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Avoiding breastfeeding infections

Breastfeeding mums dread getting mastitis, but there is plenty you can do to help avoid the breast infection

Posted: 19 February 2009
by Maria Muennich

Around one in twenty breastfeeding mums develop a breast infection at some point, usually in the first couple of months of breastfeeding. The infection, known as mastitis gives you flu-like symptoms and often a sore, red and hard lump on the affected breast. Mastitis can be very uncomfortable, particularly as your baby feeds, but it can be quickly and effectively treated by your GP, sometimes with antibiotics. Although it's one of the things that breastfeeding mums worry most about, many women don't experience mastitis at all and there is plenty that you can do to help prevent an infection taking hold in the first place. So follow these suggestions to keep your breasts happily infection-free.

  • Non-constraining clothing - Wear comfortable, not tight, soft cotton nursing bras and clothes to prevent your breasts being constricted. It's a good idea to go without a bra whenever you have the opportunity (as long as this is comfortable for you!) to give your breasts some freedom. If your bra or clothing inhibits the flow of milk through your breast it may lead to a blocked duct, and the milk which is trapped is liable to become infected.

  • Sleeping position - for the same reason it's a good idea to check the position which you sleep in at night to make sure you aren't putting pressure on your breasts by sleeping on your front or by squashing one breast. Similarly it's good to also avoid constraining your breasts by carrying heavy bags or even with your nursing position.

  • Regular, even feeds - Irregular feeding is a prime breeding ground for breast infections as when a breast becomes overly full with milk it can lead to blocked ducts and infection. Make sure that you feed your baby from both breasts regularly, and drain each breast in turn. If you start a feed with the left breast one feed, then switch to the right breast to start the next feed. If you feel that your breasts are getting uncomfortably full you can offer your baby a feed, even if he doesn't appear hungry.

    If you are away from your baby at feed time make sure you pump as usual and try to avoid the temptation to give your baby a bottle and skip a breastfeed because it's more convenient.

    If your baby is off his milk you can make sure that you keep draining your breasts regularly by expressing. Any milk you express can be stored in a sterile container in the freezer for up to three months (it's best to date the bottles as you store them).

  • Check your baby's latch - If your baby isn't latched on properly at your breast he won't be able to feed well and so won't drain your breasts, which is more likely to lead to problems with overfull breasts and blocked ducts. An incorrect latch-on is also more likely to lead to sore or cracked nipples, through which bacteria can enter the breast, often from your baby's mouth, and cause infection.

  • Take care of sore or cracked nipples - Because broken skin gives an entry-point to bacteria, it's important that you look after your nipples well. If you do have sore/cracked nipples it's important to keep feeding your baby from both breasts, even if it is painful. Massaging a little of your own breastmilk into the affected nipple can help to ease the pain, and there are plenty of other ways of helping your nipples get back to normal here.

  • Massage your breasts - Massaging your breasts as you feed your baby can help the flow of milk and ensure that ducts are being emptied more evenly. Try gently, but with some firmness stroking across your breast towards the nipple all around the breast as your baby feeds from it, and pay special attention to any areas that feel slightly hard. Don't press so firmly that you make your milk flow faster than is comfortable for your baby though. Many mums find it helps to use massage to get their milk flowing even before they start a feed, though this might not work if you have an impatient baby.

    Another trick is to lightly massage your breasts as you shower in the morning, or while you bathe, as the warmth will help free up any potential blockages - again, pay particular attention to areas which feel hard or slightly sore. Don't be surprised if your milk starts to flow as you massage your breasts.

  • Keep up your fluid intake - You need plenty of extra fluids when breastfeeding, and it's important to avoid dehydration, which can make any possible infection worse. Stick to hydrating drinks and avoid too much caffeine and sugary concoctions.

  • Change your feeding position - It may be that the position you are feeding in is exerting pressure on part of your breasts, which may lead to blocked ducts. Try varying your feeding position every few feeds to try to prevent any problems. This should also help if you already have an infected breast and you need to take pressure off the area.

  • Rest! - Your body is doing a lot of work right now, and you're probably physically very tired from coping with your new baby along with recovering from the birth. It's when you're tired and drained that you're more susceptible to infections, as you don't have the energy to fight them off, so it's important that you try to look after yourself now, as well as your baby. Rest as much as you can and sleep when your baby sleeps, rather than rushing around trying to straighten the house. Don't forget that your baby needs you in good physical shape far more than he needs his bedsheets ironing!
If you do develop symptoms of mastitis and you're not feeling better after 24-hours, then you should see your GP right away. In extreme cases an untreated infection may lead to an abcess which then needs to be drained under general anaestheic, so it's worth taking care of an apparent infection as soon as possible.

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