Nipple Damage: Now What?

It’s normal to experience nipple tenderness for the first few days after delivery. Tenderness peaks between the 3-6th days postpartum and then should resolves by the end of the second week. Any damage to the skin of the breast or nipple should be taken care of immediately to avoid further damage or infection.

Painful breastfeeding is not normal.  The first step to decreasing pain while breastfeeding is to identify what’s causing it. Usually the simplest way to reduce nipple pain is to make sure baby is in the right position. Baby’s tummy should be touching mom’s body, with the belly button touching. Baby’s arms hug the breast and their face comes straight to the nipple. Baby’s Head should be straight, with their ear, shoulder and hip making a straight line. Their head should be slightly extended backward to allow the nose to pop up off the breast. Pulling baby in closer through the shoulders usually helps get a deeper latch.  If nursing is still painful, even with careful attention to latch and positioning, there may be other things at play. Usually there is a tongue/lip tie, tension in baby’s body like from a long labor and delivery (greater than 24 hour labor and/or more than 4 hours of pushing), or tension on baby’s body from intrauterine position (sitting really low for a large portion of pregnancy or being breech). Having the tongue tie released and/or doing tummy time and bodywork on baby should resolve the pain. If you’re working on release and baby’s body, consider the temporary use of a nipple shield to protect nipples, until damage is resolved and the underlying cause of the damage is managed.

When your nipples are already damaged:

Step one: Wash and Rinse Damaged nipples are prone to bacterial infection. Washing and rinsing damaged nipples can help prevent this type of infection. When bacteria grows in a wound, they create a bio-film that lengthens healing time. Baby’s saliva also fosters this bio-film. Washing cracked or fissured nipples gently twice a day with a gentle, fragrance free soap (not an antibacterial soap) and rinsing them with water can help remove the bacterial bio-film and allow faster nipple healing. Stop washing with soap once the nipples are healed. After every feed, rinse nipples with either clean water or a saline rinse. You can make your own saline rinse by mixing ¼ rounded teaspoon of sea salt with 8 ounces of warm water. Soak your nipples in this solution for 30-60 seconds. Soaking for longer may actually over hydrate your skin and increase cracking.

Step Two: Moist Wound Healing after washing and rinsing and/or soaking your nipples, dry and apply your antimicrobial ointment of choice. This could be virgin coconut oil, Dr Jack Newman’s All Purpose Nipple Ointment, or medihoney. There are other nipple balms and butters on the market. Make sure the one you’re using is antimicrobial. While you may think airing the nipple out will help scab the nipple over, Keeping cracks covered with some type of ointment promotes moist wound healing which is better for the sensitive nipple tissue which is a different kind of tissue than the rest of your skin. A non-stick wound pad, reusable breast pad, or a cooling breastfeeding gel may be placed over the ointment to keep your nipples from sticking to your bra or clothing. Ointment should be applied like chapstick, in a thin layer. Gently wipe off any leftover ointment before baby feeds. Disposable nursing pads should be avoided as these do not allow for good air flow and the quick wicking material tends to stick to nipples. Wool breast pads are preferable for their antibacterial and air flow properties.

Monitor for Infection Contact your primary caregiver physician and an IBCLC lactation consultant if you have any signs of infection like increasing redness, fever, or pus. If you have a fever of 100 degrees or greater for 24 hours, or bacterial infection which will require oral antibiotics. Research suggests that taking probiotics containing lactobacillus fermentum and lactobacillus salivarius can also help treat bacterial infections of the breast.

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