Mastitis is common breastfeeding problem amongst new mothers, and it can be painful. Find out how to prevent it

Young mother breastfeeds her baby, holding him in her arms and smiling from happiness

Mastitis is a common problem, and one you should be aware of in . In fact, one in 5 breastfeeding women are affected, and it usually develops in the first three months after giving birth. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help you through your breastfeeding journey.

Mastitis occurs when one of your milk ducts becomes blocked, leading to inflammation, and sometimes infection. And if you’ve ever heard about mastitis from someone who’s experienced it, you’ll know it’s something you’d rather avoid. Find out how to reduce your risk, and how to spot the signs early so you can get treatment before it turns into a painful infection. With a new baby to look after, ain’t nobody got time for that!

MORE: How often should I feed my baby? And other advice on getting started with breastfeeding

How do I prevent mastitis?

Thankfully, there are some simple things you can do to prevent mastitis.

  • Feed frequently: A new baby normally feeds to 8-12 times in 24 hours. Don’t skip or delay feeds.
  • Position and attachment: If your baby is in position and attached properly, it will reduce your risk of a blocked milk duct. Your maternal child health nurse or a lactation consultant can help you get it right.
  • Practice good hygiene: Always wash your hands before touching your breasts or after a nappy change.
  • Relieve full breasts: If your breasts are feeling too full, wake your baby for a feed.
  • Alternate breasts: Start each feed with the alternate breast, this will ensure each breast is drained every second feed. Keeping a log of which breast you start on can be helpful, especially if you are sleep-deprived.
  • Avoid pressure: Wear loose, comfortable clothing. A bra that is properly fitted is important.
  • Rest up: It’s not always easy with a new baby, but giving your body time to rest is important. Try to rest while your baby sleeps, and ask friends and family to help out around the home.

I think I have a blocked milk duct? What should I do?

Even if you follow all the rules, there is chance you may still experience mastitis. It usually starts with a sore, red area on your breast. It can feel hot to touch, or look shiny. Some women start to experience flu-like symptoms, for example, feeling achey or feverish. These symptoms can come on quite suddenly.

If you are worried at all that you may have mastitis, you should see a doctor, maternal and child health nurse or lactation consultant as soon as possible. It doesn’t take long for mastitis to escalate quickly. And some cases of mastitis will need treatment with antibiotics to clear. However, there are some things you can do yourself if you suspect you have mastitis.

  • Don’t stop feeding: If anything, feed more, especially on the breast that’s feeling sore. The milk is still safe for your baby and your baby’s sucking can help to clear the blockage.
  • Apply heat and cool packs: Icing the area can help to relieve swelling in-between feeds, while a heat pack just before a feed can help your milk to flow and unblock your milk ducts.
  • Pain relief: Paracetamol and ibuprofen are safe to have when your breastfeeding, and can help get you through.
  • Look after yourself: Drink plenty of water – up to two litres a day. And get as much rest as possible.
  • Massage: Massaging any lumps towards the nipple when feeding or expressing, or while in a warm shower or bath can help.

When to get help

If you think you might be experiencing mastitis, it’s important to get onto treatment straight away. Your GP or maternal child and health nurse is a good place to start. Mastitis can progress quickly if left untreated, so even if you’re unsure, err on the side of caution. The sooner you get treatment, the quicker it will be resolved.