How to Treat and Prevent Clogged Milk Ducts
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Nearly half of all breastfeeding parents decided to stop nursing due to breastfeeding complications, such as clogged milk ducts, according to a 2022 survey. That’s a real shame, especially since there are proven ways to not only treat clogged milk ducts, but to prevent getting clogged milk ducts in the first place. Learn everything you need to know about preventing and treating this very common breastfeeding hurdle.
What are milk ducts?
Hidden inside your breasts is a network of tube-like mammary ducts (aka milk ducts) designed to transport milk from your breast tissue to your nipples. While experts used to think that each breast contained between 15 and 20 milk ducts, recent research suggests that there are actually only about nine milk ducts in each breast doing all of the heavy lifting to ensure your baby gets the nutrients they need. And there’s no correlation between the number (or size) of milk ducts in your breasts and milk you produce, according to the Journal of Anatomy.
What causes blocked ducts in breasts?
A blocked milk duct occurs when there’s an obstruction either at the nipple or further along the ductal system. Contrary to popular belief, milk duct “clogs” are not due to stuck milk! Instead, the passageway becomes inflamed, which restricts milk flow. While you can get a blocked milk duct at any time on your breastfeeding journey due to factors like stress, fatigue, or anemia, experts report that blocked ducts most often happen during your first six to eight weeks postpartum. That said, these are the main culprits behind clogged milk ducts:
Your baby’s latch needs adjusting. When a baby’s latch is less than ideal, they often ineffectively drain your breast, which builds pressure behind the duct and the surrounding breast tissue becomes irritated.
There’s too much time between feeds. Skipping a nursing or pumping sessions can cause severe engorgement, which, in turn, can clog your milk ducts.
There’s pressure on your breasts. If your nursing bra is too tight or your diaper bag strap or seat belt presses across your chest, that can clog milk ducts, too.
There’s a change in your feeding schedule. For example, if you are weaning your baby from the breast or starting them on solid foods, a clog could occur.
What does a clogged milk duct feel like?
If you are a breastfeeding newbie, it might not be obvious to you that you have a blocked milk duct. After all, when you’re getting the hang of nursing, it can be uncomfortable, blocked duct or not! It’s important to know that plugged duct symptoms usually progress gradually. Here are some signs that you’re dealing with a clogged milk duct:
There’s a hard lump on your breast.
The lump moves or gets smaller after nursing.
There may be swelling near the lump.
The lump may be red and/or warm.
It’s painful or sore to touch the lump.
You experience discomfort during letdown.
Pain subsides after feeding.
You may have small milk blister on your nipple, called a nipple bleb.
How to Get Rid of a Clogged Milk Duct
If you believe you have a clogged milk duct, don’t wait to take action! The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that it’s important to begin treating your blocked duct immediately, since a clogged duct can lead to a breast infection. Here’s how to help relieve your discomfort and to get that liquid gold flowing again:
Massage your breasts. Gently massaging your breasts—almost like you’re patting a cat—may help reduce inflammation. Deep massage, however, is not recommended, as this can exacerbate the issue. (Follow this illustrated guide.)
Try a cold compress. While breastfeeding veterans may tell you to use a warm compress on your clogged duct, updated guidelines from The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) advise against this. Instead, they recommend applying ice every hour (or more often if desired) to help reduce inflammation and pain. But don’t put ice directly on your skin, instead wrap in a light towel. Lay on your back while icing and keep the compress in on for about 10 minutes.
Take a pain reliever. Talk to your healthcare provider taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to help reduce swelling and pain. They’ll likely suggest 1,000 milligrams of Tylenol or 800 milligrams of Advil every eight hours for 48 hours.
Keep your regular nursing schedule. Don’t breastfeed or pump more than usual! This can put even more stress on your clogged ducts, worsening inflammation, and it may create an oversupply of milk…which can lead right back to clogged ducts.
Reach out to a lactation consultant. They can help your baby get the ideal latch and fully drain your breasts.
Consider supplements. Sunflower or soya lecithin capsules (5 to 10 grams daily) may help reduce inflammation in your milk ducts, according to ABM. Oral lecithin may also help clear up nipple blebs.
Don’t soak your breasts! ABM also urges breastfeeding parents to avoid soaking their breasts with saline, castor oil, or any other topical products to relieve a clogged milk duct.
How long does it take for a clogged milk duct to resolve?
Most of the time, a blocked duct can be cleared at home within two days, without the added help of your healthcare provider. If you have no relief in that timeframe—or experience symptoms like, fever, fatigue, severe pain, nipple discharge, and/or flu-like symptoms—it’s important to reach out to your physician or midwife immediately.
Clogged Milk Ducts vs. Mastitis
Chills and body aches and chills
Red, swollen, and painful breasts
Severe pain while nursing or pumping
If these symptoms sound familiar, swiftly contact your healthcare provider and find out if you require immediate antibiotic treatment.
How to Prevent Clogged Milk Ducts
There are few things you can do to help reduce your chances of getting clogged milk ducts, like…
Drain your breasts during each feed. When you’ve successfully drained your breasts, they’ll feel lighter and empty post-feed or post-pump.
Don’t skip breastfeeding sessions. And if you are away from your baby—pump.
Wear the right bra. According to the La Leche League (LLL), wearing an appropriately fitting, supportive bra (not a tight-fitting one or an underwire) can help avoid clogged milk ducts.
Seek the help of a lactation consultant. They are specially trained to check your breastfeeding positioning and your baby’s latch to help ensure your bub is effectively removing milk, which will help prevent blocked milk ducts.
Prioritize rest. If you nourish yourself with plenty of water, healthy food, and extra rest, you’ll be better equipped to stave off breast soreness, reports the LLL. To help with rest, consider SNOO, the only FDA Authorized infant sleep system, that has been shown to add an hour of sleep each night on average thanks to its safe, constant, and calming womb-like motion and sound. (For important safety information visit happiestbaby.com/fda.)
More on Breastfeeding
- The Nutrients You Need While Breastfeeding
- Proven Ways to Increase Milk Supply
- What Is Power Pumping?
- A Stress-Less Guide to Pumping or Breastfeeding While Traveling
- Breastfeeding Tips for Better Sleep
- Aeroflow Breastpumps: New Survey Highlights The Need for Increased Access to Breastfeeding Resources
- Cleveland Clinic: Clogged Milk Duct
- Anatomy of the lactating human breast redefined with ultrasound imaging. Journal of Anatomy. June 2005
- Minnesota Department of Health - WIC Program: Mastitis: Updated Guidance-Topic of the Month
- Mayo Clinic Health System: Managing plugged ducts, mastitis when breastfeeding
- United States Department of Agriculture, WIC Breastfeeding Support: Plugged Ducts, Mastitis, and Thrush
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Clogged Milk Ducts
- Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Clinical Protocol #36: The Mastitis Spectrum, Revised 2022. Breastfeeding Medicine. Number 2022
- Cincinnati Children’s: What are Plugged Ducts or Milk Duct Narrowing?
- Mayo Clinic: Mastitis
- La Leche League: Mastitis, Slowed Milk Flow, and Milk Blisters
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.