For every person who tells you that breastfeeding is a convenient, affordable, and beautiful way of feeding your baby, there’s someone who has breastfeeding troubles to tell: cracked and bleeding nipples, painful bouts of mastitis, and engorged breasts so hard and swollen it feels like you strapped two boulders into the cups of your nursing bra. Ouch!
Thankfully, many of these breastfeeding woes can be remedied at home, at least as a first line of defense. (You may have to head to your doctor’s office at some point, but we’ll get to that.)
One of the most popular at-home treatments for breastfeeding issues is cabbage leaves. Midwives and lactation consultants have been recommending this remedy for decades.
While it sounds weird, it seems to have some basis in science: Because of certain plant compounds found in cabbage, the leaves may have an anti-inflammatory effect on breast tissue when applied directly to your skin.
Here’s a guide to all the ways you can use cabbage leaves to troubleshoot your breastfeeding issues, including mastitis, engorgement, and weaning.
Hands down, one of the most painful breastfeeding complications is mastitis, inflammation and infection of the breast tissue. Mastitis is often caused by bacteria entering through cracked nipples, but may also be caused by going too long between feedings or not emptying your breasts completely at feedings.
Mastitis causes a bunch of unpleasant flu-like symptoms as well as redness and painful swelling of the breast. Because mastitis is a bacterial infection, it usually requires antibiotic treatment — but cabbage leaves can be used to ease some of the pain and swelling at home, either while you wait to see your doctor or while you wait for the antibiotics to kick in.
A 2015 study suggests that applying chilled cabbage leaves to swollen breasts provides a similar amount of pain relief as a hot compress.
Here’s exactly how to use cabbage leaves for relief from symptoms of mastitis:
- Clean, dry, and chill several cabbage leaves for each breast that you want to treat. (You don’t have to treat both breasts at the same time, or at all, if one is more or less affected than the other.)
- You may want to remove or soften the hard vein of each leaf, or cut the leaves into large pieces, for comfort and flexibility.
- Place the cabbage leaves on your breasts, covering the entire surface area of your breasts. You should keep your nipples bare, especially if they’re sore, cracked, or bleeding. (Use a lanolin cream if your nipples need some extra TLC.)
- Hold the cabbage leaves on your breasts or slide a loose-fitting bra over them to keep them from moving around.
- Once the cabbage leaves begin to feel warm or it’s been 20 minutes, remove them.
- Discard the cabbage leaves. Wash your breasts gently if you want. Don’t reuse the same leaves if you repeat the treatment again later.
If you aren’t weaning, you can use this treatment for 20 minutes three times per day, but not more often — overuse of cabbage leaves can lead to a decrease in milk supply (more on that later!).
Remember, cabbage leaves may relieve symptoms but won’t cure your infection. If you think you have mastitis and are experiencing fever, chills, or body aches, call your doctor ASAP.
Breast engorgement is so uncomfortable that it can be difficult to even think straight. While engorgement usually goes away on its own after a day or two, no one would blame you for needing some relief in the meantime.
When using cabbage leaves to soothe the swelling and discomfort of engorgement, you want to keep one important thing in mind: As soon as you begin to feel relief, you should stop applying cabbage leaves. Since this is a remedy that can also help dry up your milk supply (aka weaning, which we’ll get to next), you could accidentally decrease your supply if you keep using them after they’ve worked to reduce your swelling.
To use cabbage leaves for engorgement, follow the same steps provided above for treatment of mastitis.
After you’ve discarded your cabbage leaves, inspect your breasts for how they feel. Has the swelling or pain reduced at all? If so, don’t repeat the process — remember that continuing to use cabbage leaves after the engorgement has resolved may cause a decrease in milk supply.
If you’re still uncomfortable, the treatment can be used two or three times a day while engorgement persists.
Obviously this treatment may or may not work for you; everyone is different. Many people notice improvement of engorgement within a few hours after starting to use cabbage leaves.
There are many different reasons for weaning your baby; ideally, the process would be done gradually, but sometimes that’s not possible. You may want to try using cabbage leaves to speed it up or make yourself more comfortable while you wait for your supply to decrease.
The process for using cabbage leaves for weaning is the same as it is for mastitis and engorgement, but you don’t need to worry as much about timing and frequency. You can leave cabbage leaves on your breasts until the leaves begin to wilt (rather than for 20 minutes max) and you can repeat the treatment as many times per day as you want.
There’s no limit to using cabbage leaves if the goal is to dry up your milk supply. It may still take several days for your milk to dry up with this method. You can also try adding other at-home remedies, like herbal preparations or medications, in conjunction with cabbage leaves to aid with weaning.
Cabbage gets a bad rap as a breastfeeding-unfriendly food. Because it’s a cruciferous vegetable — which means it can make you gassy — some healthcare providers advise breastfeeding women to avoid eating it so it doesn’t make your baby gassy, too (and hey, nobody wants a gassy baby).
But there’s no evidence that when mothers eat gassy foods, those gassy effects are passed down to the baby. In fact, a
There’s no specific reason to eat cabbage while breastfeeding — it doesn’t help you in any unique way, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, either. Despite the fact that it looks kind of unimpressive, cabbage is actually loaded with nutrients that breastfeeding moms need to stay healthy, like vitamins K and C and folate.
If you’ve dismissed the whole “stick cabbage leaves on your breasts to help with breastfeeding” thing as an urban legend, think again: Women have been doing it forever for a reason!
Using cabbage leaves can reduce the pain and inflammation associated with mastitis and engorgement, and may help the weaning process go more quickly.
That said, if cabbage leaves don’t relieve any of your breastfeeding troubles, talk to your doctor — especially if you have signs of mastitis that don’t go away with at-home treatment, like fever, pain, chills, or body aches.
Cabbage leaves may help with inflammation, but if you have an infection, you’ll need to get proper medical care.