Mastitis and the miracle of nature!
I remember a friend of mine telling me how she just adored the feeling of breastfeeding her babies. “Don’t you just love it?” she said, “doesn’t it feel amazing?” At the time, as a very new mum, I had a blocked milk duct, very sore nipples and was on the verge of mastitis! Hmmm, no not quite loving it just yet!
Of course I came to love it. I can’t imagine not having that experience of nourishing and bonding with my child on that level, but, in the first few weeks, breastfeeding can be difficult. It really is harder than it looks, and mastitis can make it even harder.
Mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue and is often caused by a blocked milk duct, or infection entering through the nipple, usually staphylococcus aureus. Ducts can become blocked when the breast is not completely drained during a feed. This may be a result of baby being incorrectly positioned or if baby is not able to suck effectvely. The small ducts become kinked or twisted and protein molecules can diffuse into the surrounding tissue causing inflammation and pain. Long periods between feeds, and tight bras or clothing may also contribute to ducts becoming blocked. If you have a blocked duct you may see a red inflamed area somewhere on your breast that feels like a hard lump to touch. At this stage it is imperative that you prevent it from pregressing to mastitis.
There are some things you can do to help prevent blocked ducts and mastitits.
- Feed your baby from the side that is inflamed, or if baby is having trouble feeding make sure you express. Feed on demand or at least 2 hourly (or express) with baby on their side with their whole body facing you. This is to make sure all milk ducts are properly emptied during the feeding.
- Rest! If you are experiencing a fever, headache and flu-like symptoms (quite common with mastitis), take yourself off to bed (with baby if necessary) and ask friends and family for help with cooking, laundry etc.
- Applying heat brings circulation to the area and can help to loosen the blockage. A wheat bag applied to the breast tissue can help. Do this for about 15mins 4x a day. A hot shower can really help too. If you are engorged use a cool pack instead.
- Making sure you have a well designed, well-fitted maternity bra is a must to avoid blockages. Many women end up in bras that are too tight, not allowing the milk ducts to properly fill and empty.
- It is helpful to knead and stroke the blocked duct towards the nipple while feeding too. This can actually be very sore but try to persevere. Whatever you do, don’t stop feeding as this will only make it worse.
Make sure you talk to your LMC or doctor about it, and use antibiotics if they’re recommended. If it’s left to progress to full blown mastitis you may have a fever, fatigue and a lot of pain, and it can lead to a breast abcess (read collection of pus) that needs to be surgically drained.
There are nutritional and herbal remedies that can really help, either alongside conventional treatment or as preventatives. Some are available over the counter and others need to be prescribed by a naturopath or herbalist:
- Good quality echinacea will boost the immune systems ability to fight any infection present. Echinacea is not all made equal though, so be sure to get a therapuetic product.
- Vitamin C will help with the inflammation. Aim for 1,000mg 4xdaily if you have a blocked duct.
- Belladonna is a homoeopathic remedy indicated when the breast is very swollen, hot, red and firm to touch.
- Phytolacca (Phytolacca decandra, also called poke root) is a wonderful herb that can be used both as a homoeopathic remedy or as an internal herbal tincture (when prescribed only, as it can be dangerous in the wrong dose).
- To prevent cracked nipples (that can allow bacteria to enter the breast tissue) be sure that your zinc levels are adequate. Zinc can get very depleted during the latter stage of pregnancy and you can have it tested through a quick test with a naturopath or at your local pharmacy or health store.
- Women who have diabetes or poor immume function may be more likely to develop mastitis and have trouble recovering from an infection.
Engorgment, cracked nipples, blocked ducts and mastitis only occur in 10% of breastfeeding women and are most common in the first 2-4 weeks after birth. Although hard, let that be some comfort that it will pass, and soon you too will love the feeling of breastfeeding, and you and your baby will reap the myriad of benefits that breastfeeding brings.