A plugged duct (clogged milk duct) can happen at any time during your nursing relationship. However, they tend to happen in women with abundant milk supplies or when nursing is interrupted for some reason (Did baby actually sleep through the night?)
Take action right away in order for this not to develop into the breast infection called mastitis.
How to Clear a Clogged Milk Duct
Breast milk is made in the glandular tissue located deep in your breasts. It’s carried to the surface of your nipple by small ducts and is then expressed into the awaiting mouth of your baby or a bottle, collection cup or other storage device. Each breast may contain up to 30 ducts, and they can all develop clogs just like the drains in your home.
A clogged milk duct is simply a duct that contains hardened milk. Fresh milk can’t pass through the clog, so it backs up in the duct. That causes a lump that you can feel on the outside of the breast, and it’s often quite painful.
Some women will never experience a clogged milk duct while others have repeat clogged ducts throughout their breastfeeding journey. It’s important to know what causes the clogs and what you should do if it happens to you. The faster you act, the easier it may be to relieve the pain. You will also prevent unnecessary interruptions to your breastfeeding schedule if you solve the problem quickly.
Signs of a Plugged Duct
- Tender or painful lump on the breast
- Slight swelling localized to one spot
- Slight redness localized to one spot
- Decreased milk flow in the affected breast only
- Lumpy or uneven appearance to the breast
It’s important to note that clogged milk ducts and milk blisters or nipple blebs aren’t the same thing. You may notice a tiny bump or pimple at the opening of the milk duct, especially if the clog is close to the opening. If you have a clog elsewhere in the duct, opening that surface milk blister may not fully solve the problem.
You can also have a milk blister without a clogged duct, so it’s important to know the difference between the two conditions. If you clear a milk blister and are still in pain, you may have a deeper clog that also needs cleared.
What Causes Clogged Milk Ducts?
Milk ducts clog when they aren’t fully or properly drained. Even a small amount of milk can harden and cause a partial or full blockage. There are many factors that can contribute to milk being left in the duct, including:
- Failure to fully empty both breasts during feeding sessions
- Not emptying both breasts often enough
- Milk oversupply
- Tight clothing restricts the duct and prevents proper drainage
- Improper latch from a breastfeeding baby
- Ineffective sucking from a breastfeeding baby
- Excessive stress in the mother
- Weaning too quickly
- Using an ineffective or broken breast pump
- Mother sleeping on her stomach
How are Clogged Milk Ducts Treated?
You should continue breastfeeding even if your blocked milk duct hurts. Actually nurse as often as you can!!!
Touching the breast to feed or pump may cause more pain, but the problem will only get worse if you allow the breast to become engorged with milk. If you can’t breastfeed as normal, use a pump to stop the milk from accumulating. Even hand expression is better than allowing the milk to remain in the breast.
The first course of treatment is to apply a warm compress or soak the breast in warm water just before breastfeeding. In many cases, the warmth will soften the milk clog enough that it breaks free during the feeding session. You can gently massage the breast above the clog while breastfeeding. Your baby’s lips and tongue may also provide massage in just the right place and at the right pressure.
Many women find it comforting and productive to stand in a hot shower and massage the breast. Start toward the outside of your breast and work your way closer, firmly pressing toward the nipple to push the milk in the right direction. If you feel a plug on the end of the milk duct, you can massage that directly and try to loosen it or pull it out if possible.
You can massage your breast multiple times per day for pain relief and to help loosen the clog. If the pain is significant, you can take Tylenol or Ibuprofen. Not all pain relievers are safe while breastfeeding, so check with your doctor before using anything else.
Ultrasound for Blocked Milk Ducts
What happens if you aren’t able to clear your milk duct clog within a day or two at home? Some women are turning to their doctors when they experience clogs that are difficult to clear through simple at-home interventions. One of the more modern blocked milk duct treatments is ultrasound. It’s a good option for some women who experience reoccurring blocked milk ducts or who are prevented from breastfeeding without more extensive treatment.
One study printed in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine found that therapeutic ultrasound was an effective way to ease the symptoms of blocked milk ducts and improve breastfeeding abilities. The study included 25 women who received up to seven treatments of ultrasound therapy each.
Most women won’t need therapy to clear a clogged milk duct, but this is something to keep in mind as you breastfeed your babies. It gives many women new hope when severe blockage stands in the way of their desire to breastfeed exclusively.
How to Prevent Plugged Ducts
Are you willing to do anything to prevent a repeat occurrence of milk duct blockage? Perhaps you haven’t experienced that pain yet and want to keep it that way. Your best defense is probably a supplement known as lecithin. It’s believed to cut down the stickiness of the breast milk so that it’s less likely to get stuck in a duct. While there isn’t much research to prove it works, many breastfeeding moms swear by it.
The professionals at John Hopkins Medicine, Cincinnati Children’s and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have some further suggestions for preventing blocked milk ducts:
* Keep your breastfeeding schedule consistent with 8-12 feeding sessions The longer you go without emptying both breasts, the greater your vulnerability to clogged milk ducts. If something unexpected alters your daily routine, use a pump if you can’t breastfeed your baby on schedule.
* Have your baby’s latch and sucking pattern analyzed by a lactation consultant or experienced doctor.
* Make sure your nursing bra isn’t too tight and your clothing doesn’t get bunched tightly around the breast during or between feedings. Stay away from underwire bras. Keep everything loose to ensure the duct isn’t restricted.
* Alternate breasts during feeding sessions. That ensures that each breast is adequately emptied, ensuring milk isn’t left in the ducts. You can also use a pump to completely empty your breasts at every feeding while building a freezer stash for later use.
*If you don’t pump after each breastfeeding session, hand express a bit of milk. That may help clear out the ducts to prevent clogs.
*Make sure your baby carrier, sling and other baby gear doesn’t restrict or compress your chest. The more pressure on your breasts, the more likely you are to trap milk in the ducts.
*Don’t sleep on your stomach or in any position that places pressure on your chest.
*Make sure your fingers aren’t restricting ducts if you hold your breast for your baby. Something as simple as your finger pushing down on a duct is enough to create restriction and potentially a clog.
*Make self-care a priority. You need proper rest and stress management to keep your body at peak performance. When mommy is stressed and exhausted, the baby is likely to feel the impact. That impact just might come through more frequent clogged milk ducts.
*Drink a lot of water. Your body needs to remain well hydrated to create breast milk that glides right through your ducts without sticking. You may also find that you have more energy and feel better in general when you’re well hydrated.
Do You Need Medical Attention?
Most clogged milk ducts don’t require a trip to the doctor. They will clear within a few days on their own or with a bit of help from you. You may need to seek medical help if one or more of the following occur:
- You can’t clear the duct after three days.
- The breast lump displays signs of infection, including spreading redness, excessive swelling, discharge or the sensation of heat on the skin.
- You develop a fever, chills or other symptoms of being ill.
- You start to feel overly exhausted or fatigued.
A blocked milk duct can lead to a more serious condition known as mastitis. When mastitis occurs with infection, an antibiotic is often needed to heal. The faster you seek medical attention, the easier it is to clear the infection so act quickly if you develop any of the more severe symptoms listed above.
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