Peppermint might help prevent early breastfeeding nipple problems

peppermintThere are many substances said to prevent or relieve nipple pain and damage during the early days of breastfeeding, including lanolin, expressed breast milk and water compresses. Unfortunately, none as yet have been found to offer any real improvement over leaving nipples untreated1. Given the prevalence of the problem, however, the search for a preparation that can make early breastfeeding more comfortable continues.

Recent research reported in the International Breastfeeding Journal and Medical Science Monitor finally seems to offer a ray of hope. It suggests that peppermint, in the form of a gel or ointment, could play a role in preventing nipple soreness and injury from appearing in the first place. A team at the Alzahra Teaching Hospital in Iran conducted two studies examining whether peppermint could prevent nipple problems caused by breastfeeding, after noticing its use by women in the Azarbaijan Province, North West of Iran. As peppermint has antibacterial properties and can increase tissue flexibility2 it does have the potential to prevent this kind of injury occurring, but it has not before been properly evaluated in a clinical setting.

In the first study, 196 women were randomly allocated to either the experimental group, where they were asked to apply peppermint water after each feed, or the control group, where they applied expressed breast milk3. Mothers who applied the peppermint water reported significantly less pain on breastfeeding, and had significantly fewer nipple cracks (9% in the peppermint group and 28% in the milk group) than the other mothers. Cracks that occurred in the peppermint group were also less severe than those in the milk group.

The second study evaluated the effectiveness of a peppermint gel in a double blind study4. 216 women were randomly allocated to one of three groups: the first used peppermint gel after each feed; the second used lanolin; and the third used a placebo gel. The peppermint gel was shown to be more effective than both lanolin and the placebo gel at preventing nipple cracks. Women in this group were also more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding at 6 weeks, possibly because they had suffered less discomfort.

Both these studies were large and well designed, and as such offer reasonable evidence that peppermint may indeed help to prevent the nipple pain and trauma that can occur when women start to breastfeed. These results alone, however, do not constitute conclusive proof that peppermint is a panacea for nipple problems. The main issue is that both experiments were carried out by the same research group, in a part of the world where peppermint is regularly used as a nipple treatment. In the first study women knew they were applying peppermint water, and this may have affected their perceived levels of pain. These mothers were also found to nurse their babies more frequently and for longer periods than those using milk. The authors suggest this may be due to the lower pain levels in this group, but the possibility that the more frequent feeding somehow reduced pain and trauma cannot be ruled out.

In the second study, both the mothers themselves and the researchers classifying the severity of nipple cracks were unaware which type of gel they were applying, reducing the chance that the results were due to a placebo effect. In this experiment, however, there was no true baseline (where nipples were left untreated) against which to compare the peppermint gel. It was better at preventing cracks than the placebo gel (which was the same preparation, just without the peppermint), but we can’t be sure that the gel didn’t make it worse, and the peppermint simply helped to ease the problems caused by the gel.

Despite these shortcomings, this research does provide a strong indication that peppermint may have the potential to protect mothers against nipple soreness and injury. Peppermint has medicinal qualities that suggest it might be helpful in this context, and it is likely to be a reasonably safe and practical treatment, as it is not harmful to babies when consumed in small quantities. Whether future research can replicate these results is yet unknown, but if it can, then an effective preventative measure for nipple problems may finally be on the horizon.

  1. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2005 Jul-Aug;34(4):428-37.
  2. Fitoterapia. 2006 Jun;77(4):279-85.
  3. Int Breastfeed J. 2007 Apr 19;2:7
  4. Med Sci Monit. 2007 Sep;13(9):CR406-411

Nipple solutions 1: doing nothing

creamMy nipple fissures weren’t showing any signs of improving, so after a day of deliberation, I phoned the National Childbirth Trust. I was starting to realise that the fact that there were helplines (and whole charities, in the case of La Leche League) dedicated to solving breastfeeding problems should probably have served as a warning that it might not be that easy. The counsellor who answered the phone was helpful, if a little abrupt. She asked me which direction my nipples pointed (!) and when I said it was slightly outwards, rather than directly forwards, she said that they were probably getting bent backwards in C’s mouth when I was holding her in the cradle feeding position. She suggested using a different position to feed her (such as the rugby/football hold, where C’s mouth would approach the nipple from the opposite direction) while I waited for them to heal. This seemed sensible advice, and after a few goes, C and I managed to perfect some new feeding positions. Although I can’t say it was definitely less painful, the knowledge that C’s mouth probably wasn’t putting pressure on my nipples in the same way seemed to help at least psychologically.

The NCT counsellor, like every midwife I spoke to, also recommended I use Lansinoh cream – ‘absolutely loads of it, as a barrier’ – to protect my nipples. I had been religiously applying it since the bleeding had started, and following advice, continued to do so as the state of my nipples got worse. After a few more days, I stopped to think about this: the state of my nipples was getting worse…

Up to now, still in a post-birth haze, I’d been relying on the NHS resources, reading the leaflets and speaking to midwives and health visitors. They’d been very understanding and sympathetic, but things weren’t really improving, and I was getting desperate. I decided to start Googling in earnest, searching for things like ‘nipple fissures’, and going beyond the first page – sometimes even as far as the fifth! What I ended up with was quite a lot of hits for ‘anal fissures’ (not terribly useful), but in amongst these and the general parenting advice sites, was a scientific paper looking at treatments for cracked nipples1.

The study compared using lanolin cream (like Lansinoh) with using breast milk, and leaving nipples untreated. A short summary of the results goes as follows: the women who used breast milk on their nipples, or who did nothing at all, recovered significantly faster than the ones using lanolin (for a longer discussion see the is lanolin cream a waste of money? post).

Armed with this knowledge, I dumped the Lansinoh, and within only a few hours, things seemed to improve. I can’t be sure whether this was as a direct consequence of not applying the cream, but it seemed to be working, and I decided to stick with it.

  1. Saudi Med J. 2005 Aug; 26(8):1231-4

Is lanolin cream a waste of money?

ointments_photoGiven the high incidence of nipple pain (it seems most women experience it when they start breastfeeding1), it would be reassuring to know that something can be done to relieve it. At the breastfeeding antenatal class the midwife told us that there is no evidence for the effectiveness of most nipple creams, although there have been studies showing that Lansinoh (commercially available purified lanolin) helps, and this is the one to go for if you have a problem. This view was echoed by two other midwives (one of whom gave me some sachets) and an NCT breastfeeding counsellor. You can read about my experience of using this preparation in the nipple solutions 1 journal post, but suffice to say that it didn’t work for me.

So, what is the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of lanolin? Probably the first thing to mention is that most of the big brand off-the-shelf nipple creams are simply moisturizers, and as the midwife said, there aren’t any published clinical trials supporting their effectiveness. On top of this, most of them aren’t even safe to go in babies’ mouths, so have you have to clean them off first – not ideal. This isn’t the case for Lansinoh – as it is simply purified lanolin, it isn’t a problem if babies swallow it (although this in itself doesn’t mean it’s worth using, of course).

An article looking at various topical treatments for nipple pain reviews several studies testing the effectiveness of lanolin1. When compared with hydrogel dressings (designed to maintain a moist wound healing environment), lanolin does well. In one study, women treated with lanolin reported significantly less nipple pain and were less likely to suffer from infection than those using the dressings. In another, there was no difference in pain relief, but there were still fewer infections in the lanolin group. Evidence that lanolin is a useful treatment? Not necessarily. As neither of these studies had a control group where no treatment was given, all we can tell is that hydrogel dressings are a bad idea. A study looking at the effect of heat treatment (sunshine or heat lamps) suffers from a similar problem. Using lanolin with the heat treatment offered greater pain relief than using the heat treatment alone, but unfortunately there is no way of telling whether this is better than not using any treatment at all.

In fact, the three studies in the review that compared lanolin with a ‘no treatment’ baseline showed it to be no more effective than leaving the nipples alone. There is also evidence that lanolin offers no improvement over rubbing on expressed milk (which is also reported as being pretty useless at reducing pain). The article also reports some preliminary research indicating that glycerin gel is a better treatment for sore nipples than lanolin (although a later study has found no difference between the two2.

Two further studies also deserve a mention. One provides evidence that peppermint gel is better at preventing nipple cracks and pain than lanolin or a placebo gel3. Another shows that in certain circumstances applying lanolin not only offers no improvement, but might actually make things worse4. The study compared using lanolin cream or breast milk with not using a treatment. The results showed that the appearance of nipple wounds (cracks and fissures) was the same in each group. However, the women who applied breast milk or used no topical treatment recovered significantly faster than those using lanolin.

So, it seems you may be better off ignoring the health professionals’ advice to use a lanolin cream. If you want to keep your nipples trauma-free you may want to think about using peppermint gel, or alternatively go for the inexpensive option of not bothering to treat them at all.

  1. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2005 Jul-Aug;34(4):428-37.
  2. J Perinat Educ. 2004 Winter;13(1):29-35.
  3. Med Sci Monit. 2007 Sep;13(9):CR406-411
  4. Saudi Med J. 2005 Aug; 26(8):1231-4.