Breastfeeding is one of the most emotionally fulfilling experiences for any mother. It is a time of bonding between mother and baby, and is equally important for the baby’s growth, development and health. However, breastfeeding is not always without some degree of discomfort and symptoms that arise at various parts of the body. Shoulder pain is one such symptom during breastfeeding.
The most natural position to breastfeed is to hold the baby up against the breast where the infant’s mouth can reach the nipple. It does however, cause significant strain on the muscles of the arm and upper body. Although babies are light in weight, the constant carrying during feeding can strain the muscles of the shoulder and neck in particular. Shoulder pain may therefore occur. Sometimes problems with the breast such as engorgement and mastitis may also cause referred pain to the shoulder.
Despite the best efforts of the mother, shoulder pain is a common consequence of muscle strain during breastfeeding. Shoulder pain in these instances may also occur when the mother feeds the infant in the sleeping position. Although it is not recommended to breastfeed while lying down, midnight feeds can be taxing on the mother and inadvertently lead to feeding on the bed. However, lying on one side in a position that will allow the infant to feed can also strain the muscles of the shoulder and neck.
Shoulder pain is a symptom on its own. When it occurs in breastfeeding, mothers may experience difficulty in moving the arm at the shoulder joint. Raising the arm above the head or rotating it at the shoulder joint tends to exacerbate the pain as does holding the infant to the breast. Neck pain often occurs simultaneously and many mothers experience significant stiffness of both the shoulder and neck.
Usually there are no other symptoms unless the shoulder pain is related to breast problems. Symptoms such as shoulder pain during breastfeeding should not detract mothers from breastfeeding. Extensive research has shown that opting to breastfeed can make a difference in the baby’s immune defences, with allergies and proper growth and development.
Shoulder pain during breastfeeding is often seen as part of lactation and most mothers live with the pain and stiffness. As drugs may pass through the breast milk into the baby’s body, most mothers prefer to avoid painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs that could ease the pain and stiffness. However, a few simple measures can help in managing shoulder pain during breastfeeding without opting for drugs.
Learning the proper technique to hold the baby during feeds while reducing the strain on the muscles of the upper body is important in preventing shoulder pain. Mothers should seek the advice of a medical doctor or paediatric nurse on the appropriate technique. Stretching exercises for the shoulder and neck muscles should be carried out several times a day to minimise the muscle strain.
Other simple measures that can be equally effective are a gentle massage and heat therapy. While breastfeeding mothers are advised to seek physical therapy for their shoulder pain, heat therapy can be conducted at home. A hot water bottle or heat pad applied to the shoulder and neck area can help to reduce muscle pain and is equally effective in preventing pain.