They say breastfeeding should be instinctive and feel natural. A little pinch here and there may happen, but shouldn’t persist. So why do you feel a consistent ache when breastfeeding or pumping? Are you doing it wrong? Is it something serious? Let’s read on to find out.
Chest pain for new mothers is most commonly due to an incorrect latch, breast engorgement, or tension during the breastfeeding process. It could also be due to problems with pumping, such as an uncomfortable fit, or the wrong settings. However, there are other causes that may be potentially serious and should warrant a consultation with a doctor.
Why do I get chest pain?
It could be the latch
Sometimes, a superficial, poor latch with your little one can cause pain. At times, this can be very painful and can be perceived by mothers as chest pain. Usually, deepening the latch can help make the breastfeeding process less painful and more enjoyable.
If the latch remains superficial and uncorrected, mothers may experience nipple vasospasm. Blood vessels in the nipple constrict due to the pressure from the incorrect latch. The nipple temporarily becomes pale to white in color after the latch then becomes painful as the blood vessels return to their natural shape.
It could be tension
Tightness in the mother’s shoulders or chest muscles can trigger blood vessel constriction (like in nipple vasospasm) in other blood vessels that are found deep within the breast tissue, causing a more intense pain that seems to come from the chest. This is called mammary constriction syndrome.
The tightness may be due to anticipation of a painful breastfeeding session, which causes a cycle of worsening pain. Sometimes, it may also be a buildup of tension from continuously sitting down in a certain position while breastfeeding.
Doing a pectoral muscle massage can help relieve the tightness and ease out the pain. This includes massaging certain areas of the chest for about a minute: above the breast, below the breast, between the breasts, and on both outer sides of the breast.
It could be due to engorged breasts
Breast engorgement happens when not enough milk is expressed out of the breast. This can also lead to plugging of milk ducts, further worsening the engorgement and the pain.
Make sure to drain milk regularly by either breastfeeding or pumping the milk for storage or later use. You can also apply warm compresses or massage your breast to ease the pain.
It could be mastitis
If your milk ducts remain plugged and obstructed, milk cannot flow properly. This is a good medium for bacteria to grow, leading to mastitis. This is an inflammation of the breast that is due to an infection. The inflammation causes breast pain, which may be perceived as chest pain in some mothers.
It could be your pump
Like breastfeeding, pumping may be uncomfortable at times, but should not cause pain. Make sure to use a breast pump that is properly cleaned or sterilized, and fits comfortably when used.
The breast shield or flange has different sizes; choose one that fits your breast and nipple. Pumping is not effective if the flange is too big, while pumping will be painful if the flange is too small.
If you’re using a model that can adjust the extent of suction, don’t go all out and use a high suction level at the beginning! Start with a low suction, then progressively increase it as you go. Maintain it at the highest level that you are comfortable with (and definitely not in pain).
What to watch out for
There is a serious and potentially deadly cause of chest pain in new mothers, called spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). While it is very rare (1 in 16,000 mothers), it can be deadly if not treated promptly. Symptoms include chest tightness, chest pain that may radiate to your left arm, sweating and an aching jaw. If you experience any of these symptoms, urgently seek consult with a doctor.
Another concerning medical condition that newborn mothers can experience is peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM). It’s a rare type of heart failure — only 1,300 of all new mothers per year (in the US) are affected. It presents with chest pain, heart palpitations, low blood pressure, fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling of the legs and feet. As in SCAD, if you experience any of these symptoms, urgently seek consult with a doctor.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I get chest pain?
Sometimes, a superficial, poor latch with your little one can cause pain. At times, this can be very painful and can be perceived by mothers as chest pain. Usually, deepening the latch can help make the breastfeeding process less painful and more enjoyable If the latch remains superficial and uncorrected, mothers may experience nipple vasospasm. Blood vessels in the nipple constrict due to the pressure from the incorrect latch. The nipple temporarily becomes pale to white in color after the latch, then becomes painful as the blood vessels return to their natural shape.