Clogged, blocked, or plugged milk ducts are a common problem experienced by breastfeeding women. Milk is produced in the glandular tissue of the breasts and then carried through a set of tubes (milk ducts), all the way to the nipple. Sometimes, the milk flow is obstructed, causing the milk to build up behind the blockage, resulting in painful, lumps in the breast.
What are the symptoms of a blocked milk duct?
The first thing you will most likely notice is a small hard lump, which may be hot to touch, tender, swollen or red. You may experience one or all these symptoms, but generally, clogged ducts will only affect one breast at a time. Many women find they have several little lumps in a localised area, whereas others have just one larger lump. The plugged area and the associated symptoms tend to be less severe just after a feed and will worsen over time between feeds.
What’s the difference between a blocked duct and mastitis?
Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast. The symptoms are similar to those associated with clogged ducts but are usually more severe. Women experiencing mastitis generally report fever, pain, hotness, swelling, achy body and flu-like symptoms. A distinct visual feature of mastitis is red triangular streaks that extend out from the painful area. Mastitis is often the result of untreated clogged ducts.
How do I relieve a clogged milk duct?
Treatment for clogged milk ducts, must start as soon as you notice the lump. Prolonging treatment will increase the chances of your blocked duct turning into mastitis, which can result in the need of antibiotics and in some cases, hospitalisation.
Take ibuprofen every six hours until the lump begins to pass. Ibuprofen is a breastfeeding safe medication that assists with inflammation. (Do not take any medicine without speaking with your medical professional).
Place a warm compress on the lumpy area five minutes before feeding; this will help to increase the flow of milk. Soak a face washer in hot water; just be careful not to burn yourself.
Immediately after feeding, you need to cool the area with an ice pack. This will help reduce the flow of milk and assist with the pain and inflammation. Just make sure you wrap your ice pack in a light cloth rather than placing it directly on your skin.
You can help to release the clogged area through gentle massage. Before and during a feed, gently swipe your thumb over the lump and toward your nipple. You can repeat this as many times as you like but don't use too much pressure as this can cause damage to your milk ducts.
After a feed, you need to gently massage your breast in the opposite direction, following these steps:
Lay on the ground with your arm (on the side of the affected breast) raised over your head.
Create a 'U' shape with your other hand.
Gently wipe your hand from the bottom of your breast up to your armpit.
Your thumb should pass through the middle of your breasts, and your fingers will swipe up past your armpit.
Gently perform this massage for 3-5 minutes after each feed.
Feed your baby on the affected side first until the lump has passed. Your little one is more likely to have a big feed on the first side, which will help to drain the breasts effectively.
It's best if you keep your breasts as empty as possible. Aim to feed every three hours, including overnight. We know this might sound like a lot, but through following these steps, your clogged milk duct could clear within 12-24 hours.
We know we just told you to feed every three hours, but you need to rest while you're not feeding. If you can get an extra set of hands to help with bubs, try to stay in bed and sleep as much as you can. If you don't have the extra help, try to cosy up in bed with bubs, with plenty of snacks and water. A side-lying feeding position could be your saviour here.
Try changing up your feeding positions as this will help to drain different areas of the breast. For example, if you aim bubs chin in the direction of the lump, their chin can help to massage the blockage gently.
Check your little one is feeding well and attached correctly. If bub has a weak latch, they may not be effectively removing milk. If this is the case, you may want to book in with a lactation consultant to assess your little one’s latch and feeding abilities.
What caused my clogged milk duct?
If you can figure out why you got a clogged milk duct, you can follow measures to reduce the risk of it recurring. The root cause of a blocked duct is usually ineffective milk drainage, but several factors could cause this. Including:
Skipped or missed feeds
Tight-fitting bras/clothes that could restrict milk flow
Oversupply (too much milk is leftover after a feed)
The use of nipple shields and ill-fitting pumps
Latch issues present in bub including lip or tongue-tie
A distracted little one that doesn’t take a full feed
Missing hunger signs in bub due to overuse of a dummy
Infection or inflammation (caused by nipple damage or conditions like nipple thrush
How do I prevent blocked milk ducts?
So, how can you prevent or avoid a dreaded blocked milk duct? Some sure-fire ways to reduce your chances of a blockage are never skipping a feed, make sure your breasts are drained effectively and steer clear of any tight-fitting bras or clothes, at least for the first few months.
Following a healthy diet that supports your immune function can help to reduce the risk of blockages. Sugar and simple carbs serve as a source of energy for bacteria. So, if we consume a diet high in sugar, it's more likely for bacteria and infection to grow, ultimately putting us at a higher risk for blockages.
In Shape Mummy is a breastfeeding-specific health shake low in sugar, high in probiotics, and enhanced with vitamin C. The components all work together to support a healthy and thriving immune function and reduce the risk of infection. In Shape Mummy health shakes help regulate blood sugar levels and keep us feeling satiated, ultimately leading to reduced cravings and less need for snacking.
Are Clogged Milk Ducts Recurring?
Clogged milk ducts can recur if the reason for restricted milk drainage isn’t resolved. A lactation consultant can help you identify the cause and create a plan to keep the blockages at bay.
If you continue to experience clogged ducts, we recommend checking your breasts daily for lumps. If you spot a lump early, you may be able to relieve it through feeding on the affected side first and performing some gentle massage. For extremely persistent clogged ducts, you may want to try therapeutic ultrasound. A delicate procedure that can help to release the ducts and open the flow of milk. Research suggests one-three sessions will be required to remove or significantly reduce a blockage successfully.
Shevi is a qualified nutritionist with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and food sciences. As a new mum herself, she is passionate about postnatal-related nutrition. Shevi has worked alongside some of the most famous leaders and celebrities in the fitness industry throughout Australia and the UK.
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