Mastitis: a pain in the tits

 

“My back started to ache, unbearably, I put it down to carrying around a heavy baby. But when my right boob also started aching, I felt sick and left my dinner untouched so that I could go to bed, a little bell rang. I spent the night sweating and shivering.” It was the dreaded mastitis…

Minutes after Joni was born she managed to locate my nipple and latch on for her first milk feed. She was a hungry baby and breastfeeding got off to a good start. Bar the usual early niggles (sore nipples, baby needing constant feeding), Joni took to it well and so did I. Then on about week three, a friend mentioned this infection called mastitis. She told me that when her son was a tiny baby she began to feel unwell, developed a fever and flu-like symptoms (achey, knackered) and had to go to bed. It was to do with a blocked milk duct. Gosh, that sounds terrible, I said.

A few days later I was having a lovely picnic with my mum and sister in Epping Forest. We sat on a rug in dappled shade cooing over Joni. When my back started to ache, unbearably, I put it down to carrying around a heavy baby. But when my right boob also started aching, I felt sick and left my dinner untouched so that I could go to bed, a little bell rang. I spent the night sweating and shivering, and the following morning at the emergency doctor’s surgery, waiting for three hours until they prescribed me antibiotics. I was worried about taking them, as I thought it might interfere with breastfeeding – which was now painful as it was inflamed from the mastitis – but the doctor said it wouldn’t clear up on its own.

I spent the next few days feeling like shit – trying to celebrate my birthday belatedly, as i’d spent it in labour. And then the infection left my breast and I was fine. (Antibiotics didn’t interfere with breastfeeding).

Around six weeks post partum, I got back into running. I left Joni with my mum and dashed around the park, feeling elated as endorphins rushed through my body. I waited a day then ran again – about two miles. But the next day I felt a familiar aching and tiredness. My boob hurt. Mastitis was back. I panicked, tried to get a doctor’s appointment but couldn’t and decided to treat it myself. A combination of cabbage leaves in my bra, hot compresses, baths, loads of rest and plenty of water cured it.

A couple of weeks later I began running again. A few days later mastitis returned. And this pattern repeated three more times until I (begrudgingly) stopped running. I found that running helped when I’d had a bad night’s sleep; the cold morning air woke me up and raising my heartbeat filled me with energy – but it wasn’t worth risking illness. My body was clearly saying: slow down, you’ve just given birth and you’re still breastfeeding a big baby on demand. I had tried three different sports bras but it didn’t make a difference. I also expressed before heading out. Apparently, it can be the arm motion blocking the ducts – but mostly, it’s the body rejecting over-exertion.

An unhelpful NCT breastfeeding counsellor sat watching me breastfeed when Joni was about five weeks old and our group met up. After hearing i’d had mastitis, she told me the latch wasn’t right, ie. I wasn’t feeding Joni properly. I told her i’d had three midwives check and they all thought it was fine. She then changed her mind and said it was good. I remember feeling pissed off that she was sat watching and judging me – new mums can be very self-conscious in those early weeks – and also that she had got it wrong. It didn’t feel helpful, it felt intrusive. The latch was fine – the mastitis was down to trying to do far too much too soon (exercise, cleaning the house, lifting heavy things).

And i’m writing this post for three reasons. 1. So that anyone reading who is breastfeeding and begins to feel the beginnings of mastitis will know what’s happening to them. 2. Because it’s so important to rest and recuperate after giving birth. Some women get back in to running but i’d say start really slowly and stop if your body isn’t coping and 3. because rather than taking antibiotics, which isn’t ideal for mum or baby, it’s possible to cure blocked ducts and mastitis naturally. Feed through it (it won’t hurt for long), stick cold cabbage leaves in your bra (Savoy is best, not sure why – but it worked for me), use hot compresses (a flannel soaked in hot water pressed against your breast, or a hot water bottle), drink loads of water and chill the fuck out. The last instruction is the most important. But if it’s not clearing up after this, best to check with the doctor because i’m not one.

I hope someone else can learn from my mistakes. And happy breastfeeding – it’s such a beautiful way to bond with your baby, even if it does take a while to get into the swing of it.

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