In the realm of breastfeeding, mastitis is right at the top of the list of Things Moms Worry About. It’s probably second only to starving the baby.
Seriously, if you haven’t been concerned about these things, you have remarkable composure!!
For the rest of us (even the non-worry-warts) worry just seems to come packed right into the Mom Briefcase – right along with How Much Caffeine Can I Drink, Massive Love, and a Body That Doesn’t Quite Look Like It Did.
So what exactly is mastitis? How can you tell if that’s what’s wrong with you? And is there any way to prevent mastitis?
If these are some of the questions rolling around in your head, then you’re in the right place! Today I’m going to cover the first half of the mastitis conversation: figuring out that’s the problem and preventing it to begin with!
There are several contributing factors that can lead to mastitis. The good news is that you have control over most of them!
Mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue that’s usually caused by either infection or milk stasis (a science-y way of saying your milk’s staying put).
Infection could be caused by bacteria entering your breast through cracked nipples. While it’s possible the bacteria could come from your hands, the culprit is usually bacteria in your baby’s mouth.
Milk stasis could be caused by a clogged duct, missed feedings, frequent engorgement, not fully emptying the breast during feedings, holding your hands in the same place on your breast each time you nurse, or hormonal changes (but that’s mostly in women who aren’t nursing). A bad thing about milk stasis is that it can also bring on an infection or an abscess.
Early Warning Signs
Unfortunately, mastitis isn’t considerate enough to give you plenty of early warning signs. Mastitis symptoms come on really fast, and sometimes it just seems to come out of nowhere.
If you have any early warning, it most likely will be a burning sensation or pain while breastfeeding. That’s typically the first (easy to miss) sign.
If you notice that only one of your breasts is starting to swell or feel hot to the touch, that’s when alarm bells need to start going off in your head. Assume it’s mastitis and call your doctor.
The symptoms of mastitis closely mimic the symptoms of a clogged milk duct. It can be tough to tell the difference sometimes! KellyMom has a great chart to help tell the difference between mastitis and a plugged duct.
The biggest mastitis symptoms are:
- redness of the breast
- heat coming from one breast
- swelling of one breast
- tenderness or pain in one breast
- fever and/or chills
- flu-like symptoms
Some of these symptoms, like tenderness and swelling, could also be a sign of engorgement. The thing to remember is that mastitis doesn’t affect both breasts at the same time. So if you’re swollen and achy on both sides, that’s engorgement.
When to go to the doctor
Since mastitis is a fast-moving condition, the best thing you can do is to go to the doctor at the first sign of trouble!
That being said, I understand why a mom would want to wait. Between crazy hormonal shifts and a newly broken sleep schedule, it’s not always easy for a new mom to make it to the doctor. On top of that, you really don’t want to cart a newborn into a waiting room full of sick people if there’s any way to avoid it. I get that! (Plus, the cheap-skate in me always tries to determine if the outcome is worth the copay. Am I the only one who does that?)
So when is going to the doctor absolutely necessary? If you experience any of these symptoms, get help immediately:
- nausea and vomiting
- fainting or dizziness
- red streaks on the breast
- nipple discharge
- breast pain that makes nursing unbearable
- fever that’s lasted longer than 48 hours
- symptoms worsening
Please don’t hesitate. Mastitis can be life-threatening in some situations!
The absolute best way to prevent mastitis is to make sure your milk is moving! Here are some really good practices to keep that milk flowing:
- When your baby nurses, keep her on the breast until she’s done and then offer her the other side. At the next feeding, start with the last side used and repeat the process. (So nurse left/right, then right/left, and then left/right, then right/left. See the pattern?)
- DON’T nurse on one side more than the other, even if it seems to make more milk!
- If your breasts don’t feel empty after nursing, use a breast pump to express the remaining milk.
- Don’t skip feedings!
- If for any reason your baby misses a nursing session, pump for that session.
- Do your best to keep from getting engorged.
- When it’s time to wean, do it slowly over time.
Another really good way to prevent mastitis is simply good hygiene. Make it a habit to always wash your hands before breastfeeding. Keep your baby clean, and use a washcloth to gently cleanse the area around her mouth after she spits up. Use a good nipple balm if your nipples are cracked.
Speaking of cracked nipples, that doesn’t need to happen in the first place! The key to avoiding cracked nipples is the baby’s latch. Read my article on getting the perfect latch for guidance. If you still struggle with latch, find a local lactation consultant or contact La Leche League.
Wear loose-fitting clothing and try not to sleep on your stomach.
I hope you never suffer from mastitis symptoms. Nothing will slow your breastfeeding roll quite as fast as a nasty case of mastitis!
Now that you know the symptoms of mastitis, you’ll be able to spot the problem quickly and take care of it before it gets too bad.
If you follow good hygiene practices, help your baby perfect her latch, and keep your milk moving out of your breasts, then most likely you’ll never even need to worry about it.
Have you ever had mastitis before? What were your biggest symptoms? Please share in the comments below!