Cracked nipples when breastfeeding

baby breastfeeding sore nipples mother

Cracked nipples can be caused by a number of things including a poor latch or sensitive skin and will make breastfeeding a painful experience. While it’s common to get some minor nipple soreness when you begin breastfeeding, you shouldn’t suffer in silence and there are steps you can take to treat the pain, which will help you continue to enjoy (or at least carry on) breastfeeding.

What causes cracked nipples?

Cracked nipples are one of the most common breastfeeding problems. They can be caused by a number of factors but the chief culprit is a poor latch. If your baby doesn’t have enough of the boob in her mouth, she ends up sucking on the sensitive nipples instead – basically, you may as well be taking a sheet of sandpaper to them. So it’s definitely worth spending some time seeking advice to get the latch right.

Other causes of cracked nipples could be:

  • Sensitive skin. Your nipples can become cracked simply because your skin is sensitive and getting used to breastfeeding. Some women suffer more than others with this. It’s a whole new sensation but your skin should toughen up over time. Cracked nipples are most common in the first week or two when you are still getting breastfeeding established.
  • A medical condition. If your latch is good, then have your baby checked for a tongue tie. This is where the skin that tethers the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too short, meaning your baby can’t suck properly. It can risk squashing your nipple and may be a source of pain for you and very frustrating for your baby, as she might not be getting enough milk.
  • Infection. If the pain you are feeling extends well beyond feeding and is felt deep in the breast then you could have breastfeeding thrush. Cracked nipples and thrush can easily be confused so don’t self-treat the condition if you have concerns – ask your GP to take a swab of your nipples to check.
  • Breast pump use. Your baby is not the only thing sucking at your nipples. If you express milk using a pump, it could be too aggressive and be causing the tissue around your nipple to tear.

How can I treat cracked nipples?

When breastfeeding causes pain, it can be tempting to chuck the towel in. But it is possible to treat cracked nipples quickly and without having to give up breastfeeding. The earlier you seek help and treat the condition the better.

Get your latch checked

Yes, again. Ask your health visitor to observe you feeding. A good latch should feel comfortable so if you are in pain when feeding then it’s likely that it’s the latch causing the sore nipples. To achieve a good latch your baby’s tummy should be facing you so that she doesn’t have to turn her head to feed. She should be taking a good mouthful of breast, including the areola, rather than just sucking on the nipple.

Relieve engorgement

If you feel that your breasts are full and painful, take steps to relieve the engorgement. If they are too full, your baby may be struggling to latch on – it’s a bit like trying to eat your lunch off a beach ball – and is therefore just sucking on your nipple instead and causing them to crack.

Keep your nipples moisturised

You can try a lanolin-based nipple cream. Apply after feeding and coat the entire areola and nipple. Lanolin-based creams are considered safe for breastfeeding so you don’t need to wash it off before the next feed, but if your baby doesn’t like the taste, you can always give them a wipe before feeding.

Rub some breastmilk into your nipples

After feeding, pat your nipples dry and hand-express a few drops of milk onto them. Breastmilk has incredible healing and antiseptic properties and can be used to clear up anything from minor skin irritations to a mild eye infection. However, if you think you may have breastfeeding thrush, you should give this a miss as it can make any infection worse.

Let your breasts air

Getting some air to the sore area will help them heal. But if you’re not one for walking around with your boobs out (or your fellow supermarket shoppers complain loudly), you could try breast shells that keep your clothes and bra off your nipples and allow them to breathe.

Keep nipples clean

You essentially need to treat this as an open wound that is prone to infection. Infections like thrush love dark, damp places and can easily make a home out of cracked nipples, making breastfeeding even more painful. Wash your nipples using only water (avoiding perfumes and lotions) and dry thoroughly afterwards.

Try feeding from the other side

Feeding from the breast which is the least sore first will prevent your hungry baby from frantically chowing down on your cracked nipple.

Savoy cabbage leaves from the fridge. Pop one leaf in each bra cup. Instant relief. Crazy but true.

Apply ice

Put it on the nipple just before your baby latches. This will help to numb the initial pain a little.

Take pain relief

Painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol (not aspirin) are safe to take when breastfeeding and can help to take the edge off the pain if you’re having a particularly bad day with it.

Throw out your breast pads

If you are using breast pads, try to use disposable ones. Reusable ones can sometimes hold bacteria and you may risk infection.

Try nipple shields
nipple shield

We know – controversial. But when you’re in pain anything is worth a try. Many a Mumsnetter swears by the temporary use of nipple shields to relieve pain.

Midwives do warn against the prolonged use of them as it can lead to nipple confusion (that’s your baby that’s confused, not your nipples, by the way) and potential future problems with latching.

I was in agony with cracked, bleeding nipples for weeks. The pain was worse than labour at times – the only thing that helped me was using nipple shields so that his mouth was no longer in contact with my skin.

Mix things up

Some mums combine breastfeeding with bottle feeding as a way of giving their nipples some respite. It simply means feeding your baby expressed milk in a bottle for one or more of her feeds. If you do decide to go down this route, make sure to take it slowly and not drop too many feeds at once. Doing so could affect your milk supply and also cause engorgement, which can lead to mastitis.

If the pain when breastfeeding is unbearable, you could also try a lactation aid, such as a supplementer, while your nipples are healing. This is a tiny tube attached to your breast which feeds expressed milk from a bottle to your baby. It eliminates the suckling action that can aggravate cracked nipples but still allows you the bonding that accompanies breastfeeding.

Ask for help

If your cracked nipples are not healing, don’t just soldier on. Have a word with your health visitor or GP about getting some extra help.

Mumsnetters' advice on how to heal cracked nipples

“Try breast shells.They keep your bra and clothes off the nipple. I found that my bra was squashing my nipples after every feed, meaning that the cracks weren’t healing properly. As soon as I started using the shells they began to heal.”

“Vary the feeding position as that changes the pressure on the cracks. My cracks were in the outer edges of the nipples from feeding in cradle position. Instead, I tried to feed in the rugby ball hold, laying back, then used the cradle position at night as it was easier.”

“Multi-Mam nipple compresses, Medela Hydrogel pads, and wine helped me!”

“Get some Lansinoh! Apply it to your nipples and then cover them in cling film. This helps it absorb into the skin rather than rubbing off on your clothes.”

What can I do to prevent cracked nipples?

If you’ve had cracked nipples once, you won’t want them back. Prevention is better than cure. Here are a few ways to get out in front of the problem so it doesn’t happen again:

  • Be vigilant about your latch. Having a good feeding technique will prevent cracked nipples from recurring and will also keep other conditions such as mastitis at bay. Ask your health visitor about local breastfeeding cafes or meet-ups you can pop along to whenever you have a query or need a bit of moral support.
    Get some Lansinoh! Apply it to your nipples and then cover them in cling film. This helps it absorb into the skin rather than rubbing off on your clothes.
  • Moisturise. Make your lanolin cream your new best friend. Create a habit of moisturising after every feed, whether or not your nipples seem sore.
  • Give things an airing. Try to have a bit of bra-free time occasionally after a feed. Maybe at home though, rather than in a restaurant.