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About 10% of mothers experience breast inflammation called mastitis. There are two types of mastitis non infectious and infectious. Breast-feeding is a learned skill, and poor technique can lead to milk being trapped in the breast, a main cause of mastitis.

Other causes include:

  • A blocked milk duct. If a breast doesn’t completely empty at feedings, one of your milk ducts can become clogged, causing milk to back up, which leads to breast infection.
  • Bacteria entering your breast. Bacteria from your skin’s surface and baby’s mouth can enter the milk ducts through a break or crack in the skin of your nipple or through a milk duct opening. Stagnant milk in a breast that isn’t emptied enough provides a breeding ground for the bacteria. The antibacterial properties of your milk help protect your baby from the infection.

Mastitis most commonly happens within the first 6 months of breastfeeding and can make you feel very tired. Combined with the stress and exhausting task of caring for a newborn, you may feel like you’ve been hit by a train. Even though it can be highly uncomfortable, mastitis is in most cases easily treatable.

How to recognize mastitis

Symptoms usually start in one breast – you may feel pain or notice that your breast is red, hard, swollen and warm to the touch. If you feel a lump in your breast, this is probably due to a blocked milk duct. You may also experience flu-like symptoms, fever, headache, muscle ache and tiredness.

If the pain starts increasing, if the glands in your neck or armpit are swollen or if you have a fever, consult your physician for appropriate treatment.

What causes mastitis?

Mastitis is often a complication of engorgement – a build-up of milk in the breast. This often happens in the first weeks after the delivery, while the baby is still getting the hang of breastfeeding, or if you skip a few nursing sessions, i.e. if you’re going back to work or if you’re travelling. Poor latching on is a very common culprit of engorgement and consequentially, mastitis, so do make sure that your nipple is positioned properly in your baby’s mouth. Encourage your baby to empty the breast completely while nursing to prevent milk build-up. Start new feeding session with the breast you ended the previous session to make sure the breast is completely empty.

Instead of sticking to a feeding schedule with long breaks between feedings during which milk can accumulate and cause inflammation in the breast tissue, nurse your child whenever you notice the first signs of hunger (increased alertness, rooting or mouthing). Good breastfeeding practice can do wonders in protecting you from mastitis and other uncomfortable issues, such as sore nipples.

Cracked skin of the nipples presents the open doorway for microbes – this is how bacteria or thrush can enter the breast tissue and cause an infection. A proper latch will allow your baby to nurse without causing you pain, but if you are suffering from cracked and sore nipples, try using breast compresses that can speed up the healing process.

Any sort of constant pressure to your breasts can also lead to mastitis – this means that a nursing bra that doesn’t fit you well, tight clothing, a seat belt or if you sleep on your stomach, can all be culprits of inflammation.

Offering your baby a pacifier or a bottle before breastfeeding has been established, has been identified as another potential cause of mastitis. Giving your baby a pacifier too early on can lead to nipple confusion when your baby starts rejecting the breast, therefore disrupting the breastfeeding routine.

How to treat mastitis

Your physician will probably prescribe you with antibiotics, which are usually very effective in getting rid of the infection, but there are other things you can do at home to get some relief and speed up the recovery.

Don’t stop nursing during the mastitis episode – it will not harm your baby and it can only help relieve the pressure from the inflamed breast. Before nursing, apply a warm washcloth on the affected breast for 10-15 minutes. This will help relax the tissue and release the milk flow. A gentle massage both prior to and during breastfeeding can also help with the milk flow.

Ask your physician if you need further pain relief.