Getting the best nutrition for your baby is so important, and the best way to do this from day 1 is through breast-feeding. Breast-feeding is an important and special occurrence between a mother and her child. It leaves the child and mother healthier and happier. However, it also can lead to certain complications for the mother, like mastitis.
Mastitis is most common in breast-feeding women — so common, in fact, that up to one in every 10 women who breast-feed are affected by this condition. (1) Typically, mastitis occurs within the first three to six months after giving birth. It can be very painful and discouraging for a new mom, and it often causes women to completely give up on breast-feeding.
But don’t lose hope if you’re suffering from mastitis. There’s good news. Mastitis is easily self-diagnosable and very self-treatable. There are many effective, natural ways to find relief, including continuing to breast-feed your baby, which actually helps clear up the infection in and of itself, believe it or not. (2)
What Is Mastitis?
Mastitis is a breast infection that mostly occurs among women who are breast-feeding. It’s sometimes called lactation mastitis or puerperal mastitis by doctors. Women who aren’t breast-feeding can also develop mastitis, which is called periductal mastitis.
In breast-feeding women, mastitis is often caused by a buildup of milk within the breast. This is known as milk stasis. Milk stasis can occur for a number of reasons, including:
- a baby not properly attaching to the breast during feeding
- a baby having problems sucking
- infrequent feeding or missed feedings
In some cases, this buildup of milk can also become infected with bacteria. This is known as infective mastitis. Bacteria can enter the breast through cracked or sore nipples. The bacteria most commonly responsible for the infection in postpartum women is Staphylococcus aureus. (3) It’s a common bacteria and mostly causes skin rashes or epidermal infections in humans.
Research has shown that up to 80 percent to 90 percent of women complain of nipple soreness or redness during breast-feeding, with 26 percent progressing to cracking and extreme nipple pain. (4)
Breast milk is the original fast food not only for a child, but for the mother as well, which can make an infection like this a real nuisance. Mastitis is truly a pain, but it’s easier than you think to treat it and continue on the worthwhile and nutritious path of breast-feeding your baby.
10 Natural Mastitis Treatment Methods
There are many natural ways to treat mastitis. Some of the treatments are actually identical to the preventative tips for avoiding breast infections, such as improving breast-feeding techniques, regular breast-feeding and wearing loose clothing throughout the day.
There are also many treatments that serve dual purposes: both relieving the symptoms of mastitis and helping clear the blockages of the clogged milk duct, thus allowing the passage of the bacteria and ending the mastitis infection all together. It’s important to be very on top of treating a blocked milk duct or swollen area quickly to avoid the possibility of infection.
If you show signs of impending or full-blow, mastitis, the following natural remedies will be a huge help:
1. Keep Feeding
It’s important to continue to breast-feed. Maintaining a regular schedule through the infection, as long as you or the baby don’t exhibit oral thrush symptoms and it’s not too painful, helps unblock the milk duct. Breast milk is not an environment bacteria likes to be in.
Even if you have mastitis, your breast milk should be safe, and allowing a fluid passage through feeding keeps the milk healthy and not stagnant. Stagnant breast milk can sometimes lead to the milk becoming infected. However, if in fact there’s some bacteria in the milk, the digestive juices kill the bacteria.
When nursing your baby, you should ideally start on the affected side since it’s critical that you empty this breast thoroughly to help relieve the mastitis. If it’s too painful to start with the infected breast, then start with the other breast, and after your milk is flowing you can breast-feed from the mastitis breast until it feels soft.
Lecithin can be used by nursing moms to help prevent blockages in the milk ducts. The lecithin decreases the viscosity of the milk, making it easier to pass through the ducts by increasing the amount of polyunsaturated fats. A recommended dose is 1,200 milligrams four times a day.
Soy lecithin is readily available as a supplement online or in your local health food store. You can also find high levels of lecithin in eggs, dairy products, beef and peanuts, as well as various fruits and vegetables.
A simple but effective remedy for mastitis is heat. Warmth encourages and increase circulation, which mobilizes infection-fighters in the inflamed area. Place a warm compress on the affected area for about 15 minutes, three times a day. This helps circulation, decreases swelling and aids the milk to flow. (6)
Massaging the affected area before and after warming the breast is a good combination to use. Warm baths and showers before or after breast-feeding are similarly effective heat-related helpers. Heating the breast also helps the baby, as your child might seem reluctant to feed on a hard or swollen breast since it feels so different. The heat soothes the area and normalizes it.
Thinly slice a potato, and soak the slices in water for 15 to 20 minutes. Place the wet potatoes on the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes. Discard the slices, and replace them with fresh, wet slices from the bowl. Repeat this again so it totals three times in an hour. Repeat the entire process again after a short break. (7)
For similar reasons that some place potatoes on the eyes or irritated skin rashes, fresh, wet potatoes stay cool for a long time and have anti-inflammatory properties. Potatoes contain enzymes that can help reduce redness and swelling, and as vitamin C foods, they help infections as well.
5. Poultices and Compresses
Make a compress or poultice with dried fenugreek seed, rosemary, comfrey and/or dandelion, and let it sit on the affected breast for 10 minutes, off and on. It’s a good idea to alternate between warm and cold compresses since cold helps relieve pain while warmth increases circulation. Additionally, all of these natural herbs contain anti-inflammatory, antibacterial properties. Yarrow root has also been found to be an incredible pain reliever for sore and cracked nipples, diminishing the effects of mastitis.(8)
To make a fenugreek (or any herbal) poultice, grind dried fenugreek (or other herbs) with a mortar and pestle and place in a bowl. Add just enough hot water to make a thick paste. Spread the herbal paste between two layers of gauze, muslin or light cotton cloth, and apply to the infected area. Leave on for 20 minutes and repeat as necessary.
6. Breast Milk
Breast milk is actually one of the best natural remedies for mastitis caused by breast-feeding. Seems crazy, right? But it’s true! Simply rub breast milk on sore nipples prior to and after breast-feeding to help heal and recover the affected area. (9)
It’s a remedy that’s easy, free and readily available while breast-feeding. Healing the nipples is essential for creating a resistance to bacterial infections that lead to mastitis.
Garlic, aka nature’s antibiotic, can help your immune system fight against and prevent mastitis. You can ingest one to five raw cloves of garlic daily to obtain antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal benefits of this wonder allium. (10) Since raw garlic is so potent, it’s a good idea to have it on a full stomach or with food. If you find you’re sensitive to ingesting raw garlic, then the next best thing is to include some cooked garlic in your diet daily.
9. Cabbage Leaves
Raw, green cabbage leaves have been used for generations for new mothers to help engorgement, but they’re also effective in fighting against infections like mastitis in the nipple area. Simply place a leaf of cabbage inside the bra for several hours a day. By keeping the cabbage in the fridge, the leaves cool and are even more soothing. You can replace the cabbage every few hours. (12)
10. Saline Rinse
Mix half a teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of water and soak your nipples after nursing. The low-salt saline rinse, which has a salinity close to tears, helps keep the nipples bacteria-free and can also reduce pain and swelling. It’s both preventative and a treatment for mastitis. (13)
Mastitis symptoms occur when the bacteria has entered the breasts and block the milk ducts. While it’s more common for these symptoms to occur (as is the infection in general) within the first six months after birth, and more so in the first six to 12 weeks of breast-feeding, mastitis can occur at any point of the breast-feeding period. Typically, the lactation mastitis occurs in only one breast. (14)
Mastitis is, thankfully, easily self-diagnosable and very self-treatable. Spotting signs of mastitis is somewhat easy, and understanding the risks and symptoms helps make treatment much easier:
- Pain in one breast
- A lump or mass in the duct area or hardness in an area of the breast
- Redness or swelling around the nipple that can feel hot or tender to touch
- A burning pain inside the breast that may be constant or occurs when breast-feeding
- A fever of 101 degrees or higher
- Bloody or white discharge from the nipple
- Flu-like symptoms, such as chills, tiredness, malaise
The mastitis rarely affects the child. However, in extreme cases, moms can incur a yeast infection, and as a result, sometimes a child and the mother might have symptoms of thrush, in which case you should clean the nipple and child’s mouth after each feeding and seek further treatments or diagnosis for thrush.
Mastitis Prevention and Risk Factors
Treating mastitis is fairly easy, but it’s common for it to be recurrent if certain steps aren’t taken. There are several things moms can do or watch out for in order to prevent mastitis:
- It’s important to maintain a regular feeding schedule for the first six months of breast-feeding, regularly encouraging your baby to feed as much as it wants.
- Make sure your baby is well-attached to your breast prior to feeding.
- Ideally, fully empty your breasts during breast-feeding.
- Let your child fully finish his/her feeding session. Try not to take your baby off the breast until he/she has released it his/herself.
- Vary your breast-feeding positions.
- Try to avoid tight-fitting clothing and bras to encourage circulation while in the breast-feeding period.
- Watch out for impacts or blows in the breast area, which can cause damage or premature swelling and lead to a blockage.
- Avoid incorrectly using a breast pump.
- Avoid sleeping on your stomach or so far over on your side that your breasts are compressed against the mattress.
- Avoid soaps (especially antibacterial soap), deodorants and powders on the breasts — particularly those that contain dangerous triclosan — which can lead to more irritation.
Hopefully your case of mastitis isn’t too serious and you can be successful at treating it naturally. However, if symptoms continue to get worse and your body doesn’t respond to natural treatment, then you should definitely see a doctor. Most doctors recommend oral antibiotics for a case of mastitis.
If mastitis is not properly treated and eliminated — or it’s related to a blocked duct — a collection of pus can develop in your breast and form a breast mass or area of firmness with thickening. The collection of pus known as an abscess usually requires surgical drainage. To avoid this complication, you should talk to your doctor or midwife as soon as you develop signs or symptoms of mastitis.
Final Thoughts on Mastitis
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that mastitis is a very treatable and common issue, especially for nursing moms. Always continue to focus on breast-feeding through the infection, while maintaining a peaceful, restful environment for yourself and your child.
Rule No. 1 with mastitis is to keep feeding. It helps your body to get rid of the infection. Sometimes mastitis leads a mother to wean her baby before she intends to, but continuing to breast-feed is better for both you and your baby.
Breast-feeding is essential for the health and well-being of your child and even yourself as as mother. Mastitis shouldn’t interrupt that or change your mind about breast-feeding. I’m happy to say that all of the preventative tips and natural remedies I just discussed are easy to do, affordable (or even free!) and, most importantly, effective.
As with all infections and ailments, when it comes to mastitis it’s important to do what you can to avoid blocked milk ducts and other risk factors. Learning proper breast-feeding techniques to avoid overly chapped or painful nipples, which then become susceptible to infection, is also paramount.
The first few months of breast-feeding is prime time for getting mastitis, so be vigilant in regular feedings, keep your breasts and nipples healthy and moisturized, and take good care of yourself while you’re taking such good care of your baby!