Breastfeeding is such a great way to improve the health outcomes of both the infant and mother – even many years later. Many new mums would be familiar with the phrase “breast is best”. This is because babies who are breastfed receive a number of important advantages. They are less likely to become sick, as they receive some of the mother’s immunity to illness and disease through the breast milk. Breastfed babies also have improved outcomes later in life, including reduced risk of obesity and a higher IQ, compared with formula fed babies.
What is less well-known is that breastfeeding has many health benefits for the mother too. Breastfeeding mothers have lower risk of persistent pelvic girdle pain, and improved mood, compared with non-breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding also reduces the mother’s risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Interestingly, later in life, women who breastfeed also have a lower risk of both ovarian and breast cancer, and a lower risk of macular degeneration in older age.
When you look at these combined benefits for both the mother and baby, breastfeeding gives lots of important health advantages – and these equate to economic benefits too.
These include the immediate benefits of reduced morbidity and mortality for mothers and babies, and also the long-term costs to the community from chronic disease and reduced work productivity that is linked with not breastfeeding.
If you would like to read more on this, has more information and statistics on the economic benefits for entire nations that breastfeeding can bring. However, many of you may be saying – that’s all very well, but this breastfeeding malarkey was a lot more difficult than I imagined!
So many women either do not manage to establish breastfeeding or wean earlier than they intended due to problems including mastitis, pain and a perception of low supply. And that’s really sad, because in so many cases, the correct advice and a bit of help may have made all the difference for these women.
Low supply is actually a lot less common than many women are lead to believe – and the problems may actually lie in things like mastitis, poor attachment, uncomfortable feeding positions and sheer exhaustion for the poor mother.
What is Mastitis?
Mastitis is an acute inflammation of the breast tissue, which occurs most commonly in breast feeding women. While inflammation is always present, there is not necessarily an infection – a bit like with a sprained ankle.
Mastitis can come on quite suddenly, giving a red, swollen and very tender area on one (or maybe both) breasts. Many women also report they feel “flu-like” symptoms, which is why many people associate it with infection. However, these symptoms are thought to be related to the body’s strong reaction to inflammation in such a sensitive, and important, area of the body.
Causes of Mastitis
Mastitis is common in the first 6 weeks of breast feeding, but may happen at other times too. Typically, there is some sort of disruption to regular feeding patterns, such as the baby sleeping longer than usual, or skipping a feed so mum can have a night off. Other causes include tight clothes or bras compressing the breast tissue or even breast pumps compressing the tissue.
These can all result in inadequate drainage of breast milk from some areas of the breast, and the backed-up milk can then leak into the surrounding tissue, triggering a rapid inflammatory response. Mastitis is not related to poor milk supply.
So what can we do to help?
One of the most important things for any mother trying to establish breastfeeding or recover from mastitis is REST!
It is important to try to keep baby and mother together as much as possible – but well-meaning family members often try to give the mother rest by taking the baby away. Instead, why not offer some other support?
A few cooked, ready to go meals or putting on a load of washing and doing the dishes are really practical and helpful things to offer. The next thing is for the mother to get some advice and support from a lactation consultant or physiotherapist as soon as possible. This is especially important if mastitis develops, as it can make you feel very sick very quickly.
What treatment can help?
Getting advice on baby’s attachment and trying some different feeding positions to make you and the baby as comfortable as possible can be invaluable.
If there are problems with mastitis or blocked ducts, some other treatment can be really helpful. Warm packs on the breasts before a feed and cold packs afterwards can help.
Ultrasound and massage to the breasts can make an enormous difference to mastitis as well. Although antibiotics are often prescribed for mastitis, they may not always be needed.
While there is a definite inflammatory reaction occurring in the breast tissue with mastitis, this does not mean there is an infection. Some women also find antibiotics can upset their baby’s tummy. It may be worth while trying some of the other treatment options first, as with or without antibiotics, these will often help things to settle down within a few days.
Other things you can do to help mastitis to resolve include:
- Keep feeding your baby – this will help drain the breast and maintain your milk supply. Feeding is a supply and demand activity – so if you stop, your supply will go down. However, you may need some help to find comfortable positions to feed, or check baby’s attachment if feeding is consistently painful or uncomfortable.
- Wear a tubigrip support – your physiotherapist can provide you with such a support if regular maternity bras are uncomfortable or digging in.
- Pain relief – simple paracetamol can often help to relieve local breast discomfort and treat low grade fevers as well. Consult with your GP or pharmacist if need be.
Seek treatment quickly for mastitis, as it can progress very quickly and make you feel very unwell.
Your GP, Physiotherapist (if they treat Mastitis) and lactation consultant are all helpful people to treat and resolve mastitis quickly and prevent recurrence.
Ensure you are getting plenty of rest, and try to keep feeding your baby. If you feel your baby is not feeding or attaching well, a lactation consultant can help with sorting this out. The hospital where you delivered should be able to put you in touch with a lactation consultant.
Please remember, this information is general and may not be right for you. Speaking to your GP or allied health professional can help you determine the best course of action for you.