Let’s face it—even though breastfeeding is natural, it’s also hard. work. Even after taking classes and reading countless articles to prepare—and then working with lactation consultants once your baby is born, there will always be something about the breastfeeding experience that surprises you.
So we want to take one surprise off of the table, and make sure you’re in-the-know about clogged milk ducts—a sneaky, unexpected, and at times painful occurrence that is sure to come up at least once during your breastfeeding journey (this applies to mamas who exclusively pump, too!).
What is a Clogged Milk Duct?
Your milk ducts are the tubes that carry milk throughout the breast to the nipple area. When the duct isn’t draining properly (or often enough) during nursing or pumping, the milk ducts can become clogged. The pressure that builds up behind the clog causes the tissue to inflame, and it feels like a (tender and painful) small marble has lodged its way right into your breast! This can really catch a new mama off-guard—but don’t panic. While painful, it’s a normal part of breastfeeding, and there are a lot of things you can do to loosen up the plugged milk duct.
How Can I Prevent Clogged Milk Ducts?
Engorgement (when the milk builds up in your breasts causing them to feel heavy and full) can lead to plugged ducts. Here are a few things you can do to help avoid engorgement and reduce your chances of a clogged duct:
- Allow your newborn to latch and nurse for as long as they’d like
- Ensure your baby has a good latch (lactation consultants can be a resource to help you and baby find the best way to latch)
- If you’re away from your baby, try to pump as often as you typically nurse them
- If you exclusively pump, be sure to stick with your pumping schedule as much as possible
- Make sure that while your bra is supportive, it isn’t so tight that it can restrict the milk ducts (underwire bras can be a nursing mama’s arch nemesis!)
- When weaning, or when baby’s schedule changes and isn’t eating as much as usual, hand-express or pump just enough milk to take the pressure off. Your body will adjust and begin to make less milk
How Can I Get Rid of a Clogged Milk Duct?
While clogged ducts are common—it’s also important to work on fixing the clog immediately after you notice one. Here are a few things you can quickly do to help keep your milk moving:
- Breastfeed frequently, beginning on the breast with the clog (we’re talking as often as every 2 hours!) to help loosen it and help your milk flow
- When nursing try different holds that aim baby’s chin at the area where the plug is—while it sounds crazy, this can help focus the baby’s suction on the duct that is affected. Pretty cool, huh?
- Massage directly behind the affected area using a circular motion, then outwards towards the nipple before and during nursing or pumping
- Use a warm compress on the area where you notice the clogged duct, or hop in the shower and let the hot water hit the affected area
Should I be Concerned about a Clogged Milk Duct?
While it’s can be painful, a clogged milk duct shouldn’t be accompanied by a fever or other symptoms. If you’re experiencing nausea, yellowish discharge from the nipple, or red streaks on your breast, you might have a breast infection (known as mastitis). If symptoms don’t subside in 12-24 hours, contact your provider immediately.
If you have clogged milk ducts that keep coming back, or you’re unable to loosen a clogged duct, it’s time to bring in the experts and call a lactation consultant. Our Breastfeeding Support Program offers comprehensive lactation services including outpatient consultations, and a phone line for questions: 717-544-3335.