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How to Handle Mastitis when Breastfeeding

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Mastitis is, simply put, an inflammation of the breast. It can occur without apparent cause, but it often occurs during breastfeeding. In fact, about ten percent of breastfeeding women experience mastitis. Mastitis can be particularly problematic in women who wish to continue breastfeeding, because it is often painful and women suffering from mastitis are very likely to wean their infants during this time.

Mastitis is caused by infection by bacteria that enter the breast through the nipple; the cracked and sore nipples common in breastfeeding women make perfect pathways for the bacteria to get in through. Most commonly occurring during the first six months of breastfeeding, it can add to the already-considerable burden of caring for an infant and increase the mother’s fatigue and stress. It often leads to the cessation of breastfeeding, but breastfeeding with mastitis is safe, and it is usually cleared up easily with medication.

Symptoms and Treatment of Mastitis

Usually the first thing a woman with mastitis notices is a painful area in one of her breasts. The area may also be warm and red. She may also experience body aches, chills, and fever. Swollen and painful lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms, and a faster than normal heart rate are signs that the infection is getting worse.

Mastitis is usually easily diagnosed by observation of the symptoms; specific tests are not typically needed. If you have symptoms of mastitis, don’t hesitate to see your doctor; an antibiotic will usually cure it relatively quickly. It is safe to breastfeed while taking antibiotics, so feel free to continue to do so, unless your doctor directs you otherwise. During treatment, help your body heal and yourself feel better by resting more, drinking plenty of fluids, and using warm or cold compresses on the painful area. You can also take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain. If you think you have mastitis, get medical attention promptly; delaying treatment can lead to complications which can be harder to treat.

Breastfeeding (or Not) with Mastitis

If you are determined to continue breastfeeding, you can do so safely with mastitis. Make sure to empty the affected breast completely each time you breastfeed in order to prevent a dwindling milk supply. If it is too painful to breastfeed much on the affected side, use a breast pump to completely empty the breast on a regular basis.

However, for some women, mastitis presents either too difficult a situation in which to continue to breastfeed, or a good opportunity for weaning for those who were planning it soon anyway. Caring for an infant is extremely challenging, and formula presents a perfectly nutritious and healthy option for feeding your baby. I know that most women feel like they “should” breastfeed, but in fact, millions of completely healthy and well-adjusted people were never breastfed.

Don’t worry about “bonding,” either. Feeding your baby should be a time to interact closely with him or her, but it’s the physical contact and the attention that matter, not whether the milk being fed is coming from a breast or from a bottle.

For more information on this topic and others, see my book, Inside Information for Women.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.