Sore, achy boobs, along with flu-like symptoms, may be one of the most unpleasant — and most unexpected — hurdles you face as a new breastfeeding mom. While the symptoms of a breast infection, aka mastitis, can’t be ignored, there are a few natural remedies that can make the healing process faster and easier.
According to the latest CDC Breastfeeding Report Card from 2014, breastfeeding rates are on the rise but still remain shaky. As of 2011, 79 percent of new moms started to breastfeed, with numbers quickly dropping by the time a baby turned 6 months old. These fledgling numbers may point to a lack of breastfeeding education and support, especially in the workplace, and being thrown a curveball, like sore nipples or mastitis, certainly doesn’t help.
“If you have ever had mastitis when breastfeeding, it is classically a memorable experience. Mastitis is a breast infection occurring as a result of a clogged milk duct unable to drain properly, causing harmful bacteria to build up," Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, tells SheKnows. "Other ways to get mastitis is from bacteria on your skin and baby’s mouth entering the milk ducts and from stagnant milk that attracts dangerous bacteria. Mastitis can also occur in women who are not lactating or breastfeeding as a result of breast trauma, diabetes, steroid use or excessive smoking.”
As Dr. Ross points out, if you’ve ever had the “pleasure” of having mastitis, you’ll know it. Before you throw in the towel on breastfeeding, here’s what you can do to address the infection so it doesn’t get worse.
1. Visit your doctor right away
A new mother’s health can be fragile in the early days after having a baby, making it extra important to visit your doctor if you notice any symptoms of concern. Dr. Ross explains, “Symptoms of mastitis include a fever, muscle aches and fatigue, similar to having the flu. The breast affected will be extremely tender, painful and swollen. A warm, red rash, often in a wedge-shaped pattern, may also be seen on the affected breast. Breastfeeding mastitis only affects one breast.”
Mastitis is most common among new moms in the first six weeks after delivery, Dr. Candice Daneshvar, a board-certified OB-GYN in Beverly Hills, says. She continues, “It often occurs in the setting of various breastfeeding problems that typically cause prolonged engorgement or poor drainage, such as partial blockage of milk duct, pressure on the breast, oversupply of milk, infrequent feedings, nipple excoriation or cracking. The diagnosis of mastitis is based on clinical signs and symptoms, not lab tests.”
Like Doctors Ross and Daneshvar, Deedra Franke, the lactation consultant at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, also urges new moms to contact their health care provider to have a breast exam if any of the above symptoms appear. She adds, “Consider having a lactation consultant examine your breast and baby’s breastfeeding to get an understanding of the cause of infection.”
2. Use a warm compress
After a doctor has made a diagnosis, most likely prescribing an antibiotic to wipe out the infection, home care is the next step. Dr. Ross says, “Treatment involves using a warm compress to the affected breast, pumping regularly and taking an effective antibiotic. The good news is you can still breastfeed with mastitis as long as the antibiotic is safe with nursing.”
Dr. Daneshvar suggests alternating hot and cold — using cold compresses or ice packs to reduce local pain and swelling, along with heat packs or a hot shower to relieve an inflamed, clogged duct.
3. Massage the breast
Franke also endorses using warm compresses on an infected breast, and she says that massaging a breast while nursing or pumping can improve milk expression and provide added pain relief. For mastitis massage, Dr. Daneshvar recommends “massaging the affected breast from the outside circumference of the breast, inwards towards the nipple.”
Next up: Empty the breasts completely
4. Empty the breasts completely
To give an infected breast the opportunity to heal — and to prevent mastitis from occurring in the first place — it can help to completely empty a breast every time you nurse. Dr. Daneshvar tells her patients to empty breasts fully by using ongoing breastfeeding, pumping and/or hand expression at each feeding. “Do not stop breastfeeding because of treatment,” she says.
5. Pay attention to clogged ducts
As is the case with most health problems, and especially breastfeeding struggles, the best treatment is always prevention. “Mastitis is a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics. If left untreated, it can progress to breast abscess, which may require surgical treatment,” Laurie MacLeod, a midwife at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says. “If a woman has only a plugged duct, which is typically the precursor to mastitis, it is OK to manage this with nonmedical treatment. Emptying the breast can be helpful in addition to warm compresses and massage at the site. If a patient has a fever, malaise, body aches, warmth or redness in the breast, she should call her health care provider immediately.”
6. Get a better nursing bra
Sometimes it really is that easy. As part of mastitis prevention and to manage discomfort after an infection has occurred, MaryJo Butler, RN, lactation specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, says, “Wearing a supportive brassiere that is not constricting can help reduce discomfort with movement.”
7. Take care of yourself
Sore and infected breasts can make you feel like a total flop as a new mom, but take comfort in the fact that many of us have been there before. Mastitis, which may affect up to 20 percent of new moms, can serve as a great reminder to take things slow, take care of yourself and try to enjoy this quiet time with your new baby. At this time, Butler says, “Mothers should be encouraged to stay hydrated — rest for the mother is imperative.”
And when all else fails, Dr. Daneshvar suggests popping a few anti-inflammatory meds, like ibuprofen or Motrin, as you kick back and allow your breast to heal.
Originally published January 2011. Updated July 2016.