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The Ultimate Guide to Relieving Breast Pain While Pumping

How to deal with clogged ducts, engorgement and all that other fun stuff.

During breastfeeding or the first few days after birth, your nipples are extra sensitive—and it is entirely normal. But, sometimes, when you start alternating between breastfeeding and pumping, a different problem arises: sore nipples or breast pain. It sometimes comes as a deep pain —leaving your breasts sore for long periods. And if this pain persists long enough? It could dissuade you from expressing milk.

But this shouldn't be the case, and we are here to give you tips, tricks, and information for your most comfortable pumping experience.

Is It Normal I'm Sore While Pumping?

Some women have reported uncomfortable sensations when their milk begins to flow. Some have described it as feeling tingly, while others have compared it to feeling like pins and needles. That's never good.

Should pumping hurt? Like many medical questions, the answer isn't always straightforward. In general, we have found that your first experience will hurt a little bit initially. For only about 10 to 15 seconds, though.

This happens because the pumping equipment stretches the nipples' collagen fibers to release your milk, and it's also why your nipples may feel tender when you finish. However, what isn't so typical is to feel shooting pain while pumping.

Mastitis, engorgement, or plugged ducts could be the reason for abnormal breast pain. We discuss more of these potential causes below to help you know the signs when they appear and what to do for the next steps.


Mastitis is an inflammatory condition affecting the breasts. This condition presents in two forms:

  • Infective mastitis happens when bacteria from saliva or surrounding skin enter the breast through skin cracks or milk ducts; and

  • Non-infective mastitis happens when debris and dead skin cells clog the milk ducts.

In the case of blocked milk ducts, if uncleared, you may start to feel flu-like symptoms, like body aches, and fever. It isn't comfortable to experience mastitis because it inflates the breast as milk pools in it, manifesting as swelling and pain.


Do you sometimes feel like your breasts are overfull? That could be engorgement. Here's how you know: this condition usually happens between two to five days post-delivery when milk production in the breast increases. It's also caused by not emptying your breasts regularly.

Plugged Ducts

A peek into the breasts shows the glands that produce milk. Milk glands look like a grape bunch, while the ducts that connect them to the nipples look like stems. Sometimes, these milk glands become blocked by small plugs, making it harder for milk to flow and causing swelling.

These tiny plugs form when the breast is not emptied regularly. It may also be triggered by stress. Plugged ducts lead to lumps that could be single or more and vary in size, from as little as a pea to as big as two to three inches in diameter. This condition also happens during mastitis and engorgement.

5 Tips to Relieve Sore Breasts After or While Pumping

Pain while pumping shouldn't be a regular occurrence or something you have to put up with consistently.

That said, here are handy tips to give you the smoothest possible pumping experience:

1. Make Sure You're Using Your Pump Correctly

A breast pump is one of the best devices you can have when you can't breastfeed. And like always, making sure you choose the right one is important. When buying a breast pump, the quality of the flange or breast shield is vital. An ill-fitting flange can lead to injuries, soreness, and reduced milk production. But, once you get the right equipment, the pumping process is smooth sailing, whether hand-operated or electric.

Another mistake we often see is with the timing of the pumping. Whichever type of pump you use, you should continue pumping for another 15 minutes after your milk has stopped flowing. The idea is to stimulate the breast so that the body makes enough milk to replace the emptied breasts. If not, you may experience a decrease in milk production.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to pump correctly to avoid pain while pumping:

  1. Study the guidelines on your pump.

  2. Maintain good hand hygiene and clean the pump before use.

  3. Place the funnel on the breast, with the nipple centered into the flanges. Lean forward and begin pumping.

  4. Set the pump to a slow speed and keep suction low. Understandably, one might think high suction and speed mean fast milk production. But instead, higher intensity leads to soreness and irritation. Remember, your baby sucks slowly, with a low suction, and this is what you should mimic when you pump.

  5. Run the pump for seven minutes. Within this time, no milk may flow. There's no cause for alarm; it's normal. After that, the let-down happens when you feel milk flowing into the pump.

  6. Stop the pump for a minute to massage your breasts. Begin from the armpit and work your way down to the nipple. Doing this allows the breast to take a breather and reset.

  7. Replace the pumps on your nipples and start it up for another seven minutes. Collect your milk in a container and store it to keep it cool for your next feeding.

2. Massage Them with Care

When breastfeeding or pumping, massaging your breasts with your hands can help express more milk, empty the breasts, and improve milk production in the glands. So, before you begin to feed your sweet babe or pump some milk, get a hot, damp compress and apply it to your chest. Damp heat helps open your ducts, increase let-downs, and boost circulation.

Start lightly massaging from the top of your breast and lower, including the nipple, with your fingertips. Then, gently pressing on each breast, begin massaging in a circular motion to improve milk flow to the nipples. Then, you can do each breast with both hands, making light circles clockwise and counterclockwise across the whole breast.

3. Invest in a Nipple Cream/Ointment

Constant contact with your nipples from breastfeeding and pumping can result in discomfort or pain. Purchasing a cream could help reduce pain by moisturizing the nipples. It also prevents bleeding, itching, cracking, or drying, which happens within the first few weeks of pumping and breastfeeding, and prevents infection.

The main ingredient in traditional nipple creams is lanolin. However, current varieties use different ingredients that are very moisturizing, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and Shea butter. If you go the traditional route, make sure your nipple cream uses medical-grade lanolin. Otherwise, any other lotion or cream could irritate your chest even further.

4. Use a Heating Pad to Reduce Swelling

Who couldn't use a little extra help? Try a heating pad when pumping or breastfeeding, as this helps to increase milk flow and let-down. Using this also helps relieve symptoms of mastitis, engorgement, and plugged ducts.

Your doctor also may advise you to try something colder, as icing your breasts can prevent inflammation and relieve sore nipples.

5. Soak in an Epsom Salt Bath

Maybe your grandma did know a trick or two. Epsom salts are one of the oldest traditions of medicine still in use today and come with many benefits. From helping with skin problems, aches, and even pains — soaking in an Epsom salt bath is considered safe for breastfeeding moms and helps relieve many symptoms associated with breastfeeding. 

We recommend using Epsom Salt Baths in moderation, though. The FDA doesn't monitor or offer dosage for Epsom salt for soaks, so checking in with your primary care doctor is key.

Willow gives you options:
Find your perfect pump.

Willow gives you options:

Find your perfect pump.

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