Breastfeeding isn’t easy. What makes it even LESS easy is mastitis and blocked milk ducts. It isn’t entirely uncommon for moms to experience one or both of these issues (20% of Western moms experience it apparently) and I was one of them! Maybe I thought I would just get lucky, maybe I thought it just wouldn’t happen to me. But when it did, there was a lot I wish I had known beforehand so I could have started treating it right away. That’s why I’m writing this post, so you can hopefully avoid (or at least swiftly handle) mastitis and blocked ducts while breastfeeding.
Also, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with taking antibiotics if you need to. However, I was very scared that it would affect my supply so I didn’t want to take them. Luckily, my OB had a lot of suggestions on how to heal mastitis without medication. In this post, I’m sharing all the techniques recommended to me by my OB and doula. Note: If you are suffering from mastitis and symptoms have continued for 12-24 hours without improvement even using these methods, then you will want to contact your doctor to discuss antibiotics.
Looking for breastfeeding support in Tokyo? See my post here.
What’s the difference between mastitis and blocked ducts?
The definition of mastitis according to KellyMom.com (a great breastfeeding resource you should definitely check out!) is, “Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast occurring due to obstruction, infection, and/or allergy”. A blocked duct is also an inflammation or obstruction in a certain part of the breast. It is usually noticed by a blocked nipple pore or, if further up in the duct system, a hardened lump in that part of the breast. Mastitis is generally more painful and can be accompanied by a fever. Click on the link above for more info on mastitis and blocked ducts and their symptoms.
My Experience with Mastitis
When Asahi was three weeks old was when I had my first (and thankfully last!) experience with mastitis. I was exhausted (naturally) and had fallen asleep while nursing him in the side-lying position on the bed. Unfortunately, I was wearing a loose-fitting sports bra at the time. Although it was loose, it wasn’t as loose as my nursing bras and resulted in restricted milk flow on the side I was nursing from. I didn’t notice anything until I woke up in the night around 4AM in extreme pain from the one breast. It was surprising because I actually woke up from the throbbing pain even though I wasn’t lying on the breast at all. I knew something was wrong at that point. I tried to go back to sleep but soon after I started to feel very cold even though I was under a heavy comforter. Then I started shaking uncontrollably and I knew then that I had a fever. Asahi was sleeping peacefully this entire time thankfully! My right breast was incredibly painful but I didn’t know what to do to help the situation. I had heard of mastitis but I didn’t really know the symptoms or what to do to relieve it. I was able to sit up and feed Asahi about an hour later but I had to wake up my husband so he could burp him because I didn’t have the strength. Thankfully my mom was there as well and she took Asahi in the morning when my husband went to work. By 8AM I knew I had to contact someone for help as I was still feverish and in a lot of pain. I texted my doctor and my doula to see what I should do.
Thankfully both my doctor and doula responded with some at home remedies to use so I could hopefully avoid taking medication which could potentially affect my milk supply. Using these techniques, I was all healed up in a few days! Here’s what worked for me:
- Nurse as much as possible. The worst thing you can do if you have a blockage or mastitis is to not nurse. By nursing you are allowing the milk to flow and hopefully flush the blockage out over time.
- Nurse in as many different positions as possible! When a baby sucks on your nipple, they don’t always receive milk from all milk ducts equally. By changing the nursing position, you allow the milk to flow 360 degrees. Another great position is “dangle nursing” where you lay the baby down on the floor or bed and allow your breast to hang above them and nurse that way. This is super affective because gravity allows the milk to flow straight down! This was helpful but a bit difficult in those early weeks because I had a very fast flow and Asahi couldn’t handle that much milk at once. What helped me was having him nurse until a let down happened and then catching the initial spray with a towel. Once the milk slowed I allowed him to nurse again and it was a much easier flow.
- Use a hot compress prior to nursing and a cold compress afterward. For the hot compress, I simply soaked a washcloth in hot water and placed it on my breast right before nursing. This relaxes the area and increases blood flow to prepare your breast to release the milk properly. You can also take a shower and massage your breast. After nursing, you do the opposite and place a cold compress (cold washcloth or ice pack wrapped in a towel works!) to help soothe the area and reduce inflammation.
- Massage the inflamed area during nursing. This will most likely be painful, especially at first, but it really does help! My massaging the area you are encouraging the blockage to release. I also did massage in the shower as mentioned above.
- Completely empty the breast after every feeding. A three week old baby may not be able to completely drain a breast during a single feed, so it’s important that you do it. Basically, you don’t want milk sitting in your breast when you have a blockage or mastitis. You can use hand expression or a breast pump to accomplish this.
- Rest as much as possible and drink lots of fluids. I felt so lucky that my mom was there when I got mastitis because I could actually get the rest I needed. If you have mastitis especially, take it seriously and rest as much as possible. Make sure you are also staying hydrated and eating.
- Don’t wear restrictive clothing or baby wear if you can avoid it. This may not be the case for everyone but I am VERY sensitive to what I restrictive clothing and even baby wearing when I have a blockage. While recovering, I try to not put pressure on the affected area by avoiding bras (even nursing ones) and baby wearing at least until the pain is mostly gone.
P.S. If you have a fever, you may also notice a dip in your supply as you are recovering. Even if baby is a bit upset by this (I know mine was!), keep nursing frequently and your supply will build back up in no time. Remember, your supply is made to match the demand of the baby, so if you take a break from nursing and give a bottle because baby is upset and you don’t pump to make up for it, your body will continue to produce less milk. By continuing to nurse frequently and on demand, your supply will regulate much quicker.
How can I avoid mastitis and blocked ducts?
In my personal experience, it’s honestly been hard to avoid blocked ducts. My left breast in particular tends to be more sensitive, I think because it is Asahi’s less favorable side, and I feel like I have some sort of lump or blockage about once a month. For me, it’s usually caused by one of two things: wearing too tight of a bra or carrying Asahi in the baby carrier for too long when my breasts are full or Asahi not nursing from that side for a longer than usual amount of time. Recently, I wore a tight sports bra to do an at home workout and took it off afterward. I was only wearing it for about an hour but later that night I noticed a lump on the outside of my left breast. It was sore as well so I did a little hand expression before bed thinking it would clear up. Unfortunately, it was more painful later in the night and it actually woke me up. I knew I needed to treat it as soon as possible to avoid developing mastitis, and I already knew what to do because of my previous experience. Even though it’s pretty similar to how I handled mastitis, here’s what I did:
- Massage the affected area and do as much hand expression as possible. This is the same strategy as for treating mastitis. Note: make sure you are doing hand expression correctly, I had a hard time with this at first and it made relieving my breasts of milk difficult.
- Use a warm compress prior to nursing and cold compress afterward to soothe the area.
- Nurse as much as possible from that side (but don’t neglect the other side)
After a day of treatment, the blockage was significantly smaller and less painful and by the second day it was almost completely gone. I was so happy I knew how to handle the situation immediately so I could avoid it turning into mastitis.
If you are consistently experiencing blockages, you may want to try a supplement to help. I haven’t personally tried it yet but sunflower lecithin is known to help thin the viscosity of your milk and therefore prevent it from sticking together and causing blockages. You can learn more about it here. It’s available to buy on iHerb here.
LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES! Don’t wear too tight of bras when you are nursing. A good rule of thumb is if the bra is tight enough to leave a mark on your skin, then it is too tight. This is particularly important in the first months of nursing when you are more frequently engorged, but can continue later on if you are more sensitive (like me!).
Do you have any methods for curing mastitis or blocked ducts that aren’t mentioned here? What worked for you?