The following post is long, gory and personal. I have hesitated to share this story, but I don’t think there is enough information available on the problems that can arise during breastfeeding. I feel compelled to share my experience in hopes that it might prepare other breastfeeding moms for troubles they might encounter on what is ultimately a truly rewarding journey.
Breastfeeding. It’s wonderful, natural and healthy for both mother and baby. Nothing can replace that bond. With a five-month-old, it’s easy. But in the beginning, it was so, so much more difficult than I ever imagined.
After Silas was about five weeks old, I thought we were just getting the hang of things when I started feeling a little achy and lethargic. I was extremely tired. I also found a small lump on the side of my right breast. I thought it must have been a clogged milk duct – something else I had never heard of (or paid attention to) until recently.
I found a hand-out I had collected from the hospital and tried to address the situation on my own: apply heat, massage and try to get the baby to pull out the clog.
It just so happens I had just started to use a pump – something new mamas are encouraged to do at about 5-6 weeks so you can get your baby used to a bottle (a breastfeeding mother’s ticket to freedom). I never really liked the pump and the mechanical pulling on my already sensitive nipples.
I tried my best to deal with this, while juggling my new responsibility as a mom (I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted). But my own health didn’t seem as important as just making sure my son’s basic needs were met. After a few days, I quit worrying about the little lump, and thought it would go away.
Unresolved blocked ducts typically turn to mastitis, which is painful and almost always accompanied by a fever, something I never had. So I figured I would be fine.
I don’t really remember how it grew or changed, but all of a sudden I had a red, hot lump on the side of my boob the size of a golf ball. I was worried and confused. If it wasn’t mastitis, why wouldn’t this stupid clogged duct go away? What was I going to do?
I remember sitting at the kitchen table crying, talking to our hospital’s mother/baby clinic on the phone, scribbling down notes. Remove bra. Apply moist heat. Try a different size flange on the pump.
The pain was bad, but worse, I felt like a failure. I felt like I was really bad at breastfeeding, something I always thought would come naturally to me. The feeling was horrible, because my son’s nutrition (survival!) depended on it.
As a last-resort, the mother/baby clinic suggested I try physiotherapy. A local clinic provides ultrasound therapy that melts away the clog, as far as I understood it. I made an appointment, and the pain was excruciating. The therapists thought I would need a week’s worth of sessions to remove the blockage. After two sessions, I cancelled, saying I only felt worse. My boob felt like it was on fire.
Meanwhile, I had made an appointment with my doctor to get a note to get the physio sessions covered by insurance. By the time I saw her, I knew I needed her help.
“Oooh,” she said as she touched my red-hot breast. (My baby was screaming because I had fed him from the bad side, in my failed efforts to unblock the clog, and now I realize he probably got nothing.) She prescribed antibiotics and said to come back if nothing changed in a week. She said it looked like early mastitis.
“I just hope it’s not an abscess,” I said. I had read about abscesses, which were described as extremely rare. My doc assured me that I would be feeling a lot worse if I had an abscess.
A few days later, I felt no change. The mass was still there, and I felt a constant dull pain. I continued using hot and cold compresses. Continued breastfeeding as often as possible. But nothing worked.
I only blamed myself. I thought I had been doing this all wrong. The latch must have been wrong, I thought. So I called the mother/baby clinic again. I thought I should set up an appointment to have them coach my technique.
I explained my case to the lactation consultant over the phone – saying I had felt bad for nearly two weeks, and how antibiotics had made no difference.
She told me what I really needed was a trip to the Emergency Room. She advised me to ask for an ultrasound to see if the blockage had actually turned into an abscess.
“Even though I have no fever?” I asked. She said yes. She had seen women with abscesses, even without a fever.
Strangely, I felt relief. At last, there seemed to be some reason for the madness. My husband and I headed to the ER, 7-week-old baby in tow. We waited for about four hours, until finally, it was confirmed. Yes, I had an abscess, and it was big – really big.
At first I thought it might be possible to have it drained while I was awake, but frozen. But no, it would take surgery under general anesthetic to get it out. Just to be sure, the ER doc suggested I return in the morning to have another ultrasound and get a second opinion.
I was terrified. I was just getting used to taking care of a newborn. The last thing I could handle was surgery – with an unknown intensity and unknown recovery time. Other than a standard wisdom tooth extraction, I had never had surgery before. I was also worried about how long I would have to wait before breastfeeding Silas again. I didn’t know if his little tummy could handle formula (after being told over and over again that breast is best, I wrongly worried the two couldn’t mix). I was also worried about my husband handling all this alone, without my help, since his parents were away on vacation, and mine live in another province.
When we returned to the ER the next day, things moved faster. Before I knew it, we were in a make-shift surgical suite. There were boxes stacked up on one side of the room. The surgeon appeared and took a look. He said that he would put me under and operate. He returned in just a few minutes and started assembling instruments with a resident. Nurses started hooking me up to monitors and IVs.
Suddenly my husband and baby, who had been waiting in the room with me, were in the way. My husband wheeled out the stroller, and decided to go buy formula and return when I woke up. I never got a chance to kiss or hug them goodbye. And I started to well up with tears.
An ER doctor saw the tears in my eyes and asked me if I was OK.
“I’m just worried about my baby,” I blubbered, like a true new mom. Of course, Silas would be fine with his Daddy. But that was probably the first time I was apart from him.
The doc told me everything would be fine. And before long I’d be snuggling my baby again. I breathed in the gas, and fell asleep.
In what felt like moments later (and was really only about 20 minutes) – I woke up to the sound of ripping tape. The surgeon was taping me up. And boy, did I feel pain. I felt every millimetre of what turned out to be an incision that was four centimetres deep. I grimaced in pain, and the nurse brought me acetaminophen and ibuprofen. It didn’t help much.
Later that afternoon, I was back home and could barely move, I was in so much pain. My incision was bleeding badly. Luckily, my husband had managed to get a bottle for our baby. I had enough frozen breastmilk for just one bottle, and he would have to have another bottle of formula.
A nurse came to our home a few hours later to change my bandage, which made everything feel much more comfortable. She assured me that I would be fine to pick up and feed my baby that night. When I did, everything flowed so much better. Though the incision was painful, it didn’t hurt to nurse.
From that point, I took it day by day. The first days were rough. I was still full of guilt and I felt alone, embarrassed to talk about my problem. I couldn’t understand why this kind of thing – something so rare – had happened to me. I was also terrified that the whole thing would happen again, but that I couldn’t quit breastfeeding, or that would only make the problem worse. I continued to receive daily visits from nurses for three weeks, then thrice-weekly visits for another couple weeks after that. The wound needed to be packed so it would heal from the inside out.
Little by little, I got better, and bit by bit, my confidence returned.
A few days before I got on a plane to be a bridesmaid (in a strapless dress) at my sister’s wedding, I was officially discharged from my nurse’s visits.
“Well there’s another success story,” she said, as she peeled off the bandage for good. That’s a way of looking at it, I thought.
Now I’m left with a pink cross on the side of my breast, and this long, ugly story.
My baby – I should add – was completely healthy through the entire process. He is gaining weight and is now a peppy and cute five-month-old.
The thing is, I still don’t quite understand how this happened to me. During my healing process, none of the home-care nurses seemed to have an explanation. During a follow-up visit, the surgeon didn’t really either. He just told me to keep nursing and that I might be more susceptible to these things than other women.
My theory is that I got clogged ducts from pumping. Not everyone agrees with me. But I do know that pumping increases supply, so maybe not all of it was getting out.
I just want other women who are breastfeeding or are considering it to know that this is something that could happen. In the midst of all the good health benefits of breastfeeding, people are often reluctant to share the dark side.
Clogged ducts and mastitis are far more common – and I only heard other mothers’ stories and experiences after having a baby. Abscesses are rare, mostly because women get help from mastitis sooner. Women usually feel horribly sick, and get meds right away. For some reason, I didn’t feel so sick. I didn’t feel myself, and I felt tired, but not bedridden.
Now I realize that by the time I went to the physio clinic, it was likely already an abscess.
If there is any takeaway from this, it is to get help with clogged ducts or mastitis right away – even if you don’t have a fever.
I am now feeling completely better and still breastfeeding. I am grateful that Silas was completely unaffected by it all, and I know in the grand scheme of things, I will likely forget this even happened. Although it was a tough experience, I am still glad to be breastfeeding my son.
Other mothers share their horror stories with breast abscesses: