The early postpartum discomfort of nipple soreness and engorged breasts can be challenging to work through, and most moms see relief after getting a good latch established, learning their baby and their baby learning them, and simply waiting a month or two for everything to level off. But sometimes – around 10%, the WHO estimates – breast soreness returns and then turns into mastitis.
Milk Production and Engorgement
When you first begin nursing your newborn, they may seem to be starving, frantically and frequently nursing. Although this seems concerning to a new mama, it’s baby’s way of telling your breasts how much milk she needs. When your hormones and breast tissue process the message, the shift from colostrum to milk can happen quickly, filling your breasts to the point of engorgement. This might be mild, with hardened breasts and some overall tenderness, or it might seem extreme, with the nipple complex flattening out like a balloon being inflated!
Engorgement often occurs when milk first comes in, but it can happen later, as well. If baby suddenly sleeps longer than he has before, or if you have to be away and pumping isn’t quite cutting it, your breasts will “remember” the previous supply and continue producing that milk, even if baby isn’t draining it. Pumping too frequently may also lead to engorgement and infection, creating more milk production than baby needs and can keep up with.
When engorgement happens, nursing can become difficult. It can be tempting to put off feedings or even to supplement with bottle feedings. Not only is it painful, but the stretched areola and nipple can create a complicated latch. Be sure to keep nursing to relieve the engorgement, however, or you risk mastitis.
When a Breast Infection Sets In
Mastitis can be a result of engorgement, but might also occur without, from causes like a poor latch or nursing in the same position all the time. In these cases, the whole breast may not be engorged, but certain ducts may be underused due to the way baby is positioned.
Some signs that your breast soreness may be an infection include:
- Tenderness, especially in a specific spot
- Lumps on the bottom of the breast or near the armpit
With mastitis, you may also experience:
- Feeling feverish
- Body aches
No, it’s not fun. Mastitis can really knock you off your feet, painful and wearying. In fact, if you don’t take time off your feet, it can escalate and become a real problem. La Leche League recommends visiting your physician if you’ve gone more than 24 hours of home treatment and are still feeling feverish without any improvement.
Treating Mastitis at HomeFor the most part, you can take care of a breast infection at home. Usually, it’s a duct that has backed up. If it’s progressed to mastitis, then the plug has become infected. This doesn’t affect your milk quality, though, so again, there is no reason to stop nursing.
Applying heat can be soothing for the pain and can also help to break up the block in the ducts. Hot showers, warm herb baths, and hot compresses on the site of soreness are all important to use regularly.
This can be difficult when the pain is strong, but massage is another important home treatment. The idea is to use gentle but firm pressure, massage out the lump toward the nipple. You might also use arm swings and similar motions to shake the breast. Be careful causing a letdown, though, without your baby there to nurse.
One of the most difficult things for a mama to do – stop doing all the things! Climb into bed with baby, skin to skin. Eat healing foods like soup, stay hydrated with plenty of water, fresh vegetable juices, and herbal teas. Listen to your body telling you to take it easy and work with it, not against it.
Feed your baby
Keep nursing, keep nursing, keep nursing. The baby needs your snuggles and milk still, and you need the baby to keep draining the breast. If you skip feedings, you’ll keep filling up without relief. Also try to switch the baby’s positions regularly. Get creative with it! Learn new positions so the baby’s mouth pulls the milk out from different angles. Try aiming the top of baby’s mouth at the sore spot.
Boost immune system
Just like any other infection, your body is doing all it can to get rid of it. All of the rest and nourishing foods will support the hard work your body is already doing. You can take immune boosting supplements to help it along, too. My Children’s Immune Boost tinctures include echinacea and other immune supportive herbs while still staying safe for a mama nursing a little one.
Whatever you do, don’t stop nursing that baby! I know it’s painful and you feel miserable. Hole up in bed, snuggle and sleep when baby sleeps, enlist some of the same helping strategies you had when you needed early postpartum recovery support, and get better.
It’ll likely help to hear from other moms who have been there, too.
If you’ve had mastitis before, chime in to support each other – what did you do to allow your body to heal?
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