Sore nipples are usually due to one or both of two causes. Either the baby is
not positioned and latched properly, or the baby is not suckling properly, or
both. However, babies learn to suck properly by getting milk from the breast
when they are latched on well. (They learn by doing). Thus, “suck” problems are
often caused by poor latching on. Fungal infection (due to Candida albicans) may
also cause sore nipples. The soreness caused by poor latching and ineffective
suckling hurts most as you latch the baby on and usually improves as the baby
nurses. The pain from the fungal infection goes on throughout the feed and may
continue even after the feed is over. Women describe knifelike pain from the
first two causes. The pain of the fungal infection is often described as
burning, but may not have this character. A new onset of nipple pain when
feedings had previously been painless is a tip off that the pain may be due to a
yeast infection, but the pain may be superimposed on pain due to other causes.
Cracks may be due to a yeast infection. Dermatologic conditions may also cause
late onset nipple pain. There are several other causes of sore nipples.
Proper positioning and Latching
It is not uncommon for women to experience difficulty positioning and
latching the baby on. Proper positioning facilitates a good latch and good
latching reduces the baby's chances of becoming "gassy", and also allows the
baby to control the flow of milk. Thus, poor latching may also result in the
baby not gaining adequately, or feeding frequently, or being colicky.
Positioning — For the purposes of explanation, let us assume that you are
feeding on the left breast.
Good positioning facilitates a good latch. A lot of what follows under
latching comes automatically if the baby is well positioned in the first place.
At first, it may be easiest to use the cross cradle hold to position your
baby for latching on. Hold the baby in your right arm, pushing in the baby’s
bottom with the side of your forearm so that your hand turns palm upwards. This
will help you support his body more easily, and also bring the baby in from the
correct direction so that he gets a good latch. Your hand will be palm up under
the baby’s face (not shoulder or under his neck). The web between your thumb and
index finger should be behind the nape of his neck (not behind his head). The
baby will be almost horizontal across your body, with his head slight tilted
backward, and should be turned so that his chest, belly and thighs are against
you with a slight tilt so the baby can look at you. Hold the breast with your
left hand, with the thumb on top and the other fingers underneath, fairly far
back from the nipple and areola.
The baby should be approaching the breast with the head just slightly tilted
backwards. The nipple then automatically points to the roof of the baby's mouth.
1. Now, get the baby to open up his mouth wide. The way to do this is to run
your nipple, still pointing to the roof of the baby's mouth, along the baby's
upper lip (not lower), lightly, from one corner of the mouth to the other. Or
you can run the baby along your nipple, something some mothers find easier. Wait
for the baby to open up as if yawning. As you bring the baby toward the breast,
his chin should touch your breast first. Do not scoop him around so that the
nipple points to the middle of his mouth, but rather to the roof of his mouth.
2. When the baby opens up his mouth, use the arm that is holding him to bring
him straight onto the breast. Don't worry about the baby's breathing. If he is
properly positioned and latched on, he will breathe without any problem. If he
cannot breathe, he will pull away from the breast. Don't be afraid to be
3. If the nipple still hurts, use your index finger to pull down on the
baby's chin in order to bring the lower lip out. You may have to do this for the
duration of the feed, but this is usually not necessary. The pain will usually
subside. Do not take the baby on and off the breast several times to get the
perfect latch. If the baby goes on and off the breast 5 times and it hurts, you
will have 5 times more pain, and worse, 5 times more damage. Fix the latch when
putting him to the other breast, or at the next feeding.
4. The same principles apply whether you are sitting or lying down with the
baby or using the football hold. Get the baby to open wide; don't let the baby
latch onto the nipple, but get as much of the areola (brown part of breast) into
the mouth as possible (not necessarily the whole areola).
5. There is no "normal" length of feeding time. If you have questions, call
6. A baby properly latched on will be covering more of the areola with his
lower lip than with the upper lip.
Improving the Baby's Suckle
The baby learns to suckle properly by nursing and by getting milk into his
mouth. The baby's suckle may be made ineffective or not appropriate for
breastfeeding by the early use of artificial nipples or from poor latching on
from the beginning. Some babies just seem to take their time developing an
effective suckle. Suck training and/or finger feeding may help, but note, taking
the baby off the breast to finger feed instead is not a good idea and should be
done as a last resort only.
"My nipple turns white after the baby comes off the breast"
The pain associated with this blanching of the nipple is frequently described
by mothers as "burning", but generally begins only after the feeding is over. It
may last several minutes or more, after which the nipple returns to its normal
colour, but then a new pain develops which is usually described by mothers as
"throbbing". The throbbing part of the pain may last for seconds or minutes and
may even blanch again. The cause would seem to be a spasm of the blood vessels
(often called “vasospasm” or Raynaud’s Phenomenon) in the nipple (when the
nipple is white), followed by relaxation of these blood vessels (when the nipple
returns to its normal colour). Sometimes this pain continues even after the
nipple pain during the feeding no longer is a problem, so that the mother has
pain only after the feeding, but not during it. What can be done?
1. Pay careful attention to getting the baby to latch onto the breast
properly. This type of pain is almost always associated with and probably caused
by whatever is causing your pain during the feeding. The best treatment for this
vasospasm is the treatment of the other causes of nipple pain. If the main cause
of the nipple pain is fixed, the vasospasm also disappears.
2. Heat (hot washcloth, hot water bottle, hair dryer) applied to the nipple
immediately after nursing may prevent or decrease the reaction. Dry heat is
usually better than wet heat, because wet heat may cause further damage to the
3. On occasion, we have had to use an oral medication (nifedipine) to prevent
this type of reaction.
l. Nipples can be warmed for short periods of time after each feeding, using
a hair dryer on low setting.
2. Nipples should be exposed to air as much as possible.
3. When it is not possible to expose nipples to air, plastic dome-shaped
breast shells (not nipple shields) can be worn to protect your nipples from
rubbing by your clothing. Nursing pads keep moisture against the nipple and may
cause damage that way. They also tend to stick to damaged nipples. If you leak a
lot you can wear the pad over the breast shell.
4. Ointments can sometimes be helpful. If you do use an ointment, use just a
very small amount after nursing and do not wash it off.
5. Do not wash your nipples frequently. Daily bathing is more than enough.
6. If your baby is gaining weight well, there is no good reason the baby must
be fed on both breasts at each feeding. It may save you pain, and speed healing
if you feed your baby on only one breast each feed. It will help to compress the
breast, once the baby is no longer swallowing on his own in order to continue
his getting milk. You may be able to manage this some feedings, but not others.
In very difficult situations, a lactation aid can be used to supplement
(preferably expressed milk), so that the baby will finish the feeding on the
If you are unable to put the baby to the breast because of pain, in spite of
trying all the above measures, it may still be possible to continue
breastfeeding after a temporary (3-5 days) cessation to allow the nipples to
heal. During this time, it would be better that the baby not be fed with a
rubber nipple. Of course it is also best for you and the baby if the baby is fed
your expressed milk. Use the technique called "finger feeding" Handout 8: Finger
Feeding) or cup feeding. This is a last resort and taking a baby off the breast
should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, it often doesn’t work.
Nipples shields are not recommended for sore nipples, because, although they
may help temporarily, they usually do not, or they seem to help only. They may
also cut down the milk supply dramatically, and the baby may become fussy and
not gain weight well. Once the baby is used to them, it may be impossible to get
the baby back onto the breast. In fact, many women who have tried nipple shields
find that they do not help with soreness. Use as a last resort only, but get