I’ve been meaning to write this post for such a long time now. If you’re here then it’s likely because you’re breastfeeding and have discovered a stubborn blocked milk duct. Between my two girls, I’ve breastfeed for a total of five years, and I’ve experienced this issue countless times. Today I’m going to give you my top tips for how to clear a clogged milk duct – and how to prevent it from recurring.
Dealing With a Blocked Milk Duct
Blocked milk ducts are almost a rite of passage for breastfeeding women. They’re not fun, but thankfully they can usually be managed effectively at home.
What is a Clogged Milk Duct?
A clogged duct, also known as a blocked milk duct or a plugged duct, is a blockage of one or more milk ducts carrying breastmilk from the tissue to the nipple. Ducts may become blocked when milk is not adequately removed from the breast, for example if baby misses a feed the breasts may become engorged which can contribute to the problem.
It’s often the case that women can experience recurrent blockages in the same area of the breast.
Clogged milk ducts can be treated effectively at home; however the issue can quickly escalate to a more serious illness if left unresolved. The primary risk factor for this is that blockages can go undetected until they amass to a large size, by which point mastitis may be imminent.
Fast detection and management is vital to prevent mastitis occurring.
Blocked Milk Duct Symptoms
The main symptoms of a plugged milk duct include the following:
- A firm lump in the breast which may quickly increase in size;
- Tenderness of the tissue surrounding the lump;
- As the blockage becomes larger it may develop into a red swelling;
- If redness develops, your skin is also likely to be warm to the touch.
What Does a Blocked Milk Duct Feel Like?
Initially you may be entirely unaware of a mild blockage. As it develops without treatment that you’ll begin to notice some discomfort in the area. It may be warm and tender to touch, and sore to massage. You may also experience some pain whilst nursing.
How to Treat a Blocked Milk Duct
I remember the first time it happened to me; I was really anxious because on top of what’s already a difficult time, I knew that it’s critical to deal with a clogged milk duct fast. Failing to act quickly can unfortunately lead to bigger more problems, which I’ll explain later.
But, with careful management, it’s entirely possible to deal with a blocked breast duct at home, and it can be resolved within a few hours.
How to Clear a Clogged Milk Duct
Here are my top tips for how to unblock a milk duct:
1. Check Your Breasts Every Day
This is important since it’s easy to miss a blockage which is deep in the tissue of your breast until it becomes more severe. Gently but firmly explore your breast tissue each time you have a shower to identify any telltale areas of firmness.
2. Continue to Breastfeed Frequently!
The worst thing you can when dealing with a blocked milk duct is to stop nursing. Start feeds on the blocked side and aim to completely drain the breast. Nurse from the affected breast frequently – but be careful not to neglect feeding on the other side.
3. Nurse With Baby’s Chin Pointing Towards the Blockage
Aiming baby’s chin towards the blockage during feeding may help to unblock a clogged milk duct. This may involve laying baby on his back and hovering over him!
4. Use a Hot Nappy
Heat can be useful to help relieve a blockage.
One of my best tips is to pour water from the kettle into a nappy as it stays hot for a long time. Apply the nappy as hot as you can stand.
This is a good time to make a mental note for if ever you see an accident involving a baby or toddler, to get their nappy off immediately.
Alternatively you could try using a microwaveable heat pack such as this one:
5. Firmly Massage the Affected Area
Firmly massage the area whilst applying heat. Alternatively you could try hand expressing whilst in a hot bath or shower.
6. Pay Attention to Technique
When massaging, try visualising the blockage; this will help you to use the correct technique: Rather than attempting to massage from behind the blockage, first try emptying the tissue in front, which will make it easier to move the blockage along. Then you can move on to firmly massaging around the blockage to break it up, and from behind to drain the breast.
Alternatively try offering the breast to baby after you’ve broken up the blockage.
7. Apply a Cold Gel Pack
After massages and feeds you may like to alternate from the hot nappy with a cold gel pack or flannel on the affected area. This will help with any swelling and inflammation and may ease your discomfort.
Don’t forget it’s fine to use paracetamol and ibuprofen whilst breastfeeding too. Note aspirin is best avoided.
8. Try an Electric Toothbrush
The vibrations from an electric toothbrush or similarly vibrating device (ahem) can also help to break up and loosen a blockage.
How to Prevent Recurring or Frequent Clogged Milk Ducts
I’m not generally a fan of complementary treatments, preferring to err on the side of caution and rely on proven, licensed, and regulated medicines. However, we all do things out of desperation and after dealing with a particularly stubborn clogged duct and hearing of several positive experiences from friends, I decided to try taking soya lecithin supplements.
Despite my reservations and not having any evidence as to why this should work, I can nonetheless recommend the product.
I won’t promise it will work for you, but really, what do you have to lose except hopefully a stubborn clogged milk duct?
Can I Continue to Breastfeed With a Blocked Milk Duct?
Yes! Insufficient draining of the breast is what causes the issue in the first place. So, not only can you, but frequent nursing is highly recommended as part of the treatment for the problem.
As mentioned previously, it’s vital that you take action fast if you notice a blocked duct. Unfortunately failing to treat the problem quickly enough is likely to lead to mastitis, since it’s unlikely that the issue will resolve by itself.
What is Mastitis?
Mastitis is a bacterial infection in the breast tissue, which is often brought on by inefficient draining of the breast. It is usually necessary to treat with antibiotics.
In my five years of breastfeeding, despite countless bouts of plugged milk ducts, I’ve only ever developed mastitis which required antibiotics once.
Mastitis presents in much the same way as a blocked duct, with a couple of additional symptoms:
- A firm, wedge-shaped mass in the breast;
- Tenderness of the lump and surrounding breast tissue;
- Pain when nursing;
- Heat and inflammation of the breast around the site of the mass;
- Generally feeling unwell;
- Fever and flu-like symptoms;
- You may also experience nipple discharge.
Treatment of Mastitis
Treatment is the same as with a blocked duct, and a visit to your GP to obtain antibiotics may well be necessary.
Can I Continue to Breastfeed With Mastitis?
Yes! It’s fine to continue nursing if you have mastitis; your GP should be able to prescribe antibiotics which are safe for your baby.
If mastitis is not treated promptly, it can quickly develop into a breast abscess.
What is a Breast Abscess?
An abscess in the breast is a build up of pus caused by an untreated infection (mastitis). They usually affect breastfeeding women, though mastitis and breast abscesses may sometimes occur in women who are not nursing and also in men.
Breast Abscess Symptoms
The symptoms of a breast abscess are much the same as mastitis, outlined above.
Treatment of a Breast Abscess
You will need to visit your GP. If an abscess is suspected or confirmed, you will be referred to hospital to have the pus drained from your breast. You may also be prescribed antibiotics to clear the infection.
Can I Continue to Breastfeed With an Abscess?
Yes, you should be able to continue nursing. As above, you should be prescribed antibiotics which are suitable for your baby.
If your GP advises you to discontinue breastfeeding during the healing period, you will need to express instead; you may continue to nurse on the unaffected side.
While these issues may seem daunting, if identified quickly, a blocked duct can be treated promptly and effectively, helping to prevent more serious issues from occurring.