Common Problems Encountered by Breastfeeding Women


Breast Infection (Mastitis)
Mastitis is the medical name for a breast infection. It is a miserable, "flu-like" illness that is accompanied by an area of pain and redness in the breast. The condition seldom occurs in women who are not lactating, but it is not uncommon among breastfeeding women. As many as 10 percent of nursing mothers will have a breast infection during the course of breastfeeding.

A breast infection is usually caused by bacteria, often the same germs that are normally present on the nipple and in the baby's mouth. Many factors can increase a nursing mother's susceptibility to mastitis. Chief among these is irregular or incomplete removal of milk from the breast. Poor emptying can result from many causes, such as too long an interval between feedings; ineffective removal of milk by the infant or by a breast pump; having a clogged duct that prevents proper milk drainage from a particular lobe; or wearing a tight-fitting bra that impedes milk flow. Infecting bacteria can enter the breast through a cracked nipple or duct opening to cause mastitis. Any type of breast trauma will also predispose a lactating woman to mastitis. The trauma can result from infant teething, incorrect infant latch-on or abnormal infant suckling, generating excessive vacuum pressures with a breast pump, or by an older baby pinching the breast. In my experience, maternal exhaustion also leaves a mother vulnerable to mastitis. The infection often strikes employed mothers, sleep-deprived women, or mothers with house guests or holiday plans. The typical symptoms of mastitis are outlined below.

Achy, "Flu-like" Feeling
Women coming down with or suffering from full-blown mastitis mistakenly may assume they have a bad case of the flu. Because flu-like symptoms are so common with mastitis, physicians are taught that "flu" in the breastfeeding mother is mastitis until proved otherwise. Indeed, women unaware that they have mastitis may call their doctor to request treatment for the flu or to inquire whether their baby might catch the flu from them by nursing. Only after gathering more information does it become evident that the mother is really suffering from mastitis. I also recall a woman who telephoned to ask whether the over-the-counter medication she was taking for her flu symptoms could harm her nursing baby. Further probing revealed that she actually had mastitis. If you become ill with body aches and flu-like symptoms, it is possible that you have mastitis, and you should notify your doctor.

Breast Pain, Redness, and Firmness
Most women with mastitis will be able to pinpoint a painful area in one or both breasts. The affected spot is usually pink or red and firmer than other areas of the breast. The pain can range from severe, even exquisite, to a vague achiness or tenderness to the touch. Usually, an entire wedge-shaped lobe of the breast will be involved, starting at the nipple and extending toward the chest. Any portion of the breast can be affected, but the outer areas next to the armpits are common sites, since the milk glands are concentrated in these locations. The skin over the tender area can range from faintly pink to fiery red and tight. The painful area is usually firmer than the surrounding tissues due to obstructed milk flow from the infected lobe. In some cases, the entire breast becomes hard and swollen. I recall one woman in whom the first symptom of mastitis was unexplained diffuse engorgement of one breast. Fever, redness, and flu-like symptoms eventually followed within eighteen hours, but the initial sign of mastitis was sudden obstruction of milk flow from one breast.

Fever and Chills
Mastitis usually produces some degree of fever, but the achiness and breast pain often precede the temperature elevation. While some physicians won't treat mastitis unless a fever is documented, I recommend antibiotics if flu-like symptoms and a red, tender area of the breast are present. I had mastitis once myself when Mark, my youngest, was eleven months old. I awoke in the middle of the night, certain that something was wrong. My nipple and areola were exquisitely tender and by morning my breast hurt and I felt awful. I sought medical attention, convinced that I had mastitis, but my caring, knowledgeable doctor was hesitant to treat since my temperature was barely elevated. By late afternoon, I was much sicker and had a definite fever, so antibiotics were started. I subsequently have seen other women with the same progression of symptoms, so now I recommend treatment even if a fever is not yet present.

Few physicians or parents associate a headache with a breast infection, but an unexplained headache often is present in women with mastitis. Of course, a headache can have many causes, ranging from sleep deprivation to high blood pressure. If you have a headache along with any other symptom of mastitis, you might have a breast infection. Even if you have no other symptoms of mastitis, any severe or persistent headache should be reported to your doctor.

Nipple or Areolar Pain
A breast infection can start when bacteria enter the milk ducts at the nipple opening. At first, the infection might be contained in one of the lactiferous sinuses under the nipple, before progressing into the breast. An area of the areola that is tender to the touch or painful during nursing can be a symptom of an early breast infection. The infection can quickly spread from the duct system to affect a whole lobe of the breast.

Can I Continue to Breastfeed with Mastitis?
In the past, physicians believed that women with mastitis needed to wean, both to speed their recovery and to prevent their babies from becoming ill. This belief arose in the pre-antibiotic era, when the postpartum hospital stay was lengthy and when severe mastitis often occurred in epidemic form in a large hospital ward. Today, mastitis is milder and occurs sporadically, not in epidemics, and it is readily treatable with antibiotics. Not only is continued breastfeeding allowed, it is preferable. Women who wean abruptly when they have mastitis are at greater risk of developing a breast abscess (a walled-off pocket of pus that must be drained). Most cases of mastitis are caused by germs from the baby's own nose and throat. Medical authorities generally agree that a mother who gets mastitis while nursing her healthy infant can safely continue to breastfeed through the illness. Of course, whenever a mother or other family member is sick, the baby should be observed carefully for any signs of illness, such as poor feeding, irritability, listlessness, difficulty breathing, or fever. It is possible, although not likely, for a baby to develop a serious infection with the same germs that have caused mastitis in the mother.

In a few instances, I believe that a baby should NOT be fed milk from an infected breast. For example, if a mother is pumping her milk for her premature or sick newborn and develops mastitis, this is a different situation from the woman who comes down with a breast infection while nursing her healthy infant. I recommend that mothers who are pumping milk for high-risk infants discard all milk expressed from the infected breast until their symptoms clear up. Meanwhile, the baby can still be fed the milk pumped from the unaffected breast. Such decisions should always be made in consultation with your baby's doctor. I also recommend "pumping and dumping" when the milk from the infected breast contains visible blood or pus.

Treatment of Mastitis
Call your obstetrician or family physician promptly if you have any symptoms of mastitis. The sooner you start treatment, the sooner you will feel better and the less likely complications, such as a breast abscess, will occur. A breast abscess is an exceptionally painful walled-off pocket of pus that cannot be treated effectively by antibiotics unless the pus is drained. Ultrasound may help diagnose a breast abscess. Usually, a breast abscess results from inadequately treated mastitis.

Take the antibiotic your doctor prescribes for the full course of therapy, even if you feel much better after a few days. Mastitis should be treated for ten to fourteen days to be sure the infection is thoroughly eradicated and that an abscess doesn't occur. A number of antibiotics can be used to treat mastitis successfully. Recurrences do occur when the wrong antibiotic has been used, when the infection is treated for less than ten days, or when medication doses are taken irregularly. Although most antibiotics used to treat mastitis are compatible with breastfeeding, you always should let your baby's doctor know what medication you are taking since some of it will pass into your breast milk.

Rest in bed as much as possible for a day or two. Take my word for it, mastitis is a miserable illness. Being run-down probably made you more susceptible to infection in the first place. Now is the time to pamper yourself so you can get well before attempting to resume all your responsibilities. Enlist all the help you can from your partner, extended family, friends, neighbors, or members of your church. For at least two days, arrange to be relieved of all your duties, except breastfeeding your baby, of course, and pumping if necessary. Try to find other caretakers to supervise older children, perform household chores, and care for the baby when you are not nursing. Don't try to be a martyr. Instead, learn to ask for what you need and to be a gracious receiver of care from others. With full-blown mastitis, it can take thirty-six to forty-eight hours before you notice significant improvement in terms of breast pain, fever, and body aches. Call your doctor if you aren't feeling much better within two days.

Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you have a fever. Fever markedly increases your fluid requirement and places you at risk for becoming dehydrated. Dehydration not only makes you feel worse, but it can reduce your milk supply. Normally, nursing mothers should drink an eight-ounce glass of water or nutritious beverage with every feeding. During an illness, you will need to drink additional fluids. If your appetite is diminished, at least try to consume liberal quantities of juice, soups, and gelatin. If your mouth feels dry or your urine is infrequent or dark, you are probably somewhat dehydrated.

You will probably require pain medication the first two days of your illness. Ask your doctor for a prescription if necessary. Ibuprofen is a good choice for over-the-counter pain medication, because only minimal amounts of this pain reliever are excreted into milk. Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory effects of ibuprofen help reduce the breast inflammation that accompanies mastitis. Rarely, prescription pain medication is necessary for a day or two. Fortunately, after twenty-four to forty-eight hours of antibiotic therapy, the breast discomfort usually improves dramatically.

Nurse more often, especially on the affected side, to keep your breasts well drained. Failure to remove milk from the breasts at regular intervals can make a woman more susceptible to a breast infection. Similarly, leaving the breasts full and engorged during a bout of mastitis makes it more difficult to cure the infection and increases the risk that a breast abscess will form. Although a woman with a breast infection should try to keep her breasts well drained, this can be difficult to do for several reasons. First, the pain of mastitis can make a woman postpone feedings or limit nursing on the infected side. Second, breast inflammation can interfere with normal milk flow, leading to swelling, firmness, and engorgement in one or more areas. So the very thing that's needed-effective milk removal-is more difficult than usual to accomplish. Try to nurse as often as possible. It will probably be more comfortable to start feedings on the good side until the let-down reflex is triggered. Once milk is flowing, move your baby to the infected breast until it is drained well.

If nursing your baby on the infected breast is extremely painful, or if you are having trouble getting milk to flow, it might be necessary for you to use a hospital-grade electric breast pump for a couple of days. Some mothers with mastitis find pumping to be more comfortable than nursing their baby. You can use the pump to regularly remove milk from the infected breast while continuing to nurse on the good side. Pumping will help improve emptying and maintain your milk supply in the infected breast until you are able to tolerate full breastfeeding again.

Consider requesting a prescription for synthetic oxytocin nasal spray if your milk isn't letting-down. When a woman has mastitis, her milk ejection reflex may not work as well. Not only does pain inhibit milk let-down, but the breast inflammation caused by mastitis also impedes milk flow. Some women report improved milk flow when they use synthetic oxytocin nasal spray before pumping or nursing. The potential benefits of the medication must be weighed against the expense. If the infected breast is very engorged and you cannot get milk to flow with the measures described on the preceding pages, then synthetic oxytocin is worth a try.

To prevent getting a recurrence of mastitis, search for and eliminate any risk factors that might be present. All too often, doctors treat mastitis solely by prescribing an antibiotic. Many women suffer recurrent bouts of the illness without ever figuring why they are at increased risk. In my opinion, searching for risk factors that predispose a woman to mastitis is an essential part of the treatment plan. In addition to the more common risk factors listed below, I have found that mastitis often follows some type of vigorous upper-body activity, such as jumping rope, scrubbing a floor, vacuuming, raking, mowing the lawn, rowing a boat, lifting and moving things, or doing jumping jacks. I suspect that vigorous upper-body exercise in women with heavy, milk-laden breasts causes leakage of milk into the breast tissues. Such leakage produces inflammation, which can progress to infection. While I'm not suggesting that a breastfeeding woman never exercise or attend an aerobics class, I do think she should only participate in such activities after first nursing and while wearing a good support bra. I have encountered some women who were plagued with recurrent bouts of mastitis that occurred in relation to vigorous upper-body exercise. Most of these women decided to discontinue the mastitis-provoking activities until they weaned their babies.

Factors That Predispose Women to Mastitis

  • Infrequent or ineffective removal of milk from the breast
  • Cracked or chronically sore nipples
  • Fatigue, exhaustion
  • Overabundant milk supply
  • Trauma caused by infant, especially teething/biting
  • Vigorous upper-body exercise
  • A constrictive bra (especially underwire types)