Are you sick and tired of having an itchy chest while you are nursing your baby?
Of course, you are! But do you know how to remedy the issue? We do.
Look: breastfeeding is beautiful, and it should never become something that you dread doing. But it’s pretty hard to appreciate the exquisite bonding experience nursing provides when you are focusing all your energy on not scratching your boobs right off your chest!
So, what can induce itchy breasts while breastfeeding and how can you make it better? There are actually several causes, each with their own solutions, that range from the benign to the ‘it’s time to call the OBGYN.’ in terms of their seriousness.
#1 Stretch Marks
As women, our bodies are amazing, strong, and…stretchy. Hey, it’s true, and all mothers have the lines to prove it. Wear ’em loud, wear ’em proud, ladies.
If your breasts are itchy and you cannot figure out a medical reason as to why it might be wise to consider good old fashioned stretch marks as the culprit. After all, your belly wasn’t the only thing expanding during your pregnancy, and your breasts are now doubling as a fully stocked, all you can eat buffet.
Why Do We Get Stretch Marks?
Stretch marks can form whenever a period of rapid growth or weight gain occurs. When the skin can’t quite keep up, as often happens during pregnancy, you will notice that stretch marks have magically appeared.
The exact science behind why they happen remains something of a mystery, although some theories link them to pregnancy hormones and believe genetics play at least a small part as to who gets them and who does not.
Nevertheless, these areas of skin are famous for becoming itchy throughout the day. (Source)
How To Treat the Itch
Since there is not a proven treatment for clearing your skin of stretch marks, let’s focus on relieving this annoying symptom.
Many women have found success by:
- Taking a 15-30 minute bath, ensuring that their stretch marks are submerged in cool water mixed with colloidal oatmeal;
- Patting the affected area dry when the skin gets wet
- Applying liberal amounts of a preferred moisturizer to the affected area;
- Applying ice packs to the affected area;
- Avoiding wearing synthetic fabric on the affected area
Whatever you do;
- DO NOT rub the skin with a towel after a bath or shower;
- DO NOT scratch (Source)
#2 Milk Ejection Reflex, aka The Let-Down
You know that thing that you try really, really hard to describe but can’t find the words for? So ultimately, you just exclaim “It’s like an itch that you can’t scratch but you really, really want to!”, and then you add a few garbled sound effects while pointing to your boobs, as though that will clarify everything.
Well, we have good news for your vocabulary!
You might be experiencing a milk ejection reflex, colloquially known as a let-down, if you:
- Experience itchy breasts while nursing;
- Develop a pins-and-needles feeling while nursing;
- Experience a sudden sense that your breasts are full (Source)
Why the Milk Ejection Reflex Happens
Around the two minute mark of your baby’s nursing session, you might feel that itchy, buzzy, feeling in your breasts and notice that your baby’s swallowing has become a bit louder or changed in pace.
That’s because your milk is coming down the pipeline, so to speak, as the cells and hormones in your breasts work to ensure an adequate flow for your hungry baby. Some mothers will not experience any feeling from their milk ejection reflex, while others will experience mild to intense symptoms. (Source)
How to Treat Discomfort
Here is where there is a bit of a mixed bag of news.
The good news is that you will probably become used to these sensations, to the point where you no longer notice them.
The bad news is that there is technically not a lot to alleviate the issue in the moment. Some mothers have reported easing symptoms by:
- Relaxing while nursing;
- Focusing on their baby;
- Applying a warm compress to their breasts (Source)
#3 Dry Skin
Sometimes, that annoying itch can be explained away by something as simple as dry skin. As we all know, dry skin can itch like no one’s business, but it quickly becomes everyone’s business if we’re scratching away at our boobs.
Dry skin can also lead to irritation or even cracked nipples, which can lead to a heightened chance of getting an actual infection. It can be quite the domino effect.
Why Do We Get Dry Skin
Dry skin can occur for countless reasons. In breastfeeding women these can include:
- Your baby latching on to just your nipple in an improper latching position;
- Not drinking enough water;
- Harsh soaps or cleansers;
- Not changing nursing pads enough (Source)
How To Treat Dry Skin
Even though the dry skin can be pervasive and irritating, it is actually one of the easier culprits to deal with when it comes to itchy breasts. You will want to:
- Stay hydrated;
- Find a nipple cream or lotion that works for your;
- Apply your preferred lotion after breastfeeding;
- Rub a bit of your own milk on the affected area after breastfeeding (Source)
This yeasty fungal infection is about as much fun as…well, as itchy, irritated, inflamed, itchy (it deserved another mention) nipples.
Thrush might be the source of your discomfort if you notice:
- An itching and/or burning sensation in your nipples;
- Cracks in your nipples;
- A ‘shiny’ appearance to your nipples;
- Deep breast pain that can range from mild to severe (Source)
Why Thrush Happens
Believe it or not, the pathogenic yeast to blame for this problem is actually always inside of us. When our body isn’t enforcing the house rules candida, normally a benign internal dweller, can get as out of control as a teenager home alone for the weekend.
In short, it can affect your milk ducts as well as your nipples, as breastmilk is very conducive for candida overgrowth when your immune system is a bit off its game.
Anyone can get thrush, but it is most common among the young, the elderly, and the infirm. You may be at risk for contracting thrush if you:
- Are breastfeeding a baby with oral thrush;
- Have recently taken or are on antibiotics;
- Have recently taken or are taking Prednisone;
- Are diabetic;
- Have cancer;
- Are anemic;
- Are otherwise immunosuppressed (Source)
How To Treat Thrush
While thrush will not cause long-term harm, per se, I think we all agree that all that extra candida needs some reigning in. Luckily, there are many options out there, but you need to be sure to get your baby checked out for oral thrush, as well. You don’t want your first bonding experiences to included playing candida lacrosse.
The treatment for your baby, which will have to occur even if she is not symptomatic, will likely be a mild anti-fungal in pill, cream, or liquid.
You can try to control your own thrush with an over the counter anti-fungal cream, but we always encourage mothers to consult with their doctor before starting any kind of treatment. Your doctor may also:
- Prescribe a specific anti-fungal medication;
- Discuss altering your diet;
- Suggest Ibuprofen to alleviate breast pain;
- Advise you to begin taking a probiotic (Source)
To help prevent a reoccurrence of thrush, it is recommended that you:
- Wash your breasts and nipples daily with soap and water;
- Frequently wash your hands and your baby’s hands;
- If you are using nursing pads, it is advised that you use disposable products that you can change after every feeding;
- Always wear a clean bra;
- Once a day, boil things that may have been exposed to Candida (e.g. teething rings, pacifiers, bottle nipples) for twenty minutes.
- Boil parts of your breast pump that has had contact with your milk for twenty minutes every day.
While undergoing treatment, you can still breastfeed your baby. (Source)
Although often the result of an infected breast duct, mastitis can also be caused when milk builds up around the breast tissue. You may experience:
- Itchy, tender, and/or abnormally warm breasts;
- Irregular swelling or redness on your breasts;
- Soreness in your armpits
You are especially at risk if you:
- Have sore or cracked nipples;
- Overly favor one breast to nurse;
- Are fatigued;
- Wear a bra that is too tight;
- Have previously suffered from mastitis (Source)
Why Mastitis Happens
If your mastitis is due to an infection, you likely contracted it due to a crack or small cut on your nipple. This allowed bacteria, commonly Staphylococcus aureus, to enter your body.
Mastitis can also happen if your baby is not latching properly, or will not nurse out of one breast as often as the other. Ultimately, the milk ducts get clogged up, and milk is allowed to stagnate; left untreated, bacteria will develop and thrive in this milk, and infection will occur. (Source)
How to Treat Mastitis
Left untreated, mastitis can become a dire health problem so, if you are worried that it’s the source of your itchy breasts, make an appointment with your doctor.
The good news is that it is a very treatable condition. Your doctor will likely:
- Prescribe antibiotics;
- Prescribe Ibuprofen or acetaminophen for the pain and fever;
- In rare cases, surgery may be required to drain an infected abscess
You will still be able to breastfeed, as it is the breast tissue that is affected, not the actual milk. (Source)
Subtly trying to itch your nipple in the middle of the grocery store might make for a funny story, but you don’t have time to be continually losing (more) sleep over itchy breasts. So go ahead and seek out treatment as soon as you notice symptoms; these are all common issues, and you are not failing at breastfeeding if you develop one of these conditions. The earlier you nip the problem in the bud the less likely you are to develop further health problems.