Whether pumping or breastfeeding you are sure to have your fair share of ups and downs. Some of the challenges that come with feeding a baby include clogged milk ducts and even mastitis. Having experienced these myself, I was eager to share my experiences to help Moms like you out!
Clogged milk ducts or plugged milk ducts are not serious concerns in and of themselves, but if they are not treated right away can turn into a more serious infection. Fortunately there are ways to take care of those pesky tender nodules you may feel on your breast!
In this article we’ll talk about:
- What are clogged milk ducts?
- What are treatment or release options for a clogged duct?
- How to massage a clogged duct
- How can you prevent it from occurring again?
Table of Contents
What Are Clogged Milk Ducts?
So what are clogged milk ducts? Well, our breasts have a network of milk ducts, these ducts or pipes carry milk from the breast tissue to the nipple. A clogged milk duct occurs when milk can no longer freely flow to your nipple. When a milk duct gets blocked, perhaps through compression in surrounding blood vessels or tissue, or through thick and hardened breast milk, the milk is then backed up like a dam. This can cause a red tender lump to appear on your breast.
I think it is important to note that even if you are exclusively pumping, you still can have this happen. If you need help with an exclusive pumping schedule, check out this article.
What are Symptoms of a Clogged Milk Duct?
The biggest sign of a clogged milk duct will be a tender hard lump on one of your breasts. It could even appear to have a little red spot. For me it felt like a little marble was in my breast. It will likely be tender or sore when you touch it, kind of like a bruise. Other symptoms that let you know you have a clogged milk duct can be:
- Painful letdown
- Pain or swelling near the lump (not your whole breast)
- The lump seems to move after pumping or breastfeeding
- Pain increases between feedings
Clogged Milk Duct vs. Mastitis–What’s the Difference?
If it’s your first time having anything painful and swollen in your breast, how can you know if you have a plugged duct or mastitis? You’ve probably heard that one can be a serious infection and one may not be, but which is which? Let’s break them both down.
A few tips that let you know you have a clogged duct is if there is a lump, a little tenderness, and the pain or lump seem to go away as you breastfeed. You could also have a low grade fever (think below 101F or 38C). You will not need an antibiotic for a clogged duct.
Mastitis is when the inflammation, possibly from a clogged duct, does not go away within 24-48 hours and swelling and more inflammation occurs within your breast tissue. If you begin to feel achy, your fever goes higher than 101 F (38.4C), a reddish wedge or streaking appears, and you notice a change occur in your breast tissue (redder, grayer, pink or brown depending on skin tone), then it may be time to call your Doctor. You may now have an infection that will need antibiotics. If you want to read a comprehensive blog post on mastitis, click here.
I found these images to be helpful to get an idea of what’s happening on the inside to distinguish between mastitis and a plugged milk duct. In the plugged duct picture you can see the milk building up like a dam behind it. While mastitis includes the inflammation of several lobes and the breast tissue itself.
Tips For Treatment or Release Options For A Clogged Duct?
I tried to get to this part as fast as I could! These tips are most likely the real reason you are here. There are a few options that include physical treatments, warm water treatments, and then some other release ideas. Many of these tips can be used in conjunction with each other. Always check with a lactation consultant and your healthcare provider if you are worried about what will be best for you.
- Continue to breastfeed on your affected breast: Your baby is the best tool you have to get your duct unplugged! By stopping breastfeeding you can actually cause the duct to worsen.
- Rest your body: As much as you can, allow time to rest (this is hard to do, check out our tips in this article for self care)
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Apply a warm compress or take a warm shower: Using warmth will release the lactiferous ducts (ducts that produce milk). A shower is a great way to release the duct. By aiming your shower head at the affected area and massaging, it can really help milk to flow and the plug to break up.
- Massage the clog: Using your fingers, fist, and/or thumb to press on the lump and push it toward your nipple. It will help with better milk flow. Like I mentioned above, couple the massage with the warm compress/shower and it will work wonders!
- Position baby differently: If possible, try to position your baby so that their chin faces the blocked duct to draw out the milk because of the suction they create. It can be a little awkward, especially if the duct is on the upper portion of your breast, but with dangle feeding and help of gravity, it is possible to do so!
- Start breastfeeding on the side that the clog is occurring: Babies tend to have their strongest suck at the beginning when they are the hungriest. Coupling it with massage while baby is breastfeeding can help loosen the lump.
- Using an ice pack after feeding: This will help bring the inflammation down between feedings.
- Take ibuprofen: This will help reduce inflammation and swelling. Ibuprofen is generally a safe breastfeeding medication but, as ever, always check with your healthcare provider.
- Using a Haakaa: (hand breast pump) with as hot of water as you can handle, add in epsom salts. Then place the Haakaa on your breast and leave it for 10-15 min. The heat creates a suction to draw milk out. You can do this a few times in the day. One side note to remember is don’t give this milk to baby as it is not safe with the epsom salts.
- Cabbage Leaf: This tip is a little controversial, so use your judgment. In combination with a lot of these tips, I applied a cold cabbage leaf to my affected breast. It really helped for the clog to go away. I would not repeatedly use a cabbage leaf as there is a possibility that it can lessen your milk supply.
- Breast Silicone Shell: This little tool is magical. It helps to draw milk out. As soon as I felt the plugged duct, I began with hot compress and massage, breastfed, and put on a cabbage leaf and then the breast shell. This especially helped me when my milk was first coming in and I was engorged, allowing me to release some of the pressure.
- Lecithin Supplement: If this seems to be a reoccurring problem, you can also take a Lecithin supplement. Lecithin supplements will help to thin your milk, so that plugged ducts are less likely to happen and have little to no side effects. Talk to your healthcare provider and a lactation specialist about this.
How to Massage a Clogged Milk Duct?
From what I have researched there are a few ways that you can massage your breast to try to break up a clogged duct.
Make a fist, lightly but firmly massage or knead your breast in circular motions. Especially going over the lump and moving toward the nipple
Try two hands on either side of the breast and using your fingers, massage the breast in circular motions, moving toward the nipple
Using your thumb press on the lump on your breast, applying pressure massage or press it toward your nipple repeating
You will notice the duct decrease in size as you massage. A key part of this is to avoid your areola and nipple area. You don’t want to irritate the skin surrounding your nipple. You simply want to massage the breast tissue.
This is a longer video, but you can find examples of her massaging if you are having a hard time picturing what you can do
How Can You Prevent Clogged Ducts?
Now that you have a few tips on releasing your clogged milk duct, you probably are wanting to know how to prevent this from happening again. Here are a few of the most common ways to prevent clogged milk ducts.
You can prevent clogged ducts and by extension–mastitis, by breastfeeding regularly. If you miss a session, pumping is a great option. It helps keep the milk ducts flowing. Express milk when your breasts say they are full and don’t wait too long between feedings. It can be hard to balance the changes of growth spurts and sleeping patterns with longer times between feedings. If possible though, try to go every 3 hours in the day and 6 hours at night for feeding or pumping. You will know if it’s been too long by that “full” feeling or tight hard breasts.
Adequately Express Milk
This simply means that you are able to get all of the milk out of your breasts. Babies who have a tongue tie or lip tie, will have a difficult time latching properly and thus getting out all the milk from your breasts.
When you are doing pumping sessions, it’s also necessary to have a correct latch. The correct phalange size (the part that touches your nipple) on your pump will do wonders. If you notice that your areola (the dark circle around your nipple) is being pulled into the phalange tube, or that your nipples are whitish then the phalange size is incorrect. Don’t forget that your nipples may be different sizes from each other as well, which is totally normal.
Check with a lactation consultant about these things, they will be more than happy to help you figure it out and can check to see if you need to schedule an appointment to take care of baby’s lip/tongue tie.
Change The Position Your Baby Is In
By changing the position your baby feeds from they are better able to draw milk out from different glands. This can help to make sure that one area isn’t being neglected over another. I was not very good at this one, but coupling it with the tip below helped me to not have a clogged duct happen again.
You can definitely massage your breast on a regular basis while baby is feeding or while pumping to ensure that you are adequately expressing and emptying your breast. This is a great preventative measure and not just for when you have a clogged duct.
Avoid Wearing Restrictive Clothing
With so much on the market for new Moms we may accidentally wear clothing that may not be the best for our bodies while breastfeeding. Avoid wire bras, or sports bras while breastfeeding. You probably want a supportive bra, but try to find something that will not be too restrictive. There are great sports bra-esque nursing bras out there. Tight or restrictive clothing can compress the tissue in an area that can lead to a clogged duct.
Breastfeeding is definitely a roller coaster ride. Just as you begin to think you’ve got it, your body can send you for a loop. Clogged milk ducts are a common sneaky surprise you can get whether you exclusively pump, breastfeed, or do a combination of both. Hopefully in this article I’ve been able to empower you to know what the difference between mastitis and a clogged duct is, what you can do at home to treat a clogged duct, and how to prevent it. You can continue breastfeeding and pumping even with a clogged duct. If you have used any of these techniques or have had it, let us know in the comment section below!
Niki Cowan has a background in Medicine and Public Health. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist as well as a Medical Assistant. She’s passionate about Women’s Health and empowering women in their journeys. She is married to her wonderful husband Kevin, and they have an active son. While trying to have another little one hasn’t worked out yet, she is pursuing her passions and hoping to gain further education and experience in the area she loves, while playing with her son. She’s an avid reader, Original Great British Baking Show watcher, and very amateur kickboxer.