Breastfeeding: How to Care for Your Nipples

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 30, 2023
9 min read

Breastfeeding is a natural process that should be a good experience for both you and your baby. It helps your bond, and breast milk has all the nutrients that a growing baby needs. However, it takes a little practice and patience to get it just right.

You may experience nipple soreness or discomfort when first starting out. This can be caused by your baby's position, latch, or sucking. Luckily, there are several ways you can correct this and care for your nipples to make sure breastfeeding is a special experience for you and your baby.

While you're breastfeeding, you should make a habit of checking your breasts and nipples on a regular basis. By doing this, you might be able to notice any possible problems before they get worse down the road.

Regular breast and nipple care

While breastfeeding, follow these steps:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water before each feeding. You should only touch your breasts and nipples with clean hands.
  2. Wear a clean bra with the right amount of support each day. Nursing bras, or bras with cups that can drop down from the bra strap, are typically the easiest to use while breastfeeding. Cotton bras also breathe better and allow air to circulate.
  3. Avoid using soap or shampoo on your nipples. Wash your nipples with just water because soaps can remove your natural lubrication. This lubrication prevents your nipples from drying out and cracking while nursing.
  4. After each feeding, put a few drops of breast milk on your nipples. This helps to moisturize your nipple and fight off possible infections.

Breastfeeding shouldn't hurt, so if you find that one or both of your nipples are sore after a feeding, that's a sign that your baby might not be latching correctly. This is the most common cause of nipple soreness while nursing. You might have to try a few different positions while holding your baby to find the correct one.

If your baby is latching correctly, your nipple should rest against their soft palate and shouldn't cause any pain or discomfort. Correcting this positioning should make it much easier for your sore nipples to heal.

Another sign that your baby isn't latching correctly is if you notice your nipples becoming flat, wedge-shaped, or lighter in color at the end of feeding. To help your baby get a good latch, lightly tickle them so that they open their mouth up wide. Point your nipple up toward your baby's nose and upper lip so that they can get more of your areola in their mouth and not just the nipple.

Apart from issues with latching, soreness can also be caused by a number of different factors, including:

  • A tongue-tie. Your baby may not get a good latch if they have a tongue tie, which happens when the frenulum, or the string of tissue under the tongue, is short and restricts the movement of the tongue.
  • An infection of the nipple.
  • Certain skin conditions, like eczema, dermatitis, or psoriasis can cause nipple pain while nursing.
  • Vasospasm, which is the tightening of the blood vessels that surround the nipple.
  • A plugged milk duct or mastitis, which causes a hard knot to form in the breast.

Caring for sore nipples

If you're performing regular breast and nipple care and are still experiencing soreness, there are a few at-home treatments that you can try.

  1. Change your nursing pads when they become wet. Try to avoid using nursing pads that are lined with plastic.
  2. Don't wipe off your nipples after nursing. After each feeding, allow your nipples to air dry naturally for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Try taking over-the-counter medication to help with the pain, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  4. Pump your breast milk using a low-pressure setting, which can help your nipples heal.
  5. Apply 100% pure lanolin to your nipples with a cotton swab after feeding.
  6. Let your baby nurse for as long as they need to. A common belief is that short feedings can prevent sore nipples, but this is not true.

Although considered a last-resort option by lactation consultants, you can also try a nipple shield. They can help if:

  • Your baby has a condition that affects their latching, like being premature or having a tongue tie
  • You have a short or inverted nipple
  • Your nipple is painful and needs time to heal

Keep in mind that nipple shields are for short-term use. You should stop using them once your baby's latch is better. Some risks with nipple shields include affecting your milk supply and the amount of milk your baby actually gets. Ask your lactation consultant for advice if you want to try them.

Painful cracks in your nipples, also called nipple fissures, can happen on one or both of your breasts when you're nursing for the first time. They happen in 80-90% of people who breastfeed and are a sign of strain on your nipples.

Some causes of nipple cracking include improper latching by your baby that puts strain on your breast tissue, your breasts being engorged, or using the wrong settings or tool sizes on your breast pump.

Cracked nipples are different from soreness in your nipples. Some symptoms include:

  •  dryness or flaking 
  • redness
  • irritation
  •  pain

Also, cracked nipples can be a symptom of thrush, which is a fungal infection in the mouth that's common in infants and can spread from your baby to your nipple when breastfeeding. If you already have cracked nipples, thrush can make symptoms worse.

Some complications of cracked nipples include bleeding nipples or mastitis, which is inflammation in your breast that causes redness, swelling, and flu-like symptoms.

A physical exam by your doctor can confirm a diagnosis of cracked nipples.

Caring for cracked nipples

Proper breastfeeding, including correct position and latching, is key to preventing cracked nipples. If you have nipple cracking, you can usually care for them at home. Some treatment options include:

  • Pump and bottle-feed while you're waiting for the pain to go away
  • Cut back on the amount of time you're breastfeeding and bottle-feed more
  • Switch sides during feeding so one nipple doesn't have more strain
  • Apply a warm compress or gel pads
  • Use over-the-counter creams or ointments made for breast care and let them air dry
  • Rub a small amount of your milk onto your nipples, as it has antibacterial effects
  • Massage your breasts if they are engorged, which can relieve pressure
  • Try breast shells, which are plastic rounded disk that help protect sensitive breasts

Babies bite while breastfeeding for several reasons, including:

  • Poor latch
  • Too much milk flow
  • Low milk supply
  • A cold or stuffy nose
  • Being full
  • Distraction or boredom
  • Teething

What to do when baby bites your breast

Remain calm and don't overreact. When your baby bites you, it's natural to yell out in pain. However, a big reaction can backfire. You might make your baby scared to nurse. A big reaction can also encourage your baby to bite you again to get the same entertaining response.

Instead, take a deep breath. You can calmly say something such as "no biting" or "ouch, biting hurts mommy" as you remove your breast.

Break the latch and remove your breast. The moment you are bitten, you should break the latch and remove your breast. Don't pull your baby off too quickly. Removing a baby that is still firmly latched can cause more injury to your nipple.

To break the latch, insert your clean finger at the corner of your baby's mouth. You can gently pull the corner of your baby's mouth to break the seal.

Take a short break. For an older baby, it can be very effective to take a short break after the bite. Place your baby somewhere safe and step away from their line of sight. Your little one will quickly learn that biting does not have the desired result of getting a funny response or extra attention.

Preventing biting during nursing

The best way to prevent future bites is to identify the cause.‌

Check the latch. When your baby is latched and nursing correctly, biting will be less likely. ‌With a good latch, your baby's tongue will cover their lower teeth or gums. This means if your baby bites, their tongue gets bitten as well. A good latch is a natural deterrent to biting.

A good latch requires being in a comfortable position where your baby's neck is not bent. You might have to experiment with different positions and nursing pillows to get a position that works well for you and your baby. ‌Once you are in a comfortable position, guide your nipple toward the roof of your baby's mouth. Make sure at least 3 or 4 centimeters of your breast tissue is in your baby's mouth as they begin nursing.

Think about your milk flow. Your baby might bite if your milk is flowing too fast or if it isn't flowing fast enough. If you are very engorged, express some milk into a bottle before offering your breast to your baby. If your milk supply is low, try to massage your breast tissue to get the milk flowing. Switch sides once you feel the milk has drained from one breast.

Change positions if your baby has a cold. If your baby has a cold, try nursing in a more upright position. This can allow your baby to breathe easier and lower the chance of getting bitten.

Stop nursing as soon as your baby shows signs of being full. Babies will often bite when they become full, so keep a close eye on your baby and watch for clues. A full baby will often take a pause in their nursing. You might notice some tension in their jaw or other unique cues. When you notice one of those fullness cues, quickly but gently break the latch with your finger.

Keep your baby busy. An older infant might bite if they are bored or to get your attention. If you think this is the case, you can stay active with your baby during nursing by talking, singing, and making eye contact.

Use teethers. When babies are teething, they will chew on just about anything. It's important they learn your breast is not an option for teething so keep plenty of safe teethers on hand.

Apply the "no biting" rule to bottles. If you feed your baby with a bottle, make sure your baby is never allowed to bite or chew on the bottle's nipple. You don't want your baby to associate biting with nursing or anything that looks like a nipple.

Caring for breastfeeding bites

If your nipples are damaged from bites, this can make future breastfeeding sessions very painful. To ease the pain and protect your nipples, you can try:

  • Nipple cream, such as purified lanolin
  • Cold packs
  • Nursing on the unbitten side first—your baby's sucking tends to be the strongest at the beginning of a nursing session
  • Pain relievers that are safe for breastfeeding, such as ibuprofen
  • Using a breast pump to maintain your milk supply as you heal

Biting is usually a temporary problem and babies quickly learn to stop. If biting continues, ask your baby's doctor to refer you to a lactation consultant. A lactation consultant can help you find strategies to continue breastfeeding for as long as you and your baby wish.

If you're still having pain or soreness after trying different methods of breastfeeding and at-home care, you may want to reach out to a midwife or lactation consultant. They can help you determine whether your soreness is caused by improper latching or something else. If the cause is an improper latch, they can show you different positions or ways to help your baby get it right.

Seeking care can help you find the cause of your pain so you can correct it and get back to healthy, painless breastfeeding.