Clogged milk ducts are painful and can lead to mastitis if they aren’t cleared quickly. Here is everything you need to know, including how to tell if you have a blocked duct, how to treat it, and how to prevent them in the future.
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What is a clogged duct?
A clogged milk duct, also called a blocked duct or a plugged duct, occurs when the milk flow out of your breast has been obstructed in a certain spot, and the milk behind it gets trapped.
What causes blocked ducts?
A lot of the time, this can happen when milk isn’t removed quickly enough from the breast for whatever reason, such as if a feeding or pumping session is missed.
Clogged ducts can also occur if your breast tissue is irritated for other reasons – if your bra is too tight, if you are sleeping on your breast, if your diaper bag is rubbing against your chest, etc.
Sometimes, they seem to occur for no obvious reason.
What are the symptoms of a clogged duct? How can I tell if I have one?
Common symptoms include:
- A small, hard, painful lump in your breast.
- The area around the lump might be red, warm to the touch, and sore.
- The breast may be more tender before feeding, with some relief after a feeding.
- Usually, only one breast is affected.
- The flow of milk out of the affected breast can be slower, because the pressure from the clogged duct may collapse the other ducts around it.
Clogged duct vs mastitis
If you have other symptoms in addition to a painful lump, such as a fever, chills, flu-like aching, and malaise, you may also have mastitis.
Mastitis often develops from a clog that isn’t cleared, so it’s really important to start treating one as soon as you notice it, before you develop mastitis.
How do I treat a clogged milk duct?
Here are nine strategies to clear plugged ducts with a breast pump (everything from obvious to last resort).
1. Empty the affected breast as often and as completely as possible.
That means pump (at least the affected side) as often as you can.
Sometimes it can be painful to pump on the side that has a clog, and it can be worse at the beginning of a pumping session, before and during letdown.
One way to manage this is to start pumping only on your “good,” unaffected side until your milk lets down. Then, start pumping on the clogged side and empty the affected breast as much as possible.
2. Try vibration/lactation massager
Many people have found that vibration helps break through the blocked duct.
You can try an electric toothbrush, but if you are prone to clogs, a lactation massager that is shaped to help you work out plugged ducts with vibration is a good investment. It’s also waterproof, so you can use it in the shower!
3. Do breast compressions
While you pump, do breast compressions on the affected side. You can try and massage the milk in affected duct towards the nipple.
4. Use a warm compress
A warm compress (such as a warm washcloth or Booby Tubes – use the code PUMPING15 for 15% off) on your breast before you pump can help loosen the clog. Just make sure that it’s not so hot that you hurt yourself.
5. Use a comb in the shower
Kellymom suggests using a comb on top of the area where the plugged duct in order to work the clog out.
Take a wide-toothed comb into the shower with you, draw it through a bar of soap, and gently massage it over the clogged area towards the nipple.
6. Try dangle pumping
Lots of people will suggest “dangle feeding” (nursing while leaning over your baby, so that gravity can help free the blockage) to help get out a clog, but that’s not helpful when you’re exclusively pumping. Instead, you can try dangle pumping.
Dangle pumping means pumping while you’re leaning over so that your nipples are pointed towards the floor. Here is a great overview of how to do it in different positions.
7. Put epsom salt in a Haakaa pump
To do this, put the epsom salt into the pump, and fill it a little more than halfway with hot water. Your nipple should be submerged when you suction it on. Keep it on for 5-10 minutes.
8. Take ibuprofen
It will both help with the pain and reduce the inflammation the clogged duct is causing in your breast.
Ibuprofen is considered safe to take when breastfeeding.
9. Ask your partner to help you
Some women have success with having their partner provide the suction to get the clog out. (Mine was a hard pass on this, but if you’re desperate and your partner is willing, it might work.)
How long do plugged ducts last?
Blocked ducts usually resolve within 24-48 hours.
As noted above, it’s a good idea to treat clogged ducts as quickly as possible in order to avoid mastitis.
It may also take a little time for your supply to recover after the clog is cleared.
How can I prevent clogged milk ducts in the future?
1. Stick to your schedule
The best way to prevent clogged ducts is to empty your breasts completely and on a schedule.
Breast milk production is a system of supply and demand, and clogged ducts often happen when supply suddenly exceeds demand. If you’re prone to clogged ducts, it’s best to not skip pumping sessions unless you have no choice; additionally, you should try to make sure that you empty your breasts as much as you can.
2. Consider lecithin
If you are prone to getting plugged ducts, you can also try taking lecithin.
It may help in reducing the “stickiness” of milk by increasing the amount of fatty acids in the breast milk; the less sticky milk is better able to flow out of the milk ducts. The recommended dose is 1200mg, taken 4 times per day.
(Legendairy Milk reached out and gave me a discount code for their sunflower lecithin. Take 15% off with the code EPUMP!)
3. Make sure your breast shields are the right size
Another thing to watch out for when it comes to avoiding clogged ducts is making sure that your breast shields are the right size.
Having flanges that are too big or too small can cause inefficient pumping, so extra milk may be left in the breast.
4. Check to make sure there’s nothing else irritating your breast
The last thing to do is to make sure that your bra is comfortable and not too tight, that you aren’t sleeping on the affected breast, that there isn’t a diaper bag that rubs against your breast, that kind of thing.
Hopefully this helps you clear your clogged duct and prevent them in the future! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.References
- Newman, Jack, MD. “Blocked Ducts and Mastitis.” https://ibconline.ca/information-sheets/blocked-ducts-mastitis/