Life has a funny way of knocking you down to size when you start feeling just a little too comfortable or a little to confident. Point in case: After four months of rather successful breastfeeding, I developed mastitis last week. And boy, I don’t wish that on any newbie mom.
For those who haven’t experienced the misery of mastitis, it’s a boob infection, plain and simple. And like most infections, it sucks. Not only is your boob super sore, but it can be swollen (mine was) and have crazy red lines on it (mine fortunately didn’t). And you feel like absolute poo. Not like oh-I-have-a-cold-and-don’t-feel-good kind of bad, but like I-can’t-get-out-of-bed-and-I-think-I-might-be-dying kind of bad.
In my case, a clogged milk duct was the root cause. I’d had a clogged milk duct before, back in the first couple weeks of breastfeeding, but I was able to get rid of it pretty quickly with some firm massage while nursing and pumping. But this time, no dice.
I pretty much knew I had crossed over into mastitis territory when it was 90-something degrees outside and I was in my house wearing jeans and a cardigan sweater and was still freezing. I had a temperature of 101 degrees and was experiencing periods of shivers and chills followed by the sweats. At one point, my face was on fire, my shoulders and arms were cold, my legs were hot, and my feet were ice blocks. I also felt somewhat nauseated at times.
My doc prescribed antibiotics and assured me in a couple days I would feel better. I would say that within 36-hours I was feeling remarkably better in that I was no longer sprawled out on my bed, eyes half rolled back in my head as I panted out of one side of my mouth. But I still had a lot of tenderness and was swollen, which were adding to my fears that I was going to develop a breast abscess and need surgery.
I tried loads of things to try to unplug the stubborn duct:
- Constant nursing followed by pumping
- Varying nursing positions
- Hot compresses
- Cold compresses
- Massaging the affected area in a hot shower
- Cabbage leaves (hot and cold)
- Increased water intake
- Pain medications from ibuprofen to acetaminophen
- Herbal salves
I would feel some relief when I applied nearly scalding hot compresses or got into a super hot shower and I think the ibuprofen worked to help take down some swelling, although my so-though brilliant idea to down a couple of aspirin to try and thin out my blood and presumably milk didn’t do much to speed the clearing process.
Despite the engorgement-alleviating success stories, the cabbage leaves were more a less a bust, especially when I microwaved one. Turns out you want to be sure you remove the entire stem or risk burning yourself. And it made my kitchen stink. Now I have to figure out what to make for dinner that would call for an entire head of cabbage.
One mom-friend suggested that I boil some water with ginger in it–ginger has some known healing properties–and then soak a washcloth in it and apply it as a compress. One mommy blog that I had consulted suggested doing something similar with a rosemary infusion. So, I thought why not combine the herbs to concoct my own medicinal miracle?
I can’t say for sure that the ginger-rosemary-infused hot compress solved my problem, but the swelling and tenderness went down the following day. It could have just been the antibiotics kicking in or the combination of all my home remedies finally taking hold, but the timing was noteworthy in my book. And my kitchen smelled good, although my compress cloth was temporarily stained.
If my symptoms hadn’t started to clear, I had two more options on the back burner. One was investing in a mini hand-held electric massager. Granted, I think this would have been a painful exercise, but maybe it would’ve gotten things moving more quickly.
The second was to try yet another homeopathic remedy called a fenugreek seed poultice. Basically you create a type of paste out of the seeds, slather it on the affected area, and put a hot compress over it. Of course, in my version, I was going to break open my fenugreek capsules rather than boiling and mashing the actual seeds. How much fenugreek can one lady have anyway? I wasn’t about to go buy more of it when I was already worried that taking it–fenugreek is an herbal supplement that purportedly helps moms maintain their milk supply–while having mastitis was going to exacerbate the clogged duct by stimulating more milk production. I’m not sure it works that way, but that’s the logic I was following.
So, it’s been a week exactly since I first noticed some initial soreness and I feel totally back to normal–hallelujah–although I have quite a few more days of antibiotics to go. In retrospect, I think I could have avoided this whole thing if I’d been just a little more careful, more respectful of my body.
See, breastfeeding hasn’t been a bad experience for me. For as much as I stressed about all the things that could go wrong, when it came down to getting started, I really got rolling without too many bumps. I don’t know if it was because I was adequately educated–I took two classes and read a number of books and articles on the subject–or whether my baby and I just figured out what to do quicker than some, but once we were over the initial period–that can be painful but it doesn’t last long–it was working out for us.
And that was just it. I treated it like no big deal, like my body could handle whatever stresses I put it through with impunity. But one long weekend later and I got my painful reminder. Turns out seven-plus hour drives up and back to Rhode Island, little sleep, lots of rushing around, not enough pumping, some booze, and a new bra (I had to have one that worked with my dress) is a nearly lethal combination for nursing mom.
To be able to continue nursing as successfully as I have been, I realize that in situations like that, I really need to reorganize my priorities. At home, breastfeeding is a major part of my daily life and I learned, extremely painfully as it turned out, that it has to be that way on the road, too. Breastfeeding, even when it feels like old hat, is a delicate balance. And when you upset that equilibrium–be it for a wedding or whatever–there are consequences, as evidenced by the current scoreboard: Mastitis-1, Sarah-0.