While the most fun part of being a new mama is getting to know your baby and soaking up all that sweet snuggle time, there are feeding and sleeping schedules to be established. And, unfortunately, a case of mastitis can really shake things up.
New moms already have plenty to think about. Mastitis shouldn’t be one of them. The good news? It doesn’t have to be.
Read on to find out exactly what mastitis is, how to tell if you have mastitis, what to do if you get mastitis, and how to prevent mastitis in the future (yes, it’s totally possible!).
What is Mastitis?
A common condition in breastfeeding moms, mastitis is breast inflammation that’s often—but not always—caused by an infection. The painful condition happens when a milk duct becomes clogged and doesn’t drain properly.
Though mastitis often occurs during the first six weeks of breastfeeding when feeding patterns are not yet established, it can occur any time a woman is lactating. In rare cases, mastitis can occur even when a woman is not lactating. (source)
A lactating mama can generally identify mastitis—or a blocked or plugged duct—as a red, swollen, tender, or warm lump or wedge-shaped area of the breast. Mastitis can also cause flu-like symptoms, including fatigue, body aches, and fever. (source)
How Do You Get Mastitis?
Mastitis is most common before feeding patterns are established during the first six weeks a woman is breastfeeding, because mastitis often occurs when the breast is not emptied completely.
Learn more about breastfeeding positions to help ensure your baby gets a proper latch.
Here, some things that may increase your risk of getting mastitis:
Because engorgement can lead to mastitis, mothers who produce too much milk—or have an oversupply—are more likely to get mastitis. (Get more information on how to manage an oversupply.) If you suspect you are overproducing, try feeding more frequently. If you have trouble managing your milk supply, a lactation consultant can help you regulate. (See how to find a lactation consultant.)
Going for long stretches between feedings, skipping feedings, or failing to replace skipped feedings with pumping sessions can cause breasts to become engorged—or too full—which can lead to mastitis.
You can also get an infection that causes mastitis when bacteria enters the nipple, often through a cracked or sore nipple. Practice proper handwashing before feeding or expressing milk, keep pump parts sanitized, and treat cracked nipples with natural oils or creams.
Pressure on Breasts
Excessive pressure on a lactating mama’s breasts, whether from a tight bra, wearing a seatbelt at length, or sleeping on your stomach, can ultimately lead to clogged ducts. (source)
Stress and Fatigue
There is some evidence that women who are stressed or excessively tired are more susceptible to mastitis, so don’t forget to take care of yourself and seek help from family and friends during those trying first weeks with a newborn.
Symptoms of mastitis can occur suddenly. You may suspect that you have mastitis if you notice a painful area in one breast, particularly if it’s red, tender, or warm to the touch. Other signs of mastitis include cold- or flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and body aches.
Here, a complete list of mastitis symptoms:
- Breast swollen, tender, or warm to the touch
- Pain or burning while breastfeeding
- Skin redness
- Fever of 101 F or greater
- Flu-like symptoms, including chills and body aches
How to Treat Mastitis
If you’re wondering how to cure mastitis, we’ve got good news: It’s generally an easy condition to treat. It is important to note, however, that prompt treatment is important. If mastitis goes untreated, it can escalate and lead to a breast abscess—a buildup of infected fluid in breast tissue—which can be more difficult to treat.
Home Remedies for Mastitis
Though it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a healthcare professional if you experience a fever or flu-like symptoms, mastitis can generally be cured with a few at-home remedies.
In addition to rest, proper nutrition, and plenty of fluids, here’s how to cure mastitis at home:
- Warm compress: Before breastfeeding your baby, press a warm, wet compress (or a heating pad) onto the affected area of your breast for approximately 15 minutes. This will help soothe any tenderness and increase the flow of milk, eventually clearing the plugged duct.
- Warm shower: When showering, let warm water run over your breasts while gently massaging the affected area with your fingertips.
- Feed more frequently: Though it may initially be painful, continuing to breastfeed can help clear a clogged milk duct. Try feeding more frequently, starting on the affected breast. If it is too painful, start with the unaffected breast, moving to the affected breast once you experience let-down.
- Reposition baby: Breastfeed your baby with his 0r her chin or nose positioned towards the affected area. This way, baby’s facial features will give the blocked milk duct a gentle massage during the feeding.
- Use essential oils: Massage the affected breast with edible oils (like coconut oil) or natural lubricants during or after feedings to help dislodge plugged ducts.
See more natural treatments for a clogged milk duct.
If home remedies for mastitis aren’t doing the trick or you need more relief from pain, breastfeeding mamas can safely take over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help soothe pain or diminish fever. It’s also safe to take ibuprofen, like Advil or Motrin, to help reduce any inflammation. Be sure to follow the instructions on the packaging and consult your healthcare provider with any questions you may have.
If your symptoms don’t improve within 12 to 24 hours or you experience flu-like symptoms, be sure to consult your healthcare provider—antibiotics may be necessary to help clear an infection.
Infections from mastitis are generally caused by penicillin-resistant bacterium called S. aureus. Other bacteria called Streptococcus and Escherichia coli can also cause mastitis. Your doctor may prescribe a penicillinase-resistant penicillin like dicloxacillin or flucloxacillin to cure mastitis. (source)
As with any antibiotic, it’s important to take the dull dosage your healthcare provider prescribes—even if you begin to feel better. If left untreated, mastitis can turn into a breast abscess, a more difficult and painful condition to treat.
Can You Breastfeed If You Have Mastitis?
The short answer: yes! In fact, breastfeeding should be your first line of defense against mastitis. Breastfeeding helps your body overcome mastitis and the antibacterial properties of your milk will help protect your baby from the infection. (source)
Although it may be painful at first, do not stop breastfeeding altogether. If you stop nursing abruptly, the mastitis could get worse and your risk for developing a breast abscess increases. Breastfeeding will help empty the breast and unplug the clogged milk duct.
To breastfeed your baby if you have mastitis, begin feeding from the affected breast. If it is too painful, try the other breast until you experience let-down. Once your milk is flowing, move your baby to the affected breast, feeding until your breast is fully drained. You can gently massage the affected area while feeding or position baby so his nose or chin gently presses on the affected area (see more above).
If you are unable to breastfeed completely, try expressing milk with a manual or automatic pump. A lactation consultant can also help find a solution that works for you. (Get more information on how to work with a lactation consultant.)
How Long Does Mastitis Last?
With proper home remedies like continued feeding and warm compresses (see above for more), symptoms of mastitis should improve within 24 hours. If symptoms don’t improve within 24 hours despite your best efforts, it may be time to call a healthcare provider who can help determine whether or not you have an infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics.
How to Prevent Mastitis
Unfortunately, women who have had mastitis before are more likely to get it again. But there is good news: there are plenty of things you can do to avoid another bout of mastitis. The No. 1 line of defense? Establishing frequent and effective feedings that leave your breasts drained of milk. Here, a full list of ways to prevent mastitis:
- Frequent feedings: Skipping feedings can cause engorgement, which can lead to plugged milk ducts.
- Reduce pressure on your breasts: Avoid tight bras with underwire, prolonged use of seat belts, sleeping on your stomach, and other things that may put unnecessary pressure on your breasts.
- Regularly massage breasts: Make a habit of gently massaging your breasts while showering, taking care to massage under the breast where milk has a tendency to pool.
- Ensure your baby has a proper latch: If your baby has an ineffective latch, he may not be draining your breasts completely. A proper latch will ensure baby is getting enough food and your breasts stay healthy.
- Hand express: If your breasts are too full for your baby to properly latch or feeding does not diminish engorgement, hand express just enough to provide relief. Be careful not to overexpress, as that can cause your body to continue to overproduce.
- Take care of yourself: Easier said than done with a newborn, right? There is evidence that sleep-deprivation and a poor diet can make you more likely to get mastitis. If you’re feeling worn down, consider asking your partner or a friend or family member for help.
If you’re having trouble with engorgement, breastfeeding, or frequent bouts of mastitis, a lactation consultant can guide you through breastfeeding positions and help your baby get a better, more effective latch.
How About You?
Have you had mastitis? What advice do you have for other breastfeeding moms who are struggling with engorgement and blocked milk ducts?