Breastfeeding is often described as being one of the most beautiful bonding experiences between a mother and her baby. Whilst this is true, it can be a bumpy ride for some mums, especially those who develop symptoms of mastitis.
What is mastitis?
Mastitis is a medical term used to describe an inflammation of your breasts. If left untreated this can lead to infection. Cases can be mild or more serious but don’t worry it is very treatable.
How do I know if I have mastitis?
The first symptom probably sounds a bit obvious – your boobs will be sore. Sometimes this can be easier to miss than you think. Many women experience breast pain while breastfeeding and can discount this as normal.
Likewise, if you’re in the very early days of feeding, breast engorgement also causes sore, swollen breasts. The difference with mastitis, however, is that it usually only affects one breast at a time.
There are also a few other things to look out for. These include:
- A feeling of your breast being warm or hot to the touch
- A burning sensation while feeding your baby
- Discharge from your nipples that isn’t milk
- Fever and/or chills
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- The appearance of a tender, wedge-shaped area on the breast or red appearance to your skin
- General flu-like symptoms such as fatigue and body aches
What causes mastitis?
Don’t worry you’re not doing anything wrong. In Australia, approximately one in five breastfeeding women will develop mastitis in the first 6 months – so it’s really very common.
The cause is usually a blocked milk duct, which allows for a build-up of milk behind the duct. The build-up itself can then cause milk to be forced into the breast tissue which causes further inflammation.
It’s also thought that mastitis can be caused by bacteria entering the breast through cracked nipples, or via a secondary infection like nipple thrush.
I think I have mastitis, can I still feed my baby?
Absolutely! We know it can be hard because you’re uncomfortable and tired, but it’s actually one of the best ways to assist in easing the infection. Keep feeding and even try expressing if you’re able. The more milk you can drain, the more likely you are to be able to clear the blockage.
Make sure you offer your affected breast to your baby first each time they feed to aid this process. Don’t worry, your baby will be blissfully unaware of all that’s going on, and your milk is still 100% safe for bub.
How is it treated?
If mastitis symptoms are present, start by treating yourself at home straight away. The earlier you start treatment, the less likely you are to develop a severe infection. None of the recommended treatments you can administer yourself is in any way harmful to you, your baby, or your ability to breastfeed.
At home you can try:
- Applying a heat pack or warm cloth to your breast before you feed or express milk
- Try to massage any lumps you can feel in your breast. Gently push the lump toward your nipple
- Use a cool pack between feeds to ease any discomfort or swelling
- Take over the counter, breastfeeding safe pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- Keep your fluids up
- Try to rest as much as possible
- Feed, feed, feed that baby – drain your breasts as much and as often as possible
If you don’t feel that there are any signs of improvement within a few hours, or your symptoms are worsening, get yourself to a doctor, or your local emergency department, as soon as possible.
Can I prevent myself from getting mastitis?
Unfortunately, you can never completely prevent mastitis, but there are certainly a few things you can do to help.
One of the biggest things to focus on, particularly if you’re new to breastfeeding, is how your baby is latching. A poor latch, or incorrect positioning during feeding can mean that your baby is unable to drain your breast effectively each feed. If you know your baby has a condition like tongue-tie, this can also increase your chances of developing mastitis.
Get creative and try a few different feeding positions. You can feed your baby lying down on your side, reclining with bub lying down your torso, or in a “football hold”. Many women also swear by kneeling on all fours and allowing your baby to feed as they lie below you – but if you have a newborn who still takes a long time to feed this may not be too kind on your back.
Also, try to avoid cutting any breastfeeding sessions short, and always let baby empty one breast before switching to the other. Let your baby feed for as long as they want and, if you do need to stop mid-feed, break the suction with your finger to avoid excess nipple damage.
Finally, make sure you free the nipples occasionally! Having your breasts constantly cooped up in your bra, particularly with damp nursing pads, can encourage bacteria to grow. Just like your baby benefits from nappy free time, your breasts deserve some fresh air too.
Breastfeeding is beautiful, but it can be hard too – If you’re struggling with feeding, make sure you seek assistance from your doctor, midwife, or lactation consultant.
The information in this article does not replace professional medical advice. We recommend talking to your doctor if you notice symptoms of mastitis.
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