What the heck is mastitis and how can it be prevented?

When supporting families with breastfeeding, it's really important to be able to recognise when there are problems and how to quickly resolve them, especially in the case of mastitis. It can be incredibly painful and debilitating for anyone who breast or chestfeeds to experience this inflammatory condition.

IBCLC Charlotte Treitl talks us through the basics.

What is mastitis?

Mastitis is inflammation in the breast, caused by milk stasis. This occurs when the breast isn't being fully drained or emptied often enough. It can also be caused by damage to the ducts which makes it difficult for milk to pass through. Lighter skinned breasts will often show a red patch, and this may be hot to the touch. This may look different on dark or brown skinned breasts where redness may not show easily. The breast will feel heavy, may have a lump, and the skin may feel tight.

How do you get it?

Some of the most common causes of mastitis are:

  1. Feeding on a regimented schedule instead of responsive feeding (on demand)
  2. Missing a feed or going an unexpected length of time between feeds
  3. Damage to the breast/ducts
  4. Wearing a too tight bra
  5. Suddenly stopping breastfeeding (‘cold turkey')

How to avoid mastitis

The best way to avoid mastitis is to feed the baby responsively (on demand), rather than to a regimented schedule. Make sure bras fit well – get measured again if you need to be. Try not to stop breastfeeding or reducing feeds suddenly.

How do you treat it?

Often mastitis can be treated without the use of antibiotics, but if you do develop a fever, lethargy or other flu-like symptoms, it's important to seek urgent medical attention. Mastitis can turn quickly into sepsis or an abscess.

It's important to keep feeding on the affected breast. You can try:

  1. warm compresses to help milk flow before a feed
  2. ‘dangle feeding' (kneeling over your baby whilst they lay on their back)
  3. cold compress between feeds to reduce inflammation

If symptoms don't improve in 24-48 hours, seek medical advice.

Often mastitis can be treated without the use of antibiotics.