What’s In That Cabbage?

Cabbage has been used in the treatment for breast engorgement since 1892 when The Glory of Women recommended the use of the “young cabbage leaf to treat the caked breast”.  Studies have shown that cabbage is just as effective as cold packs in reducing swelling with breast engorgement.

Although numerous theories abound, no one knows for certain how cabbage works.

Kathryn Roberts in 1995 compared the effects of chilled cabbage leaves versus chilled gelpaks on self-reported pain of engorgement and found that while both resulted in a statistically significant decrease in reported pain, most women preferred the application of cabbage leaves.  Subsequent research by Roberts concluded that room temperature cabbage leaves have the same effect.  Cabbage has also been used topically to treat sprains, burns, rashes, open sores, and to reduce swelling and bruising after surgery or accidents, arthritis, and hemorrhoids.  The perineal area after childbirth has also responded to cabbage treatment.

There are several conflicting theories on how to use cabbage.  Some theories say that cabbage should be crushed to break the veins, pounded to release the juices, or warmed to release the “secret ingredient” when used to reduce swelling.  Other theories state that cabbage does its job whether or not it is crushed, warmed, chilled, or used at room temperature.  Even with all of the theories on how to use cabbage, no one has been able to figure out how or why cabbage works.  We just know it works for many women.

In their natural state, cabbage leaves are the same shape of the breast, cool to the touch, convenient, inexpensive, user-friendly, and disposable.  The leaves can be easily worn inside the bra, won’t drip, and mom won’t be tied down holding on to cold packs.  On the down side, they can stain the bra and emit an odor of cooked cabbage leaves.

There are no documented cases of cabbage completely drying up a mother’s milk supply in an actively nursing mom.  However, cabbage has been successfully used to dry up the milk supply in a non-nursing mom.  Because of the potential for cabbage to affect milk supply, a mother should be told to discontinue the use of cabbage when the affected area begins to soften, the breasts begin to feel different or “tingly,” or milk begins to flow from the nipples.

When a mom is suffering engorgement, both cabbage and cold packs are options to reduce swelling and ease pain between feedings.  A bag of frozen vegetables such as green peas makes a handy cold pack.

Following are guidelines for the use of cabbage for engorgement:

  • Wash the leaves to remove pesticides.
  • Remove the large center vein and cut a hole for the nipple.
  • Wear leaves inside the bra until wilted and replace with fresh leaves if needed.
  • Discontinue use of cabbage when breasts begin to soften, feel “tingly,” or milk begins to drip from her nipples.

Cabbage leaves may also be used as part of the treatment for plugged ducts and breast infections.  The cabbage leaf can be cut to cover only the affected area, thereby reducing the mother’s risk of compromising her milk supply.  The cabbage piece can also be warmed, which may be more soothing when treating a plugged duct or breast infection.

Cabbage leaves can be an effective and affordable way to manage the swelling and pain associated with engorgement, plugged ducts, and breast infections.  Because there is no scientific evidence to confirm that cabbage leaves reduce swelling, they should only be used in addition to the scientifically proven treatment for engorgement, plugged ducts, and breast infections.  This includes frequent nursings, moist heat and massage before and during feeds, and correcting or improving positioning and latch-on.

If an infection is suspected, please consult your doctor or health care provider.  Signs of infection include having a temperature at or above 101 degrees, general body aches, tiredness, nausea, vomiting, pus or blood in the milk, or red streaks from the infected area back into the breast.