Mastitis Experts Tell Mommyish How To Deal & Why You Need To Nurse Through It
My mother described mastitis as having a “stabbing hot poker in your chest.” My sister says that it’s “burning hot and intensely painful,” and she didn’t have full-blown mastitis, just a clogged milk duct. I have a family of nursing mamas, and a family that’s incredibly familiar with this new mom scourge. So I decided that we should all take a minute to talk about this health issue that can arise from breastfeeding, how to work through, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help when battling it.
Mastitis is an infection in the breast tissue. It creates pain, swelling and warmth of the breast, as well as high fevers. One new mom I talked to even had red lines running through her breast, “like you’d see on a medical drama when someone has blood poisoning.” And to find out about this relatively common infection in nursing women, I spoke with a couple afflicted new moms, a pediatrician, obstetrician and a La Leche leader. Here’s what you need to know.
There are lots of reasons for new moms to get mastitis or clogged milk ducts. Some say that it happens when the baby isn’t getting enough milk from the breast, causing the milk to build up and “clog.” My local La Leche group leader, Camille Grabel, said that stress and not getting enough rest can sometimes be causes for mastitis. I realize, most new moms experience plenty of stress and are lacking in sleep, so that’s not exactly easy to stay away from. But another cause could be underwire bras, or not wearing the right size bra. Basically, anything that hinders nursing could be factor in mastitis.
Once you’ve gotten the infection, what should new moms do? “Empty the breast, get lots of rest,” says Camille. And Dr. Catherine Chung, an OB-GYN in Fort Wayne, backs up her advice. “I suggest that my patients nurse through it, even though it’s painful. It’s really the best way to clear up the clog and get better. You can apply heat, massage the breast, obviously get lots of rest and take antibiotics, but breastfeeding really is the best way to treat the clog.”
It’s interesting, because back in the 50s and 60s, mastitis was seen as a reason to ween your children. Plenty of moms got an infection and were terrified of passing the illness along to their children through the milk. So when they got sick, they simply stopped nursing. Colette Parker, the practice manager at Fort Wayne Pediatrics, assured me that times and thinking have changed. “There are definitely antibiotics that mothers can take that won’t harm the baby,” she explained. So mothers now have no reason to consider “pumping and dumping” while treating their illness.
For the new moms I talked to, the biggest problem was simply dealing with the exhaustion surrounding the disease. “You’re so tired and it’s so painful. Your holding your baby and they invariable kick you in that boob. You’re just so defeated that you get angry, and that’s your baby! You aren’t mad at them. It just feels so horrible.” That feeling, of needing to take care of yourself but wanting to focus all of your energy on your children, is one that every new mom can commiserate with, clogged duct or not. And “nursing through the pain” obviously sounds a lot easier than in it is in practice.
Mastitis can last up to one to two weeks, but most women start to get better a couple days after the antibiotics start. That being said, it’s still important for them to continue getting rest and taking their medicine. “Those who don’t finish the treatment are more likely to get their infection back,” Dr. Chung warns.
Mastitis and clogged ducts happen. One woman I know had already experienced four clogged ducts while nursing her 7-month old little girl. But it’s important to know that these aren’t a sign to stop nursing. In fact, the best treatment is to keep on going. And reach out for help if you need it. Mastitis and the fever that comes along with it drain new moms of the little energy they have left. You need to get some rest so you can get back on your A-game and take care of that little one.