Breastfeeding: What is milk fever?

For the last few days I have been running a fever with no other symptoms. This is my third week breastfeeding my new baby and my mother says I have "milk fever" and should stop nursing. What is milk fever?

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Kathy Kuhn

Kathy Kuhn is a registered nurse who has been working with breastfeeding families since 1981. She has been an International Board Certified... Read more

Anytime you have a fever greater than about 100.5 for more than 48 hours you should call your physician. Two possible causes of this fever could be uterine infection and mastitis (a breast infection); both warrant prompt medical attention, but neither would normally require you to stop nursing.

In the 18th century "milk fever" was commonly used to describe mastitis, which is an inflammation of the breast that can be infectious or non-infectious. Usually infectious mastitis has a sudden onset with noticeably sore breasts, generalized body aches and fever. Sometimes the breast is pink in the area of greatest congestion. Mastitis most commonly occurs in the first few weeks after the baby is born and may be present in one or both breasts.

The most important aspect in the treatment of mastitis is effective removal of milk from the breast. The best way to do this is with a baby who is breastfeeding effectively and comfortably. If you have mastitis I would encourage you to breastfeed as often as the baby will allow. Interrupting breastfeeding during a bout of mastitis would generally prolong your symptoms and greatly increase your risk of complications.

In addition to breastfeeding very frequently, you may need an antibiotic. If this is necessary, the doctor can prescribe one that’s compatible with breastfeeding. He may also recommend a pain reliever for you, such as ibuprophen, which will also help with the inflammation and fever. Warm, wet compresses can be applied to the breast for comfort; rest as much as possible and drink plenty of fluids.

As treatment begins it is often helpful to evaluate what may have made you vulnerable to mastitis so you can avoid a recurrence. Milk stasis, a back up of milk in the breast, can increase your risk of mastitis. Conditions that increase milk stasis are; restrictive breastfeeding schedules, poor position and latch that inhibit milk drainage, overabundant breast milk supply, bras or clothing that pinch or bind the breast and a sudden reduction in breast feeding. An increase in supplemental feedings, pacifier use, or use of solid foods would also result in a reduction of breastfeeding.

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