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What is Mastitis? Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Whether you’re a first-time mother or a seasoned breastfeeding professional, you may have encountered the unpleasant symptoms of mastitis. Rowena Gray, an experienced nurse, midwife, mother, and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, shares valuable information about mastitis, including its causes, treatment options, and preventative measures, to assist mothers in getting into the groove of breastfeeding and being aware of what to watch for.

What is mastitis?

Mastitis is inflammation and /or infection of the breast tissue, causing significant pain and discomfort. It is important to note that mastitis is not an infection of the milk. Therefore, it is safe and advised to continue to breastfeed your baby. This condition can occur at any point in your breastfeeding journey and is a significant challenge that requires immediate attention from your GP or midwife.

Mastitis is common, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal!

How is mastitis caused?

Mastitis can occur in two ways: inadequate breast drainage or an infection caused by bacteria entering through a damaged nipple. Typically, both of these causes are associated with poor latch, although there are other factors that can lead to mastitis, including:

  • Poor attachment - including oral restrictions such as tongue tie.

  • Cracked and damaged nipples;

  • Timed / routined feeds which lead to poor breast drainage due to reduced hunger;

  • Poorly fitting nipple shield;

  • Oversupply of milk;

  • Blocked ducts;

  • Abrupt weaning;

  • Tightly fitting bra or clothing can cause block ducts.

Signs and symptoms of mastitis

Mastitis is commonly characterised as a red, hot, painful, lumpy area anywhere on the breast. This can be a small or large area and usually in only one breast (redness in both breasts in the early weeks that flares when the breast is full, then settles after a feed is likely to be engorgement and not be concerned about). Other symptoms include:

  • A ‘bruised’ sensation deep inside the breast;

  • Significant nipple and breast pain when feeding and in between feeds;

  • Flu-like fever and chills, aches and pains;

  • The inflammation inside the breast temporarily causes your milk supply to drop - your brain is tricked into thinking your breast is full and therefore slows down your milk production in that breast. With less milk, your flow slows down, and this may cause your baby to be quite fussy at the breast. (When the mastitis symptoms resolve, your milk supply will return)

How to treat mastitis?

If you suspect that you may have mastitis, it is important to seek medical attention to avoid further issues. These are our top tips to ease pain and help you manage mastitis. Time is of the essence to protect your milk supply and your breastfeeding journey.

  • Reach out to an IBCLC lactation consultant for personalised support for your feeding and latching challenges;

  • It is vital to keep the breasts well drained frequently. Allow your baby to continue to feed on demand. Do NOT wake your baby to feed, as this can make matters worse. When your baby wakes due to hunger, they will soften the breast better for you;

  • Gentle breast compressions whilst feeding helps the baby to drain the breast well;

  • Express after each feed, either by hand, pump or Haakaa breast pump, to keep the breast softened;

  • Using a warm pack before feeding helps milk flow and breast drainage, and a cold pack after feeding helps to calm inflammation and soothe discomfort;

  • You can safely take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen;

  • Rest as much as possible;

  • Seek out your local women’s health Physiotherapist as they may be able to offer you a treatment of Therapeutic Ultrasound. This is a simple and effective treatment for mastitis and usually, 1-2 treatments are all that’s required. Some physios will even visit you in your home;

  • If you start to feel unwell with fever or the redness and pain is not resolving with the above measures, contact your GP office and tell them you have mastitis. Your GP may prescribe antibiotics.

How to prevent mastitis?

Although mastitis can be caused by a variety of factors, there are measures you can take to minimize your chances of developing this condition. Consider the following tips for preventing mastitis:

  • Ensure correct attachment when feeding - you may need support from a IBCLC lactation consultant to rule out any baby or mummy issues that might be beyond your control;

  • Never time, limit or miss feeds. Always allow your baby to breastfeed on demand;

  • Gentle breast compressions help your baby to drain breasts well and help you to gently massage out any unexpected breast lumps with feeds;

  • Avoid wearing tight bras or clothing across your breasts;

  • Avoid giving baby bottle feeds in the early weeks unless advised by your health care practitioner;

  • Avoid expressing after feeds unless necessary - If your breasts feel full, even after a satisfying breastfeed, you can express with a pump until you feel comfortable. Avoid pumping your breasts beyond what your baby actually needs!

  • Try to rest each day.

Mastitis is a common condition that breastfeeding mothers may experience. It can lead to discomfort and pain, but timely treatment and effective management can often resolve it without complications. If you suspect you have mastitis, seek medical attention promptly and take preventive measures to decrease your chances of developing the condition. With adequate care and support, breastfeeding can be a satisfying and meaningful experience for both you and your baby.

Mother to newborn baby experiencing mastitis | Parents You've Got This

Rowena Gray is Parents You've Got This Lactation Expert; she is a mother to 3 young daughters, nurse, midwife and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and has been both a consumer and giver of copious amounts of breastfeeding advice! She is the author of ‘Born to Breastfeed - the first six weeks and beyond’ available in bookstores and online. Rowena has a private Lactation Consultant practice in Melbourne.

To learn more about Breastfeeding book into our Baby Basics Masterclass where Rowena will teach you all about breastfeeding basics, or purchase into our Parents You've Got This Portal Newborn stage to hear an expert video from Rowena on breastfeeding.


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