When Painful Breasts = Mastitis

"I had a c-section. Surprisingly, I felt pretty good during the first week, except for my nipples, which felt like hot coals. I thought that that was the worst thing that could happen, until one morning, I woke up with incredible pain in my breasts as well."

When Cassie's baby was 8 days old, she felt like she had been run over by a bus.

Despite a long labor and an unplanned c-section birth, she had felt pretty good up until that point. The previous day she had been to the store, and to the pediatrician, and, because nursing was not going well, to a lactation consultant. Her baby was not having enough wet diapers, and she had painfully sore nipples.

That morning, she woke up to painful breasts as well, and over the course of a day, developed angry red streaks on her left breast and redness near the nipple on her right side.

Cassie had developed mastitis.

Mastitis is defined as an inflammation of the mammary gland. It is a common problem among breastfeeding mothers. Feeling exhausted, aching muscles and fever mimic the flu, but the red-streaked breasts and tender spots make mastitis unmistakeable. Although there are several contributing factors, the most common one is irregular milk removal.

I'm sure you have munched a cheese stick, or two, in your day.

Milk is milk. Over time, warmth and beneficial bacteria will ferment and thicken milk, causing curdling. If you have plugged ducts and/or mastitis, you now have a cheese stick factory in your breasts. If you only breastfed, you would never know this. But, if you hand express, or pump into a container, you can see the strings. While this may seem disgusting to you, it's just the facts, and there is nothing wrong with you, or your milk.

But, keep this visual handy because it's important in resolving mastitis.

Irregular milk removal is at the root of mastitis.

  • Your milk production may be too abundant and your baby can't remove it all.

  • Your baby may not be efficient at milking your breast, leaving some areas full.

  • You may have slept a luscious 8 or 10 hours and skipped 3 or 4 feeds.

  • Your bra, tank, swimsuit, diaper bag, seatbelt, very large breast, lymph, a bruise, etc. could be pressing into milk ducts, cutting off flow

  • You could be sleeping on your breast, preventing flow.

  • Your baby can be overtired, teething, sick, fussing and not nursing the same as usual

And a contributing factor is exhaustion. Most mothers who develop mastitis are trying to do too much and skipping pumps or feeds. Even skipping a nap may bring on mastitis because your body needs time to rest and repair from birth. Recovery takes a lot longer than you might guess.