Breastfeeding 101: Mastitis

Throughout the Breastfeeding 101 series we have been touching on a variety of topics.  One topic that I have to include is Mastitis.  Having had Mastitis with all three of my children, I know how terrible it can feel.

Mastitis: An infection of the breast, usually only occurring in women who are breastfeeding their babies.

The most common bacteria causing mastitis is called Staphylococcus aureus. In 25-30% of people, this bacteria is present on the skin lining normal, uninfected nostrils. It is probably this bacteria, clinging to the baby’s nostrils, that is available to create infection when an opportunity (crack in the nipple) presents itself.

Symptoms of mastitis include:

  • pain
  • redness
  • warmth in the breast
  • swelling and/or tenderness
  • fever and flu like symptoms (chills, trembling)
  • engorgement

In some cases there will be red streaking on the breast, originating at the source of the infection.  Mastitis often will occur within the first few weeks of breastfeeding, but it can occur at any time during breastfeeding.  It usually only affects one breast, although I have had the luck of having double mastitis with my first baby.  Double whammy!

Here are some helpful suggestions that you can use if you think you might have mastitis:

  • Apply a warm compress to the affected part of the breast, especially before nursing.
  • Apply gentle massage to the affected area, while using a warm compress or while in the shower (with warm water on the breast) or in a warm bath.
  • Use cold cabbage leaves to reduce the swelling and provide a bit of relief.  This may sound like an old wive’s tale, but it really works.  While breastfeeding I always have a head of green cabbage in the fridge for this purpose.  Crunch a nice cool cabbage leaf in your hands to crackle it, then lay it on the affected area and keep it there until it is not cool anymore.  Do not leave cabbage leaves on the breast for more than a couple of hours at a time and be sure not to cover the nipple.  The cabbage leaves draw milk from the ducts to help reduce the swelling, so if you notice any reduction in milk supply discontinue use immediately.
  • Breastfeed first from the breast with the infection and let the breast drain completely.  This will help reduce the pain.
  • If symptoms do not go away after trying these suggestions, call your doctor, you may need antibiotics to treat the infection.

Do not stop breastfeeding!  It is very important to continue breastfeeding while you have the infection.  Discontinuing could worsen the problem.  Also be sure to stay hydrated.  Drink plenty of water.

Also important to note is that your baby will not catch this infection.  This is an infection of the breast tissue and cannot be passed to your child.

As I’ve said in previous Breastfeeding 101 posts, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having a good support system.  Familiarize yourself with your local La Leche League chapter, a midwife, or a good lactation consultant.  You will be glad that you did.