Ahh breastfeeding. It’s a new world of terminology, positioning, and equipment. No matter how well your breastfeeding journey is going, it can still require a whole heap of patience and behind-the-scenes knowledge.
Clogged milk ducts (sometimes called “blocked” or “plugged” ducts) may not be something you’d heard of before starting breastfeeding. But it’s a common problem, so if you have a clogged milk duct, you’re definitely not alone.
No need to panic, though. Here’s what you need to know about clogged milk ducts.
In this article 📝
- What causes clogged milk ducts?
- How do you know if you have a blocked milk duct?
- How long does it take to unclog a milk duct?
- How do you unclog a milk duct?
- How to prevent clogged milk ducts
What causes clogged milk ducts?
A clogged milk duct is the result of a milk duct that isn’t fully drained. These narrow ducts funnel your breast milk to your nipples, and, unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t take much for them to block. Pressure builds up in the breast duct behind the blockage, which in turn creates irritation.
So, how do milk ducts get clogged? A clogged duct is often caused by one of these factors:
- Engorgement. Engorgement is a build-up of fluid in your breast. It can be caused by various things: frequently feeding off one side only, skipping or missing a feed, and letting more time pass between feeds than you’re used to (like when your baby starts sleeping through the night – yes, we promise this will happen one day!).
- Poor latch. If your baby is not latching to your nipple well, they may not be able to drain your breasts effectively.
- External pressure. No, we don’t mean the judgy side-eye you might be getting when feeding in public. (Seriously, people, it’s 2021 — get over it!) We mean literally, too much pressure on your boobs. This could be a too-tight bra, sleeping on your front, or having a tight seatbelt or bag strap across your boobs for too long.
- Weaning. If you’re cutting down the number of feeds per day, you may well experience some engorgement and clogging as your boobs get used to the new pace.
- Oversupply. You may simply be producing more milk than your baby needs. This is normal and should level out over time.
- Dehydration, fatigue, stress. Yep. Try and find a new mama who doesn’t have at least one of these things. It’s a good idea to keep a huge water bottle nearby when nursing, and try your best to get a little rest or even sleep (we know, easier said than done!).
How do you know if you have a blocked milk duct?
If you have a clogged milk duct, you’ll be able to feel a small, hard lump in your breast which will be tender or sore. The skin around the lump may be slightly red and warm to the touch, and usually, it will only happen in one breast at a time.
The pain in the lump may be more noticeable if your baby is due for a feed, and will lessen after the feed. You may also notice a small white dot on your nipple – this is a milk bleb or milk blister. It’s when the very end of the milk duct gets blocked. However, aside from the discomfort of the lump itself, you shouldn’t have any other symptoms.
An untreated clogged breast duct can turn into another more serious condition, called mastitis. Not only would you have a sore lump on your breast, but you might also experience some flu-like symptoms, including fever and muscle aches, and the redness may spread across your entire breast.
How long does it take to unclog a milk duct?
A clogged milk duct can often be resolved within a day or two of at-home treatments (keep on reading for our top tips). If your breast tenderness is not getting better, or you’re starting to feel more unwell, it’s best to have a chat with your doctor as you may have mastitis, which needs to be treated.
How do you unclog a milk duct?
So, will the clogged duct go away by itself? No, not really, although you won’t usually require medication or medical treatments.
The best thing you can do to reduce a clogged duct is to keep breastfeeding as often as possible, ideally with no more than 2 hours between feeds. Although it may be uncomfortable, feeding your baby is the most efficient way to drain your breasts, so it really is the key to unclogging that duct. Here are some other tips to unclog your milk duct:
- Have a hot shower and aim the water at your affected breast, or hold a warm compress to your breast before feeding.
- Massage your breast gently in smooth motions over the affected area, from the outside of your breast, towards the nipple. Therapeutic breast massage helped in 65% of women presenting with plugged ducts, engorgement, or mastitis in recent research.
- Feed off your affected breast first, as your baby’s sucking will be strongest when they’re hungriest at the beginning of the feed. Of course, don’t neglect the other breast as you run the risk of causing clogs on that side.
- Wear a well-fitting nursing bra, without underwire, to gently support you.
- If you don’t feel like your baby has fully drained your breast, express any extra milk after a feed to relieve the pressure.
- Change feeding positions throughout a feed, as long as your baby is happy to, to get them stimulating all of your milk ducts from every angle.
How to prevent clogged milk ducts
Of course, prevention is the best course of action. But having a baby and learning the breastfeeding ropes is a crazy ride, so try not to blame yourself if you have a clogged milk duct. Keeping yourself rested and hydrated will mean you’re in the best shape to tackle breastfeeding, so accept all the help from friends, family, and Peanut mamas that you can get. Feeding your baby frequently, from both breasts, and for as long as they need (say hello to another Netflix binge) will help minimize the risk of developing a clogged milk duct.
If you have repeated bouts of clogged milk ducts, it may be worth speaking to your doctor about a lecithin supplement, or getting some advice from a lactation consultant to improve your baby’s latch and your breastfeeding technique.
Motherhood is a learning curve, you’ve got this.