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Sore, cracked or bleeding nipples

4-minute read

Sore, cracked or bleeding nipples are common. Some mothers have such trouble with them that they stop breastfeeding early.

As a new mother, you may find it could take a few days or weeks to adapt to the strong suck of a healthy baby on your breasts.

It is normal for your breasts to become more sensitive in the first weeks after you have given birth. They may sting, burn, ache or feel tender. Over time, the discomfort and sensitivity should resolve.

If you have sore nipples, it may be that your baby isn’t attaching properly to your breast. This pain usually lasts about half a minute while baby first draws your nipple into their mouth.

Try to make sure your baby’s mouth is attached correctly for suckling from the very first breastfeed.

If you do not correct your baby’s latch, your nipples could be damaged, which causes problems like mastitis (infections).

How to get baby to attach to your breast correctly

  • Make sure you are sitting or lying comfortably. Position your baby’s chest against your chest, with their mouth and nose facing your nipple.
  • If you are lying down, let your baby’s cheek rest against your breast. If you are sitting up, lift your breast slightly so it does not press on your baby’s chin.
  • Position your baby so the first contact point is their chin on your areola — the coloured area around your nipple.
  • Bring your baby’s head to your breast, not the breast to baby’s head. Support your baby to move to where they are trying to go — towards your nipple.
  • Ensure the nipple and much (or all) of the areola and some surrounding breast are in your baby’s mouth.

After a few rapid gulps, your baby should start to suck and swallow in a regular rhythm. Once you have got the hang of it, breastfeeding can be enjoyable and should not be painful.

How to manage sore nipples

Before putting baby to the breast

Wash your hands and sit in a comfortable position and try to relax. Apply a warm washer to the breast and gently massage or express to help milk flow. Express some milk to soften the areola to lubricate the nipple.

At the breast

Poor attachment is a key cause of sore nipples. Make sure the way your baby latches to your breast is correct. If you are not sure, ask for help from a health professional.

If the attachment feels uncomfortable after 30 seconds, break your baby’s suction by putting your finger in the corner of their mouth. Take your baby off and let them re-latch to your breast. Try different feeding positions. If your nipples are tender, limit your baby’s comfort sucking.

After the breastfeed

Check your nipples for redness and misshapen appearance. Wipe your breasts with clean water and let them dry. It can help to leave your bra off for a while and allow your nipples to air. Make sure your bra fits.

When expressing milk, make sure that the suction on your breast pump is not too strong. If the pain in your nipples increases after the first week, talk to a health professional.

Finding the cause of cracked or bleeding nipples

You will need to work out the source of your nipple problems. The first thing to do is to check if your baby is latching on correctly. You may need to ask a health professional for assistance. They can also check your baby for problems with their lips and tongue and whether you have medical problems like dermatitis or nipple infection. If you use a nipple shield, make sure it is the correct size and if you’re using a breast pump, make sure you’re doing it properly.

How to treat cracked or bleeding nipples

There are a number of things you can do to treat cracked or bleeding nipples.

  • Look after your nipples: wash your nipples with water after every feed and clean and sterilise your nipple shield after each feed.
  • If you can, continue breastfeeding (it is quite safe for baby to feed on a bleeding nipple). But if it’s too painful, you may need to take your baby off the breast for 24 to 48 hours, rest the nipple and feed your baby expressed breast milk. Gradually reintroduce the breast after resting for a short time and take special care with positioning and attachment.
  • If you’re going to take pain-relieving medication, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Many household remedies are ineffective or harmful.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association has more tips on treating sore or cracked nipples.

If you need further help or are experiencing prolonged abnormal breast pain, contact your doctor, lactation consultant, breast feeding counsellor, child health nurse or Pregnancy Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2020

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