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Mastitis and Your Baby

My little vampire.

That’s the name I gave my son after my first attempts at breastfeeding failed. I tried to caress the word as I said it, just fill it with adoration and saturate it with love, but who was I kidding?  A vampire, no matter how you say it, is a mythical, nocturnal creature who sucks blood for nourishment, leaving its host to roam the earth as one of the undead.

And as a sleep-deprived new mother, I was the queen of the undead.

Just days old, my son was beautiful. Blond peach fuzz covered his head, his skin creamy smooth, his tiny lips puckered like a debutante’s. I had been a career gal who worked right up until the end, a new mom who thought less about the breast than a toddler thinks about tax accounting.

But after learning about the benefits of breast milk—it’s perfect amount of carbohydrate, protein, and fat; it’s gentle coasting through the baby’s digestive track; the antibodies passed to baby that help him/her resist infection, possible increased IQ, etc.—I was determined to give breastfeeding my best shot.

Those first few weeks after the birth were a haze of pain and confusion. I didn’t see my son as the gorgeous gift of life he was; all I saw was a compact machine, one that sucked, twisted, and pulled on my sore nipples five times a day and all throughout the night.

“He’s sucking the life out of you,” my mother said, having grown up in the era when women didn’t breastfeed. I was not encouraged.  

One morning as I awoke to my son’s hungry cries, I found my body would not move. I lay flat on my back, arms crossed over the wet nursing bra like a mummified Cleopatra. The “girls” were hard as granite, standing at attention like star cadets at West Point. I felt like Madonna in her dominatrix years. Peeking in the bra, I cringed at the view. Yellow-green pus mixed with blood oozed out of scabby nipples. A tomato-red sash of what looked like sunburn striped across my chest from armpit to armpit. Dropping my head back onto the pillow, I wondered how I had ever managed to get myself into this situation. Perspiration pooled at my temples. Hair plastered itself to my cheeks. My eyes soon drifted shut.

A wail from my son, loud enough to be the foghorn on the Titanic, ripped them open again.

“I have to go to work,” my husband said. “What do you want me to do?”

Before I knew it, my mother was there. Somehow the baby got fed. Somehow she got me up and somehow we ended up at the doctor’s office.

“Your fever’s 103.5,” the doctor said, writing out a prescription for antibiotics. “And that rash ... you’ve got a major case of mastitis. Didn’t you see this coming on?”

I burst into tears, feeling like an idiot. I didn’t know the signs of mastitis. I must have read about them sometime, somewhere, as I boned up on baby information in one of my countless books, but the truth was, I had missed all the red flags.

The first flag was swollen, tender breasts. I had taken to wearing a nursing bra at night to support my engorged cannons, but that was a mistake. A tight bra will pinch and press against your skin at night, turning small lumps into veritable mountain ranges.

The second sign of infection was declining milk supply. I did not massage the clogged ducts all the way out during feedings. I only massaged them halfway out, sometimes three-quarters of the way out, but not all the way out. This is key to increasing your milk supply.

The third sign was feeling like I had the flu, yet doing nothing about it. Mistakenly, I thought dragging through the day, feeling like a herd of elephants had run over me was just par for the course of being a new mom. Not true. You can feel rested and well and still care for a newborn!

But I knew none of this.

After a few nose-blows and some yogi-like waiting from the doctor, I told him I was quitting the breast business. I had failed.

“You can’t,” he said.

“Huh?” I eked. “But no milk is coming out.”

“Because both breasts are infected. Your ducts are clogged. You’ve got the infection out or you’ll abscess. That could mean surgery. Keep nursing. Keep feeding the baby your breast milk.”

 ”Even though it’s green and tinged with blood?”

“The baby’s stomach acid will keep him safe,” he said. “And the antibodies are good for him. You must get that infected milk out. You must.”

Well, I wanted that milk out, too, but the thought of a twisting hot little mouth sucking on my engorged, cracked breasts made me swoon. So I did the next best thing: I bought a commercial grade pump and proceeded to pump like a cow with fifteen udders.

I pumped in the morning, mid-morning, at lunch, after lunch, mid-afternoon, early evening, evening, late night, and early morning. I expressed milk in the shower. I massaged those thick knots of milk like a professional masseuse, the whole time chanting my new mantra, get the milk out! If the baby didn’t wake at night, I set my alarm and pumped.

It took a long time, pumping and then bottle feeding him the breast milk, so I was literally up half the night, every night. But it was worth it, for him and for me (although if you asked me that at 3 a.m., with a cold metal machine pulling on me, I would have thrown a breast funnel at you). 

After a few months, I had a freezer full of breast milk. The two freezers at my mother’s home and the one at her lake house were stuffed with nothing but row after row of neatly-dated, nutrient-rich breast milk. I’m sure my husband and father weren’t thrilled (not a waffle nor frozen pizza in sight), but I was. My health and my sanity had returned.   

And my son, who passed four months of age a cheery, sausage-legged rolly polly, had thrived on nothing but breast milk. Healthy, vital breast milk, even though it was bottled, often greenish or—gulp, even tinged red. I felt rather proud of my diligence, and silently thanked the doctor for being so adamant with me, a bleary-eyed new mother.

About a month later I took a good, long look at that pump. It seemed like such a crime to pump when the milk was already in its perfect, sterile container, warmed at the right temperature, ready to go. Did I really have to pump and then give it to him in a bottle? Did I need this extra step? I glanced down at my now healed body. Dare I put him on?

I sat down with my baby on the couch. I crossed my legs. I brought my baby into position. Would he even latch on after so many months spent bottle-feeding? Would it hurt? Would I bleed again?

I took a deep breath and put him to the breast. And to my surprise he latched on like he had never stopped, as if this was the most natural thing in the world for him. There was no pain, no tenderness, no twisting feeling. It felt good and right.

Still, let down had not happened. I knew it took a few moments, but what if I was too anxious? I closed my eyes and tried summon a Gandhi-like calm.

Just at that moment my husband walked through the door. His eyes popped forward and his brows shot up.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I thought I’d try it,” I said, apologetic. Could he understand that I just had to succeed at this thing, that my body was supposed to be made for this? That I wanted my son to have it all, including the bonding?

He clomped upstairs, understandably confused. He had been through all the pain and sickness with me and here I was, jumping back into the fire.

I let out my breath. It’s then that I felt it. Little pulses of light, floating up and down the sides of my breasts, then heavier, like water rushing over a waterfall. Let down came like the countdown at Cape Canaveral, right on schedule after all.

I  recalled reading that at six months some babies were ready to wean … but my baby, at five-and-a-half months, was starting on a whole new journey, a journey that this time, his mother would be sharing with him.

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