Breastfeeding complications

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Breastfeeding is the feeding of an infant or young child with milk from a woman's breasts. Babies have a sucking reflex that enables them to suck and swallow milk.

Experimental evidence suggests that, with few exceptions, human breast milk is the best source of nourishment for human infants.[1] However, there are circumstances under which breastfeeding can be difficult, or even, in rare instances, contraindicated.

Conditions that interfere with breastfeeding

While breastfeeding difficulties are not uncommon, putting the baby to the breast as soon as possible after birth helps to reduce them greatly. The AAP breastfeeding policy says: Delay weighing, measuring, bathing, needle-sticks, and eye prophylaxis until after the first feeding is completed.[2] Many breastfeeding difficulties can be resolved with proper hospital procedures, properly trained nurses and hospital staff, and lactation consultants.[3]

Several factors can interfere with successful breastfeeding:

Premature babies can have difficulties coordinating their sucking reflex with breathing. They may also tire during feeds.[citation needed]

Premature infants unable to take enough calories by mouth may need enteral or gavage feeding - inserting a feeding tube into the stomach to provide enough breast milk or a substitute. This is often done together with Kangaroo care (prolonged skin-to-skin contact with the mother) which makes later breastfeeding easier. For some suckling difficulties, such as may happen with cleft lip/palate, the baby can be fed with a Haberman Feeder.

Breast pain

Pain often interferes with successful breastfeeding. It is cited as the second most common cause for the abandonment of exclusive breastfeeding after perceived low milk supply.[13]


Engorgement is the sense of breast fullness experienced by most women within 36 hours of delivery. Normally, this is a painless sensation of "heaviness". Breastfeeding on demand is the primary way of preventing painful engorgement.

When the breast overfills with milk it becomes painful. Engorgement comes from not getting enough milk from the breast. It happens about 3 to 7 days after delivery and occurs more often in first time mothers. The increased blood supply, the accumulated milk and the swelling all contribute to the painful engorgement.[14] Engorgement may affect the areola, the periphery of the breast or the entire breast, and may interfere with breastfeeding both from the pain and also from the distortion of the normal shape of the areola/nipple. This makes it harder for the baby to latch on properly for feeding. Latching may occur over only part of the areola. This can irritate the nipple more, and may lead to ineffective drainage of breast milk and more pain. Engorgement may begin as a result of several factors such as nipple pain, improper feeding technique, infrequent feeding or infant-mother separation.

To prevent or treat engorgement, remove the milk from the breast, by breastfeeding, expressing or pumping. Gentle massage can help start the milk flow and so reduce the pressure. The reduced pressure softens the areola, perhaps even allowing the infant to feed. Warm water or warm compresses and expressing some milk before feeding can also help make breastfeeding more effective. Some researchers have suggested that after breastfeeding, mothers should pump and/or apply cold compresses to reduce swelling pain and vascularity even more. One published study suggested the use of "chilled cabbage leaves" applied to the breasts. Attempts to reproduce this technique met with mixed results.[15] Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or paracetamol (acetominophen) may relieve the pain.

Nipple pain

Sore nipples are probably the most common complaint after the birth. They are generally reported by the second day after delivery but improve within 5 days.[16] Pain beyond the first week, severe pain, cracking, fissures or localized swelling is not normal. The mother should see a doctor for further evaluation. Sore nipples, a common cause of pain, often come from the baby not latching on properly. Factors include too much pressure on the nipple when not enough of the areola is latched onto and an improper release of suction at the end of the feeding. Improper use of breast pumps or topical remedies can also contribute.[17] Nipple pain can also be a sign of infection.[18]


Symptoms of candidiasis of the breast include pain, itching, burning and redness, or a shiny or white patchy appearance. The baby could have a white tongue that does not wipe clean. Candidiasis is common and may be associated with infant thrush. Both mother and baby must be treated to get rid of this infection; first-line therapies include nystatin, ketaconacole or miconazole applied to the nipple and given by mouth to the baby. Strict cleaning of clothing and breast pumps is also required to eradicate the infection.[19]

Another effective treatment of candidia is the use of gentian violet. When the nursing mother has a Candidal infection of the nipple, she may experience severe nipple pain, as well as deep breast pain. Please note: Gentian violet 1% in water also contains alcohol. Apparently some pharmacists are now dissolving it in glycerin, thus avoiding the use of alcohol. It is believed that gentian violet is the best treatment of nipple soreness due to Candida albicans for the breastfeeding mother. This is because it usually works, and relief is rapid. It is messy, and will stain clothing (actually, it will usually wash out), but not skin. The baby's lips will turn purple, but the purple will disappear after a few days. Gentian violet is available without prescription but is not available at all pharmacies. Call around before going out to get it.

Milk stasis

Milk stasis is when a milk duct is blocked and cannot drain properly. This may affect only a part of the breast and is not associated with any infection. It can be treated by varying the baby's feeding position and applying heat before feeding. If it happens more than once, further evaluation is needed.


This is an inflammation of the breast, and presents with the symptoms of inflammation - local pain (dolor), redness (rubor), swelling (tumor), and warmth (calor). Later stages of mastitis also present with symptoms of systemic infection like fever and nausea. Most often it occurs 2–3 weeks after delivery but can occur at any time.[20] Typically results from milk stasis with primary or secondary local, later systemic infection. Infectious organisms include Staphylococcus sp., Streptococcus sp. and E. coli. Prompt treatment can prevent complications like abscess formation. Continued breastfeeding or pumping, plenty of rest and antibiotics are the treatments of choice. Severe cases may require intravenous antibiotics.[21]

When breastfeeding might harm the infant

Infants with classic galactosemia cannot digest lactose and therefore cannot benefit from breast milk.[22] Breastfeeding might harm the baby also if the mother has untreated pulmonary tuberculosis (see paragraph below); is taking certain medications that suppress the immune system;[22] uses potentially harmful substances such as cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines;[2] has had unusually excessive exposure to heavy metals such as mercury;[23] or has HIV.[24][22] However, research published in the Lancet[25][26] has highlighted a lower risk of HIV transmission with exclusive breastfeeding by HIV positive mothers (4 percent risk), compared to mixed feeding (10-40 percent risk). This research is of particular importance in developing countries where infant formula is not widely available or safe to prepare.

The vast majority of medicines are compatible with breastfeeding, but there are some that might be passed onto the child through the milk.[27]

Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol might be noticeably harmful to the baby, if consumed enough. (See Health, diet and substance abuse section.)

The baby's risk from something unsafe in breast milk depends on how much of that substance the baby gets. The level of risk depends on the concentration of the substance in the breast milk and how much milk the infant consumes. Finally, that risk is weighed against the risks of using a substitute for breast milk.


It is not safe for mothers with active, untreated tuberculosis to breastfeed until they are no longer contagious.[2] According to the American Academy of Pediatrics 2006 Redbook:

Women with tuberculosis who have been treated appropriately for 2 or more weeks and who are not considered contagious may breastfeed. Women with tuberculosis disease suspected of being contagious should refrain from breastfeeding or any other close contact with the infant because of potential transmission through respiratory tract droplets (see Tuberculosis, p 678). Mycobacterium tuberculosis rarely causes mastitis or a breast abscess, but if a breast abscess caused by M. tuberculosis is present, breastfeeding should be discontinued until the mother no longer is contagious.

In areas where BCG vaccination is the standard of care, the WHO provides treatment recommendations and advises mothers to continue breastfeeding.[28] TBC may be congenital, or perinatally acquired through airborne droplet spread.[29]

Health, diet and substance abuse

An exclusively breastfed baby depends on breast milk completely so it is important for the mother to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and especially a good diet.[30] Consumption of 1,500–1,800 calories per day could coincide with a weight loss of 0.45kg (one pound) per week.[31] While mothers in famine conditions can produce milk with highly nutritional content, a malnourished mother may produce milk with decreased levels of vitamins A, D, B6 and B12.[32] She may also have a lower supply than well-fed mothers.

There are no foods that are absolutely contraindicated during breastfeeding, but a baby may show sensitivity to particular foods that the mother eats.

Breastfeeding mothers must use caution if they smoke and therefore consume nicotine. Heavy use of cigarettes by the mother (more than 20 per day) has been shown to reduce the mother's milk supply and cause vomiting, diarrhoea, rapid heart rate, and restlessness in breastfed infants. Research is ongoing to find out if the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the potential harm of nicotine in breast milk. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is more common in babies exposed to a smoky environment.[33] Breastfeeding mothers who smoke are counseled not to do so during or immediately before feeding their child, and are encouraged to seek advice to help them reduce their nicotine intake or quit.[34]

Heavy alcohol consumption harms the infant, causing problems with the development of motor skills and decreasing the speed of weight gain. There is no consensus on how much alcohol may be consumed safely, but it is generally agreed that small amounts of alcohol may be occasionally consumed by a breastfeeding mother.[35] Considering the known dangers of alcohol exposure to the developing fetus, those mothers wishing to err on the side of caution should restrict or eliminate their alcoholic intake.[36]

If the mother consumes too much caffeine, it can cause irritability, sleeplessness, nervousness and increased feeding in the breastfed infant. Moderate use (one to two cups per day) usually produces no effect. Breastfeeding mothers are advised to restrict or avoid caffeine if her baby reacts negatively to it. Cigarette smoking is thought to increase the effects of caffeine in the baby.[37]

Cannabis is listed by the American Association of Pediatrics as a compound that transfers into human breast milk. Research demonstrated that certain compounds in marijuana have a very long half-life.[38]


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  38. American Association of Pediatrics on cannabis (see table 2); acquired 2006-08-19

Unnumbered references

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  • Astley S, Little R (2001). "Maternal marijuana use during lactation and infant development at one year". Neurotoxicol Teratol. 12 (2): 161–8. PMID 2333069.

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