My Breasts Are Not Happy: Month 2 in the Newborn Trenches


I thought all the medical problems I experienced during pregnancy would be gone postpartum. Unfortunately, my post-baby bliss was interrupted by a rising fever and aches all over my body.

I couldn't get up from my chair, pick up a toy from the floor, or complete any of my usual tasks without a great deal of pain throughout my body. It seemed that every joint was throbbing—an inconvenient position for a woman raising two toddlers and a newborn.

I called my ob-gyn. (It had been almost a month since I'd called him, so I figured he must be getting bored.) He asked about my symptoms and diagnosed me with mastitis, a fairly common phenomenon for new mothers, and one I'd experienced before.

I was surprised at this diagnosis; my breasts didn't hurt. I'd had none of the swollen lymph nodes, red streaks near my breasts, lumps, or any of the more severe symptoms I associate with the condition. Nursing, while initially painful and causing blisters on both breasts, was actually going well.

But as it turns out, mastitis is caused by things like my cracking blisters. Bacteria makes its way into the open skin and the next thing you know, you're sick.

But the insidious thing about mastitis is how easy it is to dismiss initially. Caring for a newborn is already an intense, 24-hour job that involves sleep deprivation and a great deal of physical fortitude—carrying, patting, swaddling, burping, not to mention lactation and recovering from major abdominal surgery. I thought I was simply rundown, or perhaps I had the flu. By the time I was burning up with fever and miserable from the symptoms, it was hard to determine what might actually be wrong.

Luckily, my obstetrician got me started on a course of dicloxacillin—and his nurse was right when she said it would work quickly. By the next morning, I was ready to start jogging and resume my regularly scheduled diaper-changing extravaganza.

But there is a dark side to this miracle worker. Taking antibiotics such as dicloxacillin while nursing can lead you into the terrible world of thrush. Thrush is an itchy yeast infection that ping-pongs between your nipples and your infant's mouth, and it can be extremely difficult to get rid of.

I had mastitis last year, took antibiotics, and ended up with an unbeatable thrush infection that was a major contributor in my decision to switch to formula. Nursing was extremely itchy for me, and the thrush had settled on my daughter's tongue. When the infection started to make its way into my milk ducts, I was happy to wean my daughter and stop boiling bottles and wiping my sore nipples with vinegar solution after every nursing session. What a relief!

This time around, I had just finished my course of dicloxacillin when the skin below one nipple began to itch. Alarm bells went off and sent me on a pre-dawn crawl around in our cabinets. I dug up vinegar and cotton balls, determined to head off the thrush at the pass.

I also found last year's arsenal of probiotics sitting in the back of the refrigerator and started popping them like crazy, hoping to repopulate my body with the "good" bacteria that might help defeat the onslaught of thrush. Having weaned my second daughter fairly early, I would really like to continue nursing this baby. The nutritional (and economic!) benefits of breast milk trump formula any day.

So wish us luck—me and my breasts—as the mastitis fades and the thrush blooms. We're determined to feed this baby and stay healthy in the meantime.