summary, your breasts may feel full, heavy, and/or tingly in the early days of breastfeeding as your milk comes in and the supply adjusts to baby's demand, but nursing should never be painful. If it is, talk to your doctor or schedule a consultation with a lactation counselor.