Breastfeeding is one of the most bonding experiences you can have between a mother and baby. However, it isn't always easy or comfortable. During your breastfeeding journey, you may experience leaking, engorgement and perhaps even a hard, painful lump, which could be a clogged milk duct.
This is something you can usually clear at home but it's important to stay on top of it as it can sometimes progress into something slightly more severe, like mastitis, a painful breast infection.
So, let's look at everything you need to know about how to clear a clogged duct, so you can identify if this ever happens to you during your breastfeeding journey and what might help!
What are the symptoms of a blocked milk duct?
A clogged duct occurs when the milk duct in your breast is blocked or has poor drainage. Symptoms usually come on slowly and typically only affect one breast.
Common symptoms of a blocked duct include:
- Pain in one place in the breast
- A swollen, tender lump in the breast
- Heat and swelling in the breasts
- Slow milk flow on one side
- Discomfort that subsides after feeding or pumping
- Movement of the lump over time
- A small white dot on the nipple, known as a milk bleb
- Lumpy skin in one place
- A temporary decrease in milk supply
- Thickened or fatty milk
Plugged milk ducts can also cause a low fever; you should see a doctor if you experience this as it may mean you have a breast infection.
What causes clogged milk ducts?
Clogged milk ducts are most common in women who are breastfeeding, who have recently given birth and chosen not to breastfeed, or have recently stopped breastfeeding. A clogged duct usually occurs if a breastfeeding woman hasn't thoroughly drained the breast, as milk can then accumulate and block the duct.
If you have experienced breastfeeding difficulties such as oversupply, a baby with a weak latch, or pain that prevents frequent nursing, you are more likely to get clogged ducts. Having said this, however, anyone who is breastfeeding could find themselves with a clogged duct.
This could occur due to a recent change in feeding patterns, short or skipped breastfeeding sessions, pressure from tight-fitting clothes or bras, and not fully draining the breasts during each breastfeeding session.
In very rare occurrences, women can get clogged milk ducts for reasons that are unrelated to breastfeeding, such as duct ectasia, which is a non-cancerous breast condition.
Will a clogged milk duct eventually dry up?
A clogged duct will usually clear up in 24 to 48 hours, and given a breast contains four to 18 milk ducts, a few plugged ducts don't automatically mean breast milk supply will dry up.
It will simply mean less supply for a short period before more milk comes through once again. When the clogged duct has been cleared, you can return to breastfeeding as usual.
How to treat a clogged milk duct?
Most clogged ducts can clear within one or two days with or without treatment, with the fastest way to resolve blocked ducts being regular and consistent breastfeeding or pumping sessions.
However, if you want some extra help, here are a few options:
- Massaging the clogged duct is a popular way to clear the blockage and you can do this with your hand or a lactation massager.
- A heating pad or warm cloth on the breast for 20 minutes at a time can also help plugged ducts, as well as allowing water to flow onto the breasts during a hot shower.
- Soaking the breasts in warm Epsom salt baths for 10 to 20 minutes can also help blocked milk ducts.
- You can try to change the position in which your baby is feeding, so their chin or nose is pointing towards the clogged duct. Or, you could try breastfeeding on all fours or so your baby is underneath your breasts, as gravity can help.
- Do not try to pop the clog, as this will only make things worse.
- Ensure you're also wearing loose-fitting clothes and bras without underwire.
- Continue breastfeeding to continue draining the breast, as stopping will only worsen it.
- Start your feeds with the affected breast as babies tend to suck hardest on the first side they are offered.
How to massage a clogged milk duct
Massaging the affected area on the breast before and during a feed can help to stimulate the flow of milk. Begin just above the clog and push towards the nipple. It's important not to use too much pressure as this can damage the duct.
If you're using your hands, lay down on your side with the arm on the same side as the affected breast above your head. Next, create a 'U' shape with your other hand and gently move your hand from the bottom of the breast up towards your armpit.
Your thumb will pass the middle of your chest, while your fingers will go past your armpit. Do this for three to five minutes after each feed.
When should you seek medical treatment?
While a clogged duct might be uncomfortable, you shouldn't need medical attention. However, if you experience intense breast pain, fever, swollen breasts, a clogged duct that continues to come back or one that doesn't go away in 24 to 48 hours, then it's a good idea to get it checked out.
The doctor may suggest you need a round of antibiotics or other medical attention. The clog may be due to an unsuitable breastfeeding position or poor latch, both of which are common for newborns and new mums.
A lactation consultant could also be helpful for new mums and help reduce the risk of a clogged duct.
In some cases, a clogged duct can also lead to a bacterial infection called mastitis. If you're experiencing a fever, this is not something that comes with a clogged duct and could be a sign of infection.
You may also experience flu-like symptoms such as chills and body aches, tenderness of the whole breast, a burning sensation while breastfeeding or nursing, or redness. Mastitis can be caused by bacteria from your skin or your baby's mouth infecting cracked nipples or milk ducts.
Keeping your breasts clean and dry and protecting cracked nipples is very important. Kin's Nipple Balm helps combat dryness, prevents nipple cracking and builds skin elasticity.
Mastitis occurs in one in 10 breastfeeding women, and if you've previously had it, you are, unfortunately, more likely to get it again. If mastitis goes untreated, it may lead to an abscess that needs to be drained surgically.
A clogged milk duct shouldn't last longer than 12 to 48 hours. If you're worried and have tried some of the suggestions above with no luck, it may be a good idea to chat with your doctor or healthcare provider.
Is there a way to prevent clogged milk ducts?
Feeding or pumping often is the best way to prevent clogged ducts and avoid mastitis. Experts recommend breastfeeding eight to 12 times a day, especially when you are just starting.
You can also try massaging your breast during feeds or while pumping to help milk drain. Avoid tight clothing, tight bras with underwire or tight baby carrier straps — there's never been a better reason to wear sweats!
Varying your breastfeeding positions so that all the ducts get suction is also essential. You can also apply a warm compress to your breast before feeding if you know which areas tend to clog, and a cool compress after feeding is also helpful.
If you are experiencing any discomfort and the affected duct doesn't seem to be improving with all of the above steps, it's important you chat to your doctor for professional advice on the next steps.
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