While shopping for breastfeeding gear, you may have noticed lactation massagers in addition to breast pumps, nipple cream, and nursing pillows. What are they? And do you need one?
A lactation massager is a handheld device that’s intended to help women overcome certain breastfeeding challenges, like engorged breasts or clogged milk ducts.
Should you get one to help induce lactation? That’s up to you. Breastfeeding experts say that the device doesn’t do anything that you can’t already do by yourself.
“I do not recommend lactation massagers as essential breastfeeding equipment,” says Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician in Sonoma County, CA, and medical consultant to the parenting blog Mom Loves Best. “No clinical studies show that they are more effective than therapeutic breast massage by hand.”
How Lactation Massagers Work
Lactation massagers are made of soft silicone and fit in the palm of the hand. They have two rounded ends -- one wide, one narrow -- plus settings to make them vibrate or provide warmth.
Some women who have clogged milk ducts press the narrow end of a lactation massager against the sore area of the breast, moving it toward the nipple to try to unclog it. Others massage the breast from chest toward nipple with the wider end of the massager to help relieve engorged breasts.
But putting too much pressure on the breasts with this device may be risky. “There is no evidence that these devices have clinical benefit to breastfeeding mothers, and in fact, massagers can cause trauma to the breasts” if not used gently, says Karen Federici, MD, a family physician and certified lactation consultant in Sycamore, IL, who specializes in breastfeeding medicine.
Care for Clogged Ducts
Gentle pressure from a lactation massager may help relieve a clogged milk duct, but breastfeeding moms have been unclogging milk ducts without these devices for centuries.
“There are definitely other strategies to free clogged milk ducts,” says Leigh Anne O’Connor, a New York City-based certified lactation consultant. “Often it is simply nursing the baby more. Sometimes it is about [aiming] the baby’s chin toward the clog. Alternating warm and cold compresses can work the clogs out. Pumping can release the clogs, too.”
Vibrations may help, but you don’t need to run out to buy a lactation massager if you don’t have one.
“We used to recommend a vibrating toothbrush or an actual vibrator for hard-to-release plugged ducts,” O’Connor says. “I still recommend these, as many people already have one of these and when you need to release plugged ducts, it is an urgent situation that requires immediate attention. Waiting to buy or have something delivered can be problematic.”
You may not like the feel of vibrations against your breast.
“Vibration, even if gentle, may actually increase discomfort in the area,” Federici says. “Imagine if you had a bruise or a mild sprain. Applying vibration would neither feel good nor decrease inflammation. Ice would be helpful, as would ibuprofen. The same is true for breast tissue.”
Relief for Engorged Breasts
New moms may have engorgement, or swelling, in the breasts. This may make their breasts ache and feel hard to the touch, making it trickier for their babies to latch on to breastfeed.
When the breast tissue is swollen, ice packs may relieve engorgement, or warmth may be soothing. A lactation massager’s warm setting may help, but warm compresses should also work.
“Low heat can be applied for comfort,” Federici says. “For relief of engorgement, ice packs are recommended, as most of the enlargement is actually due to swelling of the surrounding tissue, rather than copious amounts of milk.”
Benefits of Lactation Massage
Some makers of lactation massagers claim that they can help with the milk let-down reflex. But nursing your baby should work better.
“Milk supply is established via frequent breastfeeding,” Poinsett says. “Hand massage during feeding can help with let-down and milk flow.”
Breast massage may also help relieve clogged ducts or engorgement. Your hands work better than a lactation massager.
Here’s how to do breast massage to induce lactation.
“Effective breast massage techniques include circular motion on the breast with gentle pressure, starting at the base of the breast out to the nipple,” Poinsett says. “Also massage the breast in a linear fashion, from the chest to the tip of the nipple. Finally, compressing the breast by holding the breast in the 'C' position -- little finger touching the chest, thumb and index finger holding the breast -- can help improve breast milk removal.”
Your breasts may be engorged because they contain too much lymphatic fluid, which causes inflammation. Lymphatic massage may remove the fluid to help your milk flow more freely.
“This is a very gentle-touch massage applied on the chest above the breast, moving up towards the collarbone and also applied near the underarm, up and away from the breast, using only a light pressure, like you would use to gently rub your baby’s back,” Federici says. “I suppose the massager could be used for light lymphatic massage up and away from the painful area, although hands are more effective.”