Motherhood and Mastitis: Ouch!

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Welcome to parenthood! 

You and your sweet new bundle of joy have made it through labor and birth, and are now getting well acquainted with each other, and the quirks that come with having a new baby.

How you choose to feed your baby is totally up to you! For those who choose to breastfeed, pump, or some combination of feeding styles, you may have found that lactation isn’t as straightforward as it seemed. 

There’s an endless list of things that can complicate lactation – milk supply, all-nighters, tongue ties, chaffed nipples, teething tots – the list goes on.

One of the more difficult complications to deal with is mastitis. 

What is Mastitis?

Simply put, mastitis is the inflammation of the breast in a person who is lactating. Ouch!

Most commonly occurring in the first six weeks postpartum, mastitis can be due to a few different causes, and may or may not be accompanied by an infection. 

It’s important to mention that anyone who is lactating can have mastitis. Gestational parents who don’t identify as mothers can lactate, and parents who have endured pregnancy loss can also come down with mastitis.

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While a clogged milk duct doesn’t always lead to mastitis, it is the most common cause of it. 

Milk flows through a beautifully, complex network of ducts in the breasts. When these ducts become blocked, it can hinder the flow of milk, and lead to engorgement and tenderness near where the clog is. 

When left untreated, this can lead to an infection. 

Milk Blisters

A clogged duct may also be accompanied by a bleb. This is a small, usually painful milk blister on the nipple or areola. 

Oftentimes, these resolve without treatment. If you have a painful bleb, you can use a wet or dry heat compress, followed by nursing. It’s also helpful to soak your nipples in warm water and try to hand express out the blockage by squeezing behind it. Once the blister opens, help prevent infection by keeping it clean, and washing it with mild, unscented soap once or twice a day. 

Boobs and Bacteria

Another cause of mastitis is when bacteria makes its way into your bloodstream via a cracked nipple. This bacteria can come from your baby’s mouth, or your skin’s surface.

If this inflammation or clogged duct doesn’t clear, it can lead to an infection. Along with a painful and swollen breast(s), you may also experience flu-like symptoms like a low-grade fever, achiness, and fatigue.

Common Symptoms of Mastitis:

  • Breast tenderness.
  • Redness on breasts.
  • Hard spot or sore lump in breast.
  • Burning nipple pain.
  • Nipple discharge.

You should consult your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms: 

  • You have a fever over 101 degrees F (38.4 degrees C).
  • There is pus or blood in your milk.
  • You have excessive chills or worsening symptoms.
  • If your breast(s) become hot and swollen, or you have red streaks on them from your nipple towards your armpit.

Treating a Plugged Duct and/or Mastitis

It is absolutely ok for your baby to nurse from the infected side, in fact, it can help clear up your clogged ducts, and prevent further infection. It may even help boost your baby’s immune system, by passing on valuable antibodies that you produced while fighting off the infection. 

Here are some other helpful treatment options:

  • Apply a wet or dry heat compress to the affected breast.
  • An old folk remedy that people swear by is putting chilled cabbage leaves on the affected breast, which may work similarly to a heat compress.
  • Nurse and/or pump frequently on the side of clogged duct.
  • Try to rest, especially if you think an infection is developing.
  • Gently massage the lump, or right behind it, especially while feeding.
  • Try going braless, or wearing a bra without underwear, as well as loose-fitting clothing.
  • Soak breasts in warm water (you can lean over a basin) and massage them, try to nurse after doing this.
  • Use a device with low vibrations over the engorged area, like the end of a toothbrush, a vibrator on a low setting, or a specific device developed for encouraging milk flow.
  • If your baby is feeding less or changing schedules, try hand expressing a little to prevent clogging.
  • If it’s painful, you can take Ibuprofen or Paracetamol, but avoid aspirin.
  • If you are prescribed antibiotics, be sure to finish them.

Preventing Mastitis 

Help prevent mastitis and clogged ducts by maintaining a regular nursing and/or pumping schedule, switching up positions when nursing, massaging your breasts while nursing to help with milk flow, and following any treatment regimens given to you by your provider.

You may also consider seeing a lactation consultant, who can help you in finding the best latch and positioning for you and your baby, and other life-changing tips around nursing.

Ultimately, how you choose to feed your baby is up to you. If you have recurring mastitis, clogged ducts, discomfort, or breastfeeding just isn’t working for you anymore – it’s ok to stop. The best thing you can do for the wellbeing of you and your baby is to make an informed choice about what works best for both of you.

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