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My Experiences With Mastitis And Plugged Ducts

This photo was taken the day Amanda developed mastitis.

Amanda Sweet, Cincinnati, Ohio

I managed to make it through breastfeeding three children without a single bout of mastitis and no plugged ducts that I ever noticed. So, I was surprised when I developed mastitis with my fourth child! Looking back, I can see why it happened. I was 10 days post-partum. I was pumping a couple times a day with the purpose of donating. I already had a large milk supply. And though my baby was nursing great, my two oldest children were starting their first day of virtual learning, and I was bouncing back and forth between helping each of them and caring for my toddler while wearing and nursing my baby. I should have been resting and feeding the baby and letting my husband handle everything else, but I was so worried about getting my big kids off to a good start with pandemic learning so they wouldn’t fall behind that I neglected myself and wasn’t focused on resting and draining my breasts well through nursing/pumping. I paid for it the next day. I was running a fever and my right breast hurt so bad I could barely stand to have my nursing bra touching it!

I called my midwife as soon as I realized what was happening. I was worried that, because of COVID, there would be an issue getting antibiotics, as I’d heard some stories about people with mastitis getting delayed treatment while providers ruled out COVID. This was not an issue with my provider, though. As soon as I described my symptoms over the phone, they sent a prescription for a breastfeeding-safe antibiotic digitally to the pharmacy down the street. I didn’t even need to go into the office to be seen. I am very lucky to have a support system around me: my husband made me rest and insisted on tending to the other kids, and he enlisted help from my dad who went and picked up my prescription.

I didn’t feel a lump from a plugged duct at first, but as I nursed and pumped that day, I began to feel a lump. My guess is that I developed a plugged duct deep enough in the breast tissue that it wasn’t apparent to me until my mastitis was full blown, and nursing and pumping moved it farther and farther down the milk duct.

When I noticed the lump, I was determined to get it out, though it was pretty stubborn. I set myself into a routine for the next few days. I took my antibiotic exactly on time, took a lecithin supplement, and fed my baby every time she moved or squeaked. After each feeding session, I placed an electric toothbrush on the lump, then filled a basin with very warm water, and leaned my breasts into it and hand expressed with my breast fully submerged. My basin was a green color, so I had the unique experience of being able to clearly see the milk being expressed into the water. Looking back, I wish I’d taken a video! Most of the milk coming from my nipple pores was thin and watery, just like you’d expect milk to look. But the milk coming out of one pore was thick and grainy. Rather than disperse into a cloud before fading into the water, there were tiny clumps of grainy milk floating around. It was a little gross but also interesting to see the difference so clearly!

After I wasn’t able to hand express any more, I’d dry off and settle in with my baby and a bag of frozen peas on my breast for relief. Then I’d repeat after each feeding. I tried doing things like dangle feeding, or aiming my baby’s nose or chin at the clog, or hand expressing in the shower, but those did not seem to work very well. It seemed being completely submerged in water while hand expressing was the trick for me to get that clog moving.

I did this for a couple of days and saw the milk gradually get thinner and less grainy. I stopped after I felt the milk was normal looking again, but continued taking my lecithin supplements just in case (with the okay from the milk bank I was donating to). Unfortunately, I was not able to donate the milk while I was on the antibiotic, but I just kept that milk for my own freezer stash. I also made sure to finish my entire round of antibiotics to prevent an infection from lingering.

I knew a lot about plugged ducts and mastitis, and as a La Leche League Leader I have given families plenty of resources on how to deal with them. Now that I’ve had the experience myself, my empathy for anyone dealing with mastitis has deepened! It really feels like you’ve been hit by a truck, the pain in the breast is intense, and it can be really hard to find relief. Luckily, mastitis is usually short lived. But my advice to any nursing parent—take care of yourself! Rest, stay hydrated, and don’t skip nursing or pumping sessions. Mastitis will knock you down hard, making it almost impossible to do anything extra for those first couple of days while you recover. Mastitis and plugged ducts are usually preventable through frequent and effective milk removal, and if you get either of them, they are treatable, so don’t hesitate to ask for help or support if you feel run down!

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