Using Cabbage Cups to Relieve Breast Engorgement Review – Does it Work?

4 out of 5 leaves

4 out of 5 leaves

Breast engorgement is very common for a mama in the first days after a baby is born.  It occurs when the milk comes in (or technically transitions from colostrum to mature milk).  When milk first comes in, your body is not sure how much milk your baby needs so it makes enough for triplets, just in case.  This causes your breasts to swell to a previously unimaginable size.  There’s typically a large amount a large amount of pain and tenderness as well.  Cabbage cups are commonly recommended to help relieve the symptoms of engorgement.  But do cabbage cups really relieve the pain and swelling of engorgement?

The Good

  • Better for you – anything that can naturally and safely relive pain sounds pretty good to me
  • Better for the Earth – all natural cabbage, from the Earth, and easily composted back when you’re done (and the leftovers can be made into yummy soup or slaw!)
  • Saves money – a head of cabbage is cheap, and readily available at any American supermarket
  • It works – pain is significantly relieved

The Bad

  • You need to wear some kind of bra to keep the cabbage in place if you plan on moving around, vs lying in bed and moaning all day
  • You will smell like cabbage

My Experience

A Cabbage Bra!

At the end of February, we welcomed our third bundle of joy!  What a blessing!  I immediately started breastfeeding as I did with my other two babies.  And, just as with the other two, my milk was coming in by the beginning of the second day.  By the third day, my breasts were FULL and continuing to fill.  Hello pain and pressure!!

Holy volleyballs!  I had a serious problem.  My ladies were doing their job: magically transforming blood into nutritious, sweet milk for my hungry babe.  But they were heavy, and swollen, and super tender and hurt so, so much!  (As I was quick to testily remind any child who climbed on me or husband who looked too interested).

I’d always heard that placing cold cabbage leaves on your breasts was supposed to help during this time.  Everyone says so, and I’ve probably repeated the advice myself.  But I’d never actually tried it, nor had anyone else I know.  So I sent my husband off to find a head of cabbage.

The instructions for using cabbage leaves are pretty simple:

  • Keep them cold – storing the head of cabbage in the fridge will do it
  • Remove individual leaves from head of cabbage – try to keep them in one peice as much as possible
  • Crush veins with rolling pin – I found this step unnecessary as the veins broke when removing the leaves
  • Apply leaves to breasts – one leaf was just the right size for me, but your mileage may vary
  • Replace when leaves wilt

The tricky thing here is keeping the leaves applied to your breasts when you don’t actually want anything touching them.  I recommend a loose fitting tank top with a self bra which will have just enough support to keep the cabbage leaves in place.  A slightly snug t-shirt might do the trick too (at this point ALL your t-shirts are probably snug in the chest!).

As the leaves warm to your body, you may notice the faint smell of coleslaw permeating the room.  Don’t be alarmed, but that smell is YOU!  It takes a little getting used to, but in my opinion, there are much worse things you could smell like!  Once the leaves warm enough, they will start to wilt and you can replace them.  Some articles warm not to use them too much for fear of them making your milk dry up.  However, there is no indication that this has ever happened in the scientific literature.

Updated to add: Several commenters have noted that the cabbage DID work in drying up their milk.  In all these cases they were deliberately weaning, and breasts were engorged because they were no longer nursing as often as usual.  They also used cabbage compresses for a long, long time.  The point of the article referenced above, and additional scientific studies referenced in the comments on this post is that cabbage alone for pain relief (while still feeding on a regular schedule) does not impact milk supply.  All studies showed it offered significant pain relief and was preferred by mothers to ice packs.

So did they work for me?  I’m happy to report that the cabbage leaves were very effective in relieving the pain I had been feeling.  The cabbage did not seem to have an impact on swelling or milk production.  My breasts were still as large and hard as volleyballs for the next day or two, but at least they didn’t hurt anymore! That was the most important part to me.  Overall, I definitely recommend using cabbage leaves to relieve the pain from breast engorgement!  You will still need an extra large shirt, but your girls won’t be hurting anymore.

Have you ever tried cabbage leaves for breast engorgement?  Do you know of any other natural remedies that might work?

Victoria

PS – You know I’m not a doctor, right?  This information is based on my experience only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition.  Your experience may vary.  Please remember to speak with your healthcare professional about any medical concerns you have, and follow their recommended course of treatment. You can read additional fine print details here.

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15 Responses to Using Cabbage Cups to Relieve Breast Engorgement Review – Does it Work?

  1. kathie says:

    Hi Victoria,

    I came across your blog today and do like it :) . On cabbage leaves.. I have a story (and they did help dry up the girls). Last November, 3 short weeks after the birth of my third child, I was nursing and noticed I had a bump. That bump grew and grew and finally broke through the skin. The breast surgeon said it was an infection under the skin (not mastitis). Anyways, since I was recovering from surgery, I had to dry the breasts up so the incision could heal. Voila, cabbage leaves 24/7 for about a month. Did the trick. My surgeon was so impressed, she decided to use them when she weaned her own baby. :) Have a lovely day!

  2. Julia says:

    Yes, I have tried cabbage leaves, and they were quite helpful. I’m hoping to use them again in the months ahead when we make progress with weaning.

  3. Janna says:

    I used cabbage leaves when weaning my daughter. I can confirm with a big YES, cabbage works in drying you up. In fact, it worked a little too well. It was the first time I had to buy an A cup bra since I first started maturing. Funny – but not so funny at the same time.

  4. A Nanny Moose says:

    You may want to update the info in this article lest any new mother (especially those new to nursing!) who are desperate for engorgement relief sabotage their breastfeeding future by following your advice. Leaving cabbage leaves on for extended periods of time CAN (as the above commenters and hundreds of other women can attest to) dry you up! Demand equals supply and the first 3 months (the first 6 weeks especially) are critical for establishing a good milk supply for baby. Forcing your body to make less milk early on can wreck havoc months later since supply tapers off after 3 months. Unless someone has a huge over supply (I produced an excess 12 oz a day with my first), lessening their milk supply is going to be more damaging than beneficial, especially when that new mom has to turn to alternative food sources for baby since they no longer produce enough milk due to having intentionally (albeit unknowingly) caused their supply to be in adequate by using cabbage leaves to relieve engorgement. If someone as painful engorgement, the FIRST thing they should do is seek out a lactation consultant. Secondly, pumping (or nursing) to relieve engorgement will ensure you don’t tank your supply (and you can build up “just-in-case”, “returning-to-work”, or “donate-to-a-hungry-baby” stash in your freezer). Cabbage leaves should only be used in moderation or by those trying to wean or dry off. Please check your facts better than consulting 1 outdated, non-sourced article from the internet before giving potentially destructive advice to desperate, hurting, new moms.
    http://kellymom.com/bf/concerns/mother/engorgement/#cabbage

    • Victoria says:

      Kellymom does indeed say that cabbage can reduce milk supply, but they offer no scientific evidence to support.
      This study showed that the application of cabbage leaves to the breast can reduce the discomfort of breast engorgement during weaning, but controlled studies indicated that it is not effective for actually decreasing milk supply. This study actually showed that the chemicals in cabbagee increased blood flow, which would ultimately have a postitive effect on milk production. (Nikodem, V.C., Danziger, D., Gebka, N., et al. Do cabbage leaves prevent engorgement? A randomized controlled study. Birth 1993; 20:61-64.)
      Other studies show reported groups using cabbage leaves experienced a slight reduction in perception of engorgement and exclusively breastfed longer (Roberts 1995b). A study comparing the use of chilled cabbage leaves to chilled gel packs found that pain was relieved within 1-2 hours with both treatments, but mothers preferred the cabbage treatment (Roberts et al. 1995a).
      (Roberts, K.L. A comparison of chilled cabbage leaves and chilled gel paks in reducing breast engorgement J Hum Lact 1995a; 11:17-20. and Roberts, K.L., Reirter, M, Schuster, D. A comparison of chilled and room temperature cabbage leaves in treating breast engorgement. J Hum Lact 1995b; 11:191-94).

      So – it seems the actual data indeed shows pain relief with cabbage, but no actual negative impact to milk production. If I’ve missed a study that shows otherwise, please share and I’ll be happy to update the info.

      • A Nanny Moose says:

        Le Leche Leauge itself says this, “A popular home remedy for relieving the discomfort of engorgement is cabbage leaf compresses. Rinse the inner leaves of a head of cabbage, remove the hard vein, and crush with a rolling pin (or similar). They can be used refrigerated or at room temperature. Drape leaves directly over breasts, inside the bra. Change when the leaves become wilted, or every two hours. Discontinue use if rash or other signs of allergy occur. There have been anecdotal reports that overuse of cabbage compresses can reduce milk production, therefore some experts suggest mothers discontinue the compresses when the swelling goes down.” Yes, cabbage leaves are fantastic for temporary pain relief, but all data I’ve found (including the 4 sources/studies KellyMom sites) indicate that continued use of cabbage leaves can/will cause a drop in milk production. Most is anectodotal (including your previous commenters) or a by product of studies focusing solely on pain relief from cabbage leaves, not specifically looking at whether they cause a drop in supply (such as the study you mentioned). I don’t think it’s unreasonable for you to include in your post that although you personally did not experience a drop in supply when using cabbage leaves, it is not recommended (even by the LLL, as seen above) to continue use after engorgement is gone and that others have experienced a drop in supply with extended use. If it were me, I would feel horrible if someone followed my advice and sabotaged their breastfeeding because I didn’t mention that some gals do experience a drop in supply when using cabbage leaves.

  5. Lori says:

    Cabbage leaves do work! I can attest to that! Such a relief from painfully engorged breasts!

  6. Amy says:

    I’m a midwifery fan, though I’m not a mom myself yet, I’ve read a lot on the topic of natural birth and breast feeding because I think I may want to become a midwife at some point. Anyway, I had painful swollen breasts unrelated to nursing a few months back and tried cabbage leaves for it – and it worked! So I’d suggest them for more than just engorgement issues, but also periodic breast pain/swelling related to our natural cycles as well.

  7. Jelli says:

    The cabbage leaves worked for me when I was engorged with my first child. I only needed to use them once or twice, but it took away the pain and reduced swelling just as I’d read it would do. I placed the leaves in my bra and went about the day until they were wilted.

  8. The Monko says:

    I used cabbage leaves when my breasts were sore during breast feeding and they really took away a lot of the pain – they are also more gentle on raw nipples than plastic coated ice packs. It was slightly worrying that my boobs essentially cooked the leaves because they were so hot.

  9. Hannah says:

    I have always rdout these. Glad to hear they work at relieving the pain! Thanks for sharing with us at Eco-Kids Tuesday!! Hope to see you again today!

  10. Melissa Ryan says:

    I have heard that they can help and that cabbage leaves can be used to dry up your milk when weaning. I have never personally used them as my son self weaned at 20.5 months when my milk supply had dwindled to nothing so I had not engorgement then. My friend was told though that if she was using them to hep with engorgement in the beginning to not use them for more than 30 minutes at a time to help avoid drying her milk up.

    Thanks for linking up at the Tuesday baby link up. Hope to see you again this week.

  11. Some genuinely nice and utilitarian info on this site, too I believe the layout has got great features.

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