It’s perfectly normal for your breasts to be especially large and tender right after your birth. Much like during your menstrual cycle, the amount of hormones coursing through your body will be drastically increased and your breasts will be directly affected. However, there is another fairly common condition you might be experiencing if your breasts feel hard, swollen, and uncomfortable. In this case, you’re likely engorged.

Engorgement occurs for a number of reasons. One common reason is simply that you aren’t expelling enough milk for the rate at which it’s being produced in your breasts. This is common for women who aren’t breastfeeding. If you aren’t breastfeeding but you become engorged, you’ll be tempted to empty out your breast and relieve the pressure. However, doing so will only fool your body into producing more milk, and the problem will come back right away. Instead, wait it out and the swelling will go down eventually. If you’re breastfeeding and engorged, there is probably another problem.

The condition might also come on in women with obstructed milk ducts. Women with breast implants or other types of augmentation most commonly have obstructed ducts. Milk ducts might also be blocked if you often wear a bra that is too tight and restricting.

Women who have chosen to breastfeed their babies should try to avoid engorgement by breastfeeding their babies immediately after birth. That way, milk won’t have time build up inside the breast. You should also nurse your baby often and make sure he or she has fully completed nursing each breast before switching to the other. If you aren’t breastfeeding, you should contact your doctor to make sure you’re not at risk for any type of infection. He or she might also be recommend pain relief techniques until the pain of engorgement subsides.

For the most part, engorgement is harmless but painful. However, you should make sure you monitor your baby’s feeding habits to ensure that he or she is getting all of the food necessary for proper nutrition. Engorgement will harden the breast and areola, which could make it more difficult for your baby to get the milk. Contact your doctor immediately if your baby is having trouble breastfeeding, because proper nourishment is essential to development and good health. As long as your baby is feeding, you’ll simply have to deal with the pain, which should subside in a day or two.

Source: Lindeka Mangesi et al: Treatments for Breast Engorgement During Lactation. The Cochrane Library September 2010