How to avoid a breast infection when breastfeeding

Photo by Edwin de Kemp

As a mother of a newborn I can tell you: breastfeeding can be challenging. The leaking, the engorgement, soggy nursing pads, cracked nipples, having to accept that your breasts aren’t yours (or your partner’s!) anymore… On top of these inconveniences, I also developed a breast infection twice, which is no fun at all. Here I will tell you how that transpired and what you can do to hopefully avoid it. 

 
Breastfeeding is recommended by the World Health Organization for the first half year (at least) of baby’s life for essential nutrients that can’t come from formula and for reasons of hygiene. If it goes smoothly and you and baby both enjoy and thrive on it: hooray! Sadly, I was not so lucky. I’m going to tell you about my breastfeeding woes that saw me end up in the operation room three times. Based on my own experience, I know it is very important to be vigilant when breastfeeding, and I will share my tips to get a better chance of avoiding an infection so you can continue to breastfeed without worries.
 
My husband Titus and I became parents of our baby girl Lumi at the end of 2018. She is doing great, but as every parent will know, we had to find our way in the beginning. Especially the feeding turned out to be a challenge. Yes, people will tell you that breastfeeding might not work and that it is intense, but I had no idea just how intense it can be.
 

Breastfeeding struggles

 
My breastfeeding struggles began when Lumi was about four weeks old. She seemed constantly hungry and I was feeding her nights on end. Then one night I was feeling awful. Shivering, then feeling hot and nauseated; as if I had a severe hangover. I remember those from my previous life! Because I was feeling so bad I could not feed Lumi and Titus fed her bottles from breastmilk stock I had built up in the freezer. In the morning, my breasts felt on the verge of exploding, but overall I was feeling better. In the following days, I started to feel some lumps in my breasts: clogged up milk ducts and glands. I tried to massage them away and was only partially successful. Since I didn’t connect the dots of the fever attack and a possible breast infection, I was late in going to the doctor and the infection had evolved into an abscess that had to be surgically removed.
 
When all this was going on, we had started to introduce formula and I continued to pump milk and give it in a bottle instead of directly from my breasts. It took a lot of stress away and we settled into easier times as a family.
 

Breast infection (mastitis)

 
However, it was not all unicorns and rainbows for me physically, as I developed a new abscess due to poor vigilance on my side. After the first surgeries (I actually had to go into the operation room twice on one day, because a vein was left open and I was bleeding heavily for seven hours) I didn’t notice a new lump developing, because it was covered by the wound dressing. When I was admitted to the hospital, I was unable to pump in time, so again my breasts were overflowing. Again, it was too late to massage the lump away, so the abscess had to be surgically removed once more after which I slowly stopped pumping with the help of a lactation coach.
 
Breast infection (mastitis) turning into an abscess is very rare and if you take good care of yourself and your breasts, there is no need for concern. If you are in doubt at any time, please consult a professional (doctor, lactation coach)! I’m not a professional, but I share my experience hoping it may help and support you.
 

How to avoid a breast infection when breastfeeding

 
Here are my tips that may help you avoid breast infection when breastfeeding. Please note that I am not a doctor, nor a lactation coach. I’m relating my own personal story which will hopefully help you so your situation doesn’t get out of hand. If you are in any doubt, consult a professional sooner rather than later. Rely on your motherly instincts. They rule!
 

1. Make sure to empty both breasts regularly and consistently

 

  • In the first few weeks of your newborn’s life, baby will have to be fed around eight times a day. Later on, the frequency can change based on demand.
  • Alternate between breasts. For example: when you start with the right one, let baby drink until (almost) satiated, then offer the left one. Next feeding session, start with the left one. You will probably be able to feel which breast to offer first because it feels fuller. It helps to make a note because your brain may not be as sharp as it used to be. Hello hormones!
  • If your breasts still feel full after feeding, pump milk to properly empty them and you can build up some stock too.
  • You can tell you need to relieve the pressure when your breasts start to feel full and slightly uncomfortable. You will learn when it’s time to empty them. Don’t wait too long! For your own comfort and health.

 

2. Maintain good hygiene

 
  • Wash your hands before feeding or pumping.
  • Change nursing pads regularly.
  • Sterilize bottles daily.
  • Change your bedding regularly.
 

3. Inspect your breasts

 
  • Check for lumps: if you find any, it can help to take a hot shower before feeding or pumping.
  • During breastfeeding or pumping, massage in the direction of your nipple.
  • If the lump doesn’t go away quickly, consult a physician immediately.

 

4. When in doubt, consult a professional

 
  • In order to be able to care properly for your baby, you should take care of your own health first, so don’t hesitate to seek help.
  • My GP was very helpful and understanding and I had a great lactation coach who was so non-judgmental that she deserves a medal. 
 

 
Even after this ordeal I’m still happy that I’ve been able to give Lumi essential nutrients by breastfeeding her for the first few months of her life. I have to admit though: since I’m completely finished with breastfeeding, I feel free! Champagne!
 
 

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