The breasts of women play a crucial role in life – it nourishes the infant shortly after birth and can make a difference in the growth, development and health of a baby. It is known that breastfeeding is the best means to nourish a newborn and today breastfeeding is once again becoming the preferred option among new mothers. However, there are two fairly common breast problems that can arise during lactation.
Firstly there is the situation where the breasts become overfilled with milk and painful. This is known as breast engorgement. The other problem that may be seen among breastfeeding women is an infection of a breast or even both breasts simultaneously. This is known as mastitis. Although both involve the breast during lactation, it is two very different conditions. However, engorgement may lead to mastitis.
Breast milk production is a normal process that occurs shortly before giving birth and continues for as long as the infant is feeding. It can sometimes occur abnormally without pregnancy but milk production is usually very moderate in these cases. Some women produce more milk than others but the quantity of milk production is largely based on how frequently a baby feeds.
Milk production is fairly constant during lactation and regularly emptied by the feeding infant. Therefore the more a baby feeds, the more milk the breast produces. Milk production can occur indefinitely in this way. In breast engorgement the milk collects in the breast until it begins to exceed the maximum storage capacity of the breast. It leads to swollen and painful breasts.
Engorgement of the breasts is mainly due to a women stopping breastfeeding suddenly. Blockage of the milk ducts that carry milk out of the breast can worsen the condition but is usually not the sole cause. Contrary to popular belief, engorgement is unlikely to arise because the breasts are abnormally overactive in milk production.
Basically, if a lactating women expresses the milk regularly or allows the infant to feed more frequently, the breasts will not become overfilled. As the baby feeds less with supplementation of solid foods, the breast starts producing less milk and the chances of engorgement is unlikely. It is possible for engorgement to progress further and complicate into mastitis.
Mastitis, in the true sense of the word, means inflammation of the breast. However, since the majority of cases are due to an infection, the term mastitis has become synonymous with a breast infection. Although mastitis can occur in any woman, it is more common during breastfeeding. Therefore the condition is more correctly known as lactation mastitis.
Breastfeeding is a time in a woman’s life when the breasts experience extensive trauma. However, breastfeeding is a natural process and the breasts are equipped to deal with it to a certain degree. The bacteria that cause mastitis exist naturally on the skin and within the baby’s mouth where it is not harmful. But when the bacteria enter the breast tissue, it can cause a serious infection.
Normally the breast can prevent bacteria from entering the breast tissue. However, when the nipples become chapped with breastfeeding, the bacteria may take the opportunity to infect the
breast. Mastitis can also occur when the milk ducts become blocked. This can lead to engorgement of the breasts as the milk is trapped but bacteria may also enter and infect the breast tissue.