Natural relief for Mastitis

A woman is holding a baby in her arms.

Mastitis is one of the most painful things that I have ever experienced as a mother. It’s a common but often distressing condition for breastfeeding mothers. I got it when I was breastfeeding each of my babies, but thankfully I was able to avoid antibiotics every time.

Mastitis usually presents as inflamed and often painful breasts, resulting from blocked milk ducts or bacterial infection and usually happens when you and your baby are getting into the flow of breastfeeding or when cutting back from breastfeeding. However, it can happen any time during your breastfeeding journey and can take you by surprise. It often happens when you are run down and not been resting enough.

You can feel quite unwell with mastitis; you can develop a temperature and flu-like symptoms and this is when there may be a bacterial infection in the breasts. While you should always get medical advice, there are natural ways that may help in as well to alleviate discomfort and support your recovery.

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Cabbage leaves

Despite sounding like an old wives’ tale, there’s some evidence that applying cabbage leaves to the affected breasts can provide relief from mastitis, as the cooling effect of the cabbage leaf can help to reduce inflammation and swelling.

  • Choose a green or savoy cabbage as they are believed to be more effective.
  • Detach a leaf and wash it thoroughly.
  • Chill, but do not freeze the leaf in the fridge or freezer before use for a cooling effect.
  • Place the chilled cabbage leaf over your breast ideally with the bra off.
  • Leave it in place until it reaches room temperature and then replace it with another chilled leaf.
  • This method is usually well-tolerated but stop if you notice any skin irritation.

Warm flannels

Applying warmth to the inflamed area is another simple yet effective method for easing the pain and discomfort. The heat helps to improve blood flow to the area, promoting healing and helping to unblock milk ducts.

  • Soak a clean flannel in warm (not hot) water.
  • Wring out the excess water and then apply the warm flannel to your breast.
  • Keep it in place for around 15 minutes at a time and then massage the area well.
  • Try this just before a feed or expressing milk as the warmth can also aid milk flow, helping to relieve blocked ducts.

Sunflower lecithin

Made from sunflower seeds, this is a phospholipid that helps the milk to flow better in the breast. Sunflower lecithin is a fatty substance that’s known for its natural emulsifying properties, meaning it can help to reduce the viscosity of breast milk, preventing milk ducts from becoming blocked. Although more research is needed, many breastfeeding mothers swear by daily lecithin and have found it very helpful when they have blocked milk ducts. It is also rich in choline which is important for helping brain fog and can help with baby’s neurodevelopment.  

Sunflower lecithin is usually found in powder form and can be added to porridge, overnight oats, yoghurts, fruit puree or smoothies and makes the food nice and creamy. The general advice is to take 1,200 mg, 3-4 times a day when having a flare up.

Vitamin C

This essential nutrient plays a crucial role in immune function and tissue repair, both of which are key when battling an infection like mastitis. Aim to include plenty of vitamin C-rich foods in your diet, such as oranges, strawberries, bell peppers and broccoli. A breastfeeding mum can consume up to 2,000mg per day of vitamin C in supplement form.

Live bacteria

Probiotics, particularly strains of Lactobacillus, can help to restore balance to your body’s bacteria, potentially combating the bacterial imbalance that can cause mastitis. Lactobacilli play a role in reducing inflammation and are important for overall immunity and ability to fight infection.

If you need to take antibiotics it is also important to prioritise bolstering your microbiome afterwards for at least 6 weeks (and ideally 3 months) as antibiotics not only affect your gut microbiome, but also effect the balance of probiotic live bacterial strains in your breast milk which are important for populating your baby’s gut microbiota.

Probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. If you prefer, live bacteria probiotic supplements are also available. Eating a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses and wholegrains contribute to a diverse and healthy microbiome.

Rest and hydrate

In addition to these natural remedies, remember to rest as much as possible as this is one of Mother Nature’s best healers. And also remember to keep well-hydrated – aim to drink 3 litres of filtered water every day whilst you are breastfeeding. Also regularly emptying your breasts by feeding your baby or expressing milk can help to clear blocked ducts.

Preventing further flare-ups

If you keep getting mastitis, then it is a good idea to ask for support (such as from the NCT or the Breastfeeding Network) who can help you make sure that your baby is latching on properly and give you personalised advice on breastfeeding management (for example, if you are expressing as well as breastfeeding). You may also want to check that your baby doesn’t have any underlying medical condition such as tongue-tie that can be preventing optimal feeding.

Round up

Mastitis is an unwelcome and often painful condition for many breastfeeding mothers. But with a combination of medical support and natural remedies, a speedy recovery is entirely achievable. Embracing the benefits of cabbage leaves, warm flannels, sunflower lecithin, vitamin C and probiotics can be a positive part of your journey to recovery, helping to ease discomfort and enhance wellbeing.

If you notice any worsening of symptoms such as developing a fever, or if you don’t improve within a few days, it’s essential to consult with a medical doctor and antibiotics may be needed. Every case of mastitis is different, and what works well for one woman may not be as effective for another.

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  1. Thanks so much for this blog, Lucinda! It’s a miserable thing to get, so appreciate you sharing some practical steps we can take to help support bf/cf parents. One thing I would flag though is that my understanding is that the latest advice is to use cold compresses, not warm. Since mastitis is essentially inflammation, heat can make things worse, not better! La Leche League has more on this. Also highly recommend checking out Allegra Gast (@aloha.nutrition) for her advice on breast gymnastics (yes, really 🙂