Let’s be honest. Overly full, engorged breasts are uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. Fortunately, under normal circumstances true engorgement can be prevented with frequent breastfeeding in the first few days/weeks after the birth of your baby. Some breast fullness and tenderness is to be expected in the first week postpartum as your breasts prepare to provide nourishment for your baby or babies. It may feel like you have enough milk to feed the entire neighborhood, but keep in mind that much of the swelling you are experiencing is simply that—swelling. It’s not just milk “coming in” that is making your breasts feel so full. After the birth of your baby; water, blood and lymphatic fluid rush to your breasts in preparation for breastfeeding. With adequate breastfeeding, the discomfort usually passes in a day or 2. Many mothers don’t experience anything but mild fullness.
Currently, however, many mothers in the U.S. experience births that are anything but “normal.” Epidural anesthesia requires that mother receive an IV of fluids. Inducing labor with pitocin requires extra fluid. C-sections require IV’s. If a mother receives any extra fluids via IV, she will continue to retain the fluid for some time even after the birth of her baby. That extra fluid often results in swollen ankles, fingers and even breasts!
The edema in the limbs may be noticeable right away; but the breast swelling will probably not be apparent until day 3-5. When breasts are full in a normal way as the milk “comes in,” your baby will still be able to latch on and breastfeed. The breasts will feel full, but the areola will be soft and compressible. True engorgement is very different. Your breasts are hard. The skin is stretched and shiny. The areola is hard and taut. There is no way a baby can latch on to your breast. Pumping is usually ineffective since the tissue is not malleable. It’s like trying to use a pump on a wall!
So what can you do if your breasts become so engorged that you feel like you have 2 bowling balls on your chest? Try using cabbage leaves to relieve the swelling so that milk can be removed by the baby or a pump. Cabbage? Really? Yes! This is one of those times when folk wisdom can be helpful.
Green cabbage contains sulfa compounds which pass through the skin, and constrict vessels–relieving inflammation. This reduction of inflammation and swelling allows the milk to flow. To use the cabbage to relieve engorgement, rinse the leaves thoroughly in cold water (leaves should not be cooked). Place a leaf or two on your breasts under your bra. Change the leaves as they wilt. Most mothers notice immediate relief using this method.
A couple words of caution: This technique is not recommended for women who are allergic to sulfa or cabbage. It’s also important to not over-do the cabbage cure. There are reports of decreased milk supply with excessive cabbage use.
If you find yourself in the difficult situation of clinical engorgement, you need help! Contact an experienced lactation consultant right away. In the meantime…try some cabbage!