Mastitis — the word itself can strike fear into the heart of any breastfeeding parent. This breast infection is fairly common among breastfeeding women (it affects about 20 percent at some point during the breastfeeding relationship), but it's often difficult and painful. Some mothers may even consider ceasing breastfeeding if they have recurrent mastitis infections. Here's how to prevent mastitis so you can continue to nurse your baby in health and happiness — and how to treat it, if you do happen to get it.
What Is Mastitis?
Essentially, mastitis is an inflammation of the breast tissue, often caused by obstruction (like a clogged milk duct), infection, or even an allergy. It can also be caused when bacteria enters the breast, through a cracked or bleeding nipple, for example.
Mastitis often happens in the first few weeks of breastfeeding, but it can occur any time while lactating, even after or during weaning. Symptoms include a fever, red streaks on the breast, a swollen lump, and even tingling while feeding. Often, mastitis is accompanied by flu-like symptoms, including body aches and exhaustion.
Prevention of Mastitis
So, how do you avoid mastitis? Overall, removing milk from the breast regularly is the best way to prevent this condition. Whether you do it by pumping or by feeding, getting that breast milk out is key to increasing your comfort and cutting down on pain from engorged breasts. (Milk removal is also vital in maintaining a strong milk supply, too!)
Another important way to prevent mastitis is to make sure your baby has a good latch. If your baby is regularly leaving milk in the breasts, this can contribute to plugged ducts and other issues. Sometimes, babies who have a tongue tie or other latching issues have a difficult time getting enough out of the breasts, which can cause nipple pain and milk duct issues.
If your baby is on a nursing strike or can't nurse at the breast for some other reason (like illness), it's still extremely important to keep milk flowing out of your breasts. Pump as often as your baby would normally feed. Be sure to keep your nipples clean and dry at all times, especially if you have any nipple trauma. Air your nipples out after and between feedings.
To prevent mastitis that develops from clogged ducts, avoid wearing tight-fitting bras or tops. There are a lot of cute nursing bras out there, but it's a good idea to go without a bra whenever possible, like when you're lounging at home or sleeping. When you exercise and wear a sports bra, take it off immediately after finishing your workout.
Treatment of Mastitis
If you do suspect you have mastitis, it's important to get treatment quickly. Be sure to see a physician, midwife, or nurse practitioner who has expertise in breastfeeding. It's also a good idea to contact an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), who can help troubleshoot any issues that may have led to the condition.
Treatment for mastitis often involves antibiotics. Be sure to take the full course of antibiotics prescribed to you—neglecting to do so could contribute to the infection coming back.
Don't avoid nursing on the affected breast. It's an important part of getting the clog out, if that's the reason for your case of mastitis. Dangle feeding, which is when you dangle your breast above your baby while nursing, can help with milk flow during this time. Other at-home treatments and comfort measures for mastitis include massaging the breast and applying heat to the breast just before feeding.
It's also quite important to get a lot of rest when you're recovering from mastitis. This helps your immune system fight off the infection. You can take immune supplements to help, as well. Stay well-hydrated and consider taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen.
Even if you do encounter mastitis while breastfeeding your baby, it's a very treatable illness. Most cases of mastitis resolve in a few days, according to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. Still, understanding how to prevent mastitis will ensure that you and your baby have a positive breastfeeding relationship.