Breastfeeding can be a wonderful thing for moms and babies alike! But it can also lead to a lot of challenges and frustrations that make the idea of formula a lot more appealing! One of these challenges is mastitis, a painful condition that about 10% of breastfeeding women in the US will experience at one point or another. And although many women do experience it, knowing some basic info about mastitis can help you to know what to watch for as well as how best to treat it so that you can continue to breastfeed your baby!
What is Mastitis?
The term mastitis simply refers to inflammation of the breast tissue. This inflammation can be painful, just like any inflammation within the body, and will range in severity. Some women will not be significantly effected, especially if their inflammation is not widespread, but some will experience a higher level of pain, which indicates a more severe case. Regardless of the severity, it's important to treat it immediately after you notice symptoms so that it doesn't worsen.
Although many people equate mastitis to infection, it's important to note that mastitis does not always mean you have an infection. In some situations, mastitis is a symptom of an already developed infection, but this is not always the case. If you don't have symptoms of infection, you can treat mastitis at home without the need for antibiotics.
In breastfeeding women, mastitis will often affect just one breast at a time, but in rare cases it can affect both at the same time. Anyone can experience mastitis, men and non-breastfeeding women included, but breastfeeding women are most likely to experience it, as breastfeeding puts a lot of strain on the breast tissues.
Causes of Mastitis
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of your mastitis, but some of the common risk factors for breastfeeding mothers include:
Not emptying breast completely during a feed
Infant has a poor latch
Skipping a feeding
Clogged milk ducts
Anything that can lead to blocked milk ducts, such as skipping feeds, engorgement, not emptying the breast or even a poor latch, can lead to mastitis. This is because blocked milk ducts, when not removed or treated, often become larger, making them more difficult to remove. This leads to increased pressure within the breast, which can lead to inflammation, redness and pain.
This is very common for moms days after birth, as engorgement is common as transitional milk comes in. New moms may also struggle to know how to latch their baby properly, which can lead to inadequate drainage of the breast.
Mastitis can also be caused by bacteria that enters the breast. This commonly occurs when you have dry, cracked or bleeding nipples, which gives bacteria the perfect entry point. The bacteria can then reproduce within the breast. When the immune system reacts, inflammation and swelling can occur.
As previously mentioned, symptoms of mastitis may range in severity. If only minor inflammation of the breast occurs, you may not even realize you have mastitis. Most women, however, will experience some level of pain or symptoms.
Symptoms of mastitis generally include:
Redness of the breast tissue
Breast is sensitive to touch
Pressure in the breast
Pain in breast, especially when breastfeeding
Hot breast tissue
When infection is present, you may also experience:
Treating Mastitis at Home
Most cases of mastitis can be treated for home, and many providers will recommend a gentle, conservative approach unless there are obvious signs of infection, inflammation that doesn't improve with time, or mastitis that comes and goes frequently.
When treating at home, one of the best things you can do is to continue to breastfeed. Although this can be painful, it's one of the best ways to resolve mastitis. This is because mastitis is often caused by full breasts or blocked milk ducts, and feeding frequently will help clear out that blockage that may be contributing to swelling or inflammation.
If frequent feeds alone don't help and you notice severe lumps in your breast that are likely causing the inflammation, try hand expressing, using a breast pump, or changing the angle your baby feeds at. I noticed that my breast pump was great at clearing those clogged ducts, but sometimes holding my baby at a different angle worked even better. To do this, locate the clogged duct, and have your baby latch on with her chin or nose pointed towards the lump. Some women also find that having their spouse suck out the blockage can be extremely effective.
Before trying any of these, it can help to apply a warm compress, as that can help encourage the milk to flow more freely. Just don't apply heat at any other time, as this can make inflammation worse. It's also important that you don't over-pump or overfeed, as this can make you produce more milk and make the problem worse. When hand expressing or using a breast pump, use it in place of a normal feed and feed that milk in a bottle to your baby, or only express enough to relieve the pressure.
When not feeding or when your breasts are empty, you may still experience pain as the breast tissue works to heal and while the inflammation improves. One of the best ways to reduce this pain is to reduce blood flow to the area by applying cold compresses. Blood flow contributes to inflammation, and heat leads to dilated blood vessels that leads to higher blood flow. On the contrary, cold causes blood vessels to constrict, leading to decreased blood flow and therefore less inflammation. This can temporarily relieve pain in the area.
Although we can never 100% prevent mastitis, sometimes all that needs to be done to reduce the risk of developing it is to change your breastfeeding techniques or methods! Make sure that you're adequately emptying the breast during feeds, and take care of blocked ducts as soon as you notice them. This will prevent them from becoming more severe.
It's also important to take a look at your infant's latch, and ensure they're adequately latching correctly every single time. Again, this will ensure baby can adequately drain the milk. Visiting with a lactation consultant at the beginning of your breastfeeding journey can be a great way to ensure your breastfeeding technique is solid as well.
Another great way to prevent mastitis is to take care of cracked and dry nipples as soon as they develop, and frequently apply healing balms. You may also want to use a wipe to clean the breast off frequently, and replace nipple pads as soon as they are wet. This will all decrease the chances of bacteria entering the breast and causing infection as well.
When to See a Doctor
It can be difficult to know when it's time to see a doctor. And although most cases can be treated at home, if you are experiencing any signs of infection, it's time to see your doctor! They can give you an antibiotic that can quickly resolve the infection, which will likely improve the mastitis as well.
If you don't have signs of an infection but are still experiencing severe pain that's not getting better or are experiencing recurrent mastitis, you should also make an appointment to make sure everything's okay.
Breastfeeding can be tricky! And it seems that just as you figure things out, a new challenge arises. That was the case for me! From sore tender nipples from a poor latch, to constant engorgement and inflammation, I wanted to give up repeatedly. Not only did I cry every time my daughter needed to eat from the pain, but I didn't know where I could turn for help!
Looking back, I wish I would've realized how many people experience the same things I did, and sometimes all we need to do is reach out to someone we trust for help-whether that's a close friend, a healthcare provider, or even any of us fellow moms here at the Baby Cubby! We are all rooting for you, and wish you the most success!
For more info on breastfeeding, be sure to check out our blog at babycubby.com!