If you're a breastfeeding mom, you're likely familiar with occasional discomfort during nursing. From the initial pain in the early days of breastfeeding a newborn or the sensation of overly full breasts, you’re experiencing many new feelings in your boobs. One of the most painful experiences I had was when I noticed signs of a clogged milk duct. I urgently found resources, including a consultation with a lactation specialist to address this breast pain, with a big fear it may turn into something worse, like mastitis.
Now after breastfeeding two kiddos, I’ve had my share of clogged ducts and am happy to give you some insight into how I cleared them. And bonus, I’ve consulted Barb Davis, CD-Labor, LCCE, PES (PBi), certified birth and postpartum doula and lactation educator, to help us understand the specifics of clogged ducts. Barb is the founder and practice manager of Birth Fort Worth, where she helps mamas with their birthing and breastfeeding experiences.
- Understanding Clogged Ducts
- Treating a Clogged Duct at Home
- Prevention Strategies for Clogged Ducts
- Clogged Duct vs. Mastitis
Understanding Clogged Ducts
Definition and Explanation
So the definition of a clogged or plugged milk duct changed from when I had my first, Caden, to two years later when I had Willow. Previously, it was thought that a clogged duct was milk that was stuck and needed to be broken up or forced out, so the recommendation was heat, massage, vibration, but research has now shown this to be wrong.
Barb shares, “A clogged duct is inflammation in the breast that leads to a narrowing of the milk ducts. We used to think it was a physical plug and would recommend aggressive massage, dangle feeding, or vibration to help clear it. But the treatment guidelines have changed and those strategies are no longer recommended.”
Symptoms of Clogged Ducts
When a breast has a clogged duct, the affected area may feel hard, sore, and tender. Barb says “It feels like a hard, usually sore, spot or lump in the breast tissue.” The tell-tale signs also include an inflamed, tender lump, pain during letdown, a decrease in breastmilk production, or a change in your baby's feeding behavior. It's important to pay attention to these signs and not dismiss them as typical breastfeeding discomfort. Typically there is no fever associated with a clogged milk duct.
If you suspect you have a clogged duct, start with a breast exam in front of a mirror to feel and look over your breasts. You want to identify where the duct appears to be.
Causes of Clogged Ducts
Typically new moms are so concerned with increasing milk supply, and are searching for ways to do this. But when supply increases too much, clogged ducts can occur. In most cases, clogged ducts occur due to inadequate milk removal. This could be caused by infrequent breastfeeding or pumping (which happens so commonly as moms return to work which is why a good breast pump is key), a poor latch, regularly feeding only on one side, or even tight clothing and bras, or a diaper bag strap that puts pressure against the milk ducts. Certain lifestyle factors like stress and lack of sleep can also exacerbate symptoms.
Treating a Clogged Duct at Home
I’d try a mix of the following home remedies to quickly clear that painful clogged milk duct from your breast.
Nurse or Pup on the Affected Side
Although painful, it’s important to continue nursing or pumping on the affected breast. Do not skip breastfeeding sessions due to pain, or engorgement will just make it worse. I’ve also been recommended by the first lactation consultant I saw for this issue to try pointing the baby's chin toward the affected area of the breast when you feed.
Apply Cold Compresses
Barb also advises, “Cold compresses (a bag of frozen veggies or an ice pack works great) every hour, especially after nursing or pumping helps to reduce inflammation.”
Take OTC Pain Releivers
Take over-the-counter pain reliever like Tylenol or Advil regularly to help reduce swelling.
Lymphatic massage is another effective home remedy for a clogged milk duct. It is a gentle form of massage that encourages the natural drainage of the lymph and relieves swelling. Incorporating this type of massage into your routine along with rest, hydration, and a healthy diet can go a long way in managing and preventing clogged ducts.
Here are Barb’s directions to perform Lymphatic Massage, or as she playfully calls it, “The Milk Shake.”
- Apply olive oil all over the breast. This makes the massage easier to do and more effective.
- Place one hand on the top of the breast and the other hand on the bottom of the breast (similar to sandwiching your breast).
- Swirl your hands gently over the surface, all around the breast like you are mixing up the milk inside. Do this for about 30 seconds.
- Raise your arm (the same arm as the breast you are massaging) and do a quick rub of your armpit area. You may notice some tenderness there. This is where your lymph nodes are located. Lymph nodes are the drains and filters of your body.
- Starting with your hand flat against your chest wall, under your breast, make sweeping motions up toward the armpit. You will need to reposition your hand with each sweep to cover the whole area. You want to focus all movement toward that one area.
Take Sunflower Lecithin
I’ve heard many moms swear by sunflower lecithin pills to treat and prevent clogged milk ducts. And Barb also brought this up as a suggestion: “There is also some evidence that taking lecithin can help treat the plug and prevent recurrence. You should always visit with your healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement but KellyMom has a great article on this.” Side note: I found KellyMom SO USEFUL in troubleshooting any breastfeeding related challenge.
When to Seek Medical Assistance
But what if home remedies aren't clearing up your clog? If your symptoms aren't improving, it's important to seek medical assistance from your healthcare provider. Untreated clogged ducts could potentially lead to mastitis. Mastitis is an infection that presents with flu-like symptoms, redness, pain, and inflammation of the breast tissue. Barb, weighs in, “Don't hesitate to reach out for additional support from a lactation consultant if you feel like you need the extra help. It is very important to address the issue promptly because it can quickly turn to mastitis, a breast infection.”
This is exactly why I reached out to a professional after getting my first clogged duct!
Prevention Strategies for Clogged Ducts
Can You Completely Avoid Clogged Ducts?
While there's no surefire way to prevent every clogged duct, you can certainly reduce the risk. Barb advises, “Feed your baby on demand and only pump what you need. You may also want to explore varied nursing positions and work on getting the best latch possible each time you nurse.”
Personally, I got clogged ducts several times with Caden, and after having a very different experience with Willow, I’m convinced the frequent clogged ducts (along with one case of mastitis) was due to a poor latch.
Clogged Duct vs. Mastitis
What exactly is the difference between a clogged duct and mastitis? According to Barb, “Mastitis is typically accompanies by fever, chills, sudden fatigue, and flu-like symptoms and may require antibiotic treatment to resolve.” Of course the last think you want as a new mom is to deal with this pain and illness, so Barb advises “a clogged duct can quickly turn to mastitis if not addressed.”
Clogged Duct Questions On Your Mind…
Can I Still Breastfeed with a Clogged Duct? Can I Still Pump?
Barb says, “Yes and yes! Continue feeding on demand or pumping on schedule.” Continuous breastfeeding and pumping can help clear the clog. It may be uncomfortable but it will help resolve the issue. But Barb cautions “feed your baby on demand and only pump what you need for feeding your baby. There is no need to try to 'empty' the breast.”
Is the Milk Still Safe?
Yes! Milk from a clogged duct is perfectly safe for your baby. You may notice that it looks thicker or chunkier, but it's still safe.
Will the clogged duct go away by itself?
Yes, most will clear up and resolve within 24-48 hours if you continue nursing or pumping as usual. However, I highly recommend taking proactive steps like the ones above to avoid your clogged milk duct leading to further issues like mastitis.