If you're breastfeeding and have a tender lump in your breast, it may be a clogged milk duct. This isn't serious, but it needs to be treated right away so it doesn't progress to mastitis. Here are our top 10 tips for relieving a clogged milk duct.
If you're breastfeeding and see that your breast has developed a small, tender, hard lump, you likely have a clogged milk duct (also called a plugged milk duct).
Clogged milk ducts aren't a serious concern, but they can be uncomfortable, and can restrict breastmilk from flowing properly.
And if it isn't taken care of, a clogged duct could lead to a breast infection, such as mastitis. (Mastitis causes flu-like symptoms, and often requires medical attention and antibiotics.)
So, it's vital to take care of a clogged milk duct as quickly as you can. Fortunately, there are many ways to take care of a clogged milk duct at home. Today, we'll go over 10 ways to relieve a clogged milk duct.
What is a clogged milk duct?
A clogged milk duct is a milk duct that breastmilk can't properly flow through, and that is narrowed and "backed up." It looks like a small, tender, hard lump in the breast.
Your breastmilk flows through your breasts, and to the nipple, through a series of pipelike ducts called milk ducts. If one of the ducts gets narrowed for any reason, and the flow of milk through the duct gets impeded, the duct can become clogged. This can cause a small lump to show up on the breast, in the area where the clogged duct is.
How to tell if you have a clogged milk duct?
What are the symptoms of a clogged milk duct?
If you have a clogged milk duct, you'll have a small, tender, hard lump that usually appears on only one breast. This lump may be sore or painful to touch, and the area around it may be warm. It might also look red.
But you won't experience any discomfort apart from the lump, and you won't have pain throughout your whole breast (you'll only have pain at or near the lump). You might notice that your milk flows out more slowly, though, when you have the lump.
You may also have a clogged milk duct if your breastmilk looks stringy, grainy or thick, or if your nipple has a small white dot on its opening that doesn't go away.
Sometimes, the pain of a clogged milk duct lessens, or goes away temporarily, after you nurse or pump.
Common causes of clogged milk ducts
When a milk duct gets inflamed (or swollen), this causes it to narrow and get clogged up or plugged.
Often, a milk duct gets swollen – and clogged – when milk isn't removed from the breast effectively, or isn't removed frequently enough.
Common causes of clogged milk ducts include:
- Not nursing or pumping often enough
- Baby has trouble removing milk from the breast, latching, or sucking
- Inflammation (swelling) in the milk ducts, which can narrow the space the milk has to flow through
- Wearing very tight clothing or a tight bra, which can restrict milk flow
How to relieve a clogged milk duct?
Now that we've gone over how to identify a clogged milk duct, here are our top 10 ways to get rid of a clogged milk duct and get much-needed relief. Be sure to act quickly, so the clogged milk duct doesn't lead to an infection like mastitis.
1. Nurse or pump frequently
One of the most common causes of a clogged milk duct is that your breast is not emptied often enough.
So, getting the milk flowing, whether it's through nursing or pumping, is the best option to help you unclog your duct. It's important to empty the breasts well, and empty them as often as your body needs. But you don't need to ramp up your frequency of feeds. Just listen to your baby and your body, and stick to your feeding schedule.
Note: The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine changed their guidance about relieving clogged milk ducts, which they call "ductal narrowing." Previously, the guidance was to add more feeds or pumping times than normal. Now, guidance points to emptying the breasts well and not skipping feeds or pump times, but not adding in more feeds or pump times either.
If you choose to nurse baby, offer them the clogged breast first. That way, their sucking will be stronger on the affected breast, since they're the hungriest.
Also, make sure they're properly positioned and latched on, as position and latch are key to effective milk removal (more on this below). Positioning baby so their nose or chin is pointed towards the clog, or trying different breastfeeding positions, may also help them loosen the clog.
If you feel like your affected breast is still clogged and not emptied well after nursing, pumping for 15 minutes after each nursing session may also help loosen the clog.
2. Make sure baby has the proper position and latch
You may also develop a clogged duct if baby isn't able to remove milk from your breast effectively enough. A comfortable breastfeeding position, and a proper, deep latch, are key to effective milk removal – and can help prevent future clogged ducts.
If you think baby isn't latching on properly, or you're having trouble positioning baby in a way that lets them remove milk well, you'll need to remedy this as soon as you can. Visit a lactation consultant if you need assistance. This guide to the deep latch technique, written by the lactation consultants at The Pump Station & Nurtury, may also help.
3. Massage your breast
Try massaging out the clogged duct by hand, using a circular motion. Start outside of the lump area, then gently massage towards the lump and on the lump. After that, work towards the nipple area.
Or, you can massage by pressing gently with your thumb, working from the far end of the affected area towards the nipple.
You can also try the same techniques with an electric toothbrush, a specially designed lactation massager, or any electric massager.
Just like you would if you massaged with your hands, focus on the blockage area and work towards the nipple.
Lactation consultant Yines Garcia-Taylor, BSN, RN, IBCLC, shares her tips for clogged milk duct relief:
4. Use a cold compress
A cold compress can help reduce the inflammation of a narrowed and clogged duct. You could use ice packs, ice wrapped in a towel, a cool and wet washcloth, or a homemade cold compress. Hold the compress on your breast for 10 minutes. You can use the cold compress every 30 minutes, but don't apply it more frequently than that.
5. Try ibuprofen
Taking ibuprofen is another way to reduce the inflammation. It's safe to take ibuprofen when breastfeeding, and it's even recommended for clogged duct relief in the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine's new guidelines. Take the standard dose on the ibuprofen package, as often as the package recommends.
You might also try these other methods that moms have used to relieve a clogged milk duct. They're not currently recommended by the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine's recent guidance. But we've still included them here because they've worked for many moms, and because many sources still recommend them.
6. Enjoy a warm shower
Heat and pressure from a shower may help work out the blockage. It may also help relieve the pain of a plugged duct. And as an added bonus, a warm shower is relaxing!
Stand under a warm shower stream so the spray hits the affected area, and let the stream help remove the blockage. A stronger massaging spray usually works best.
Hand-expressing milk during the shower, or using the hand massaging techniques we covered in tip #3 while showering, may also help work out the clog.
7. Apply a warm compress
The heat of a warm compress may help unclog your milk duct and relieve pain, just like the heat of a shower may help.
There are specially designed warm compresses available for breasts, but you don't need to buy them. A washcloth will usually do the trick.
Wet a washcloth with hot tap water, then wrap it around your breast. Keep it on the breast for at least 15-20 minutes at a time, or for as long as the washcloth stays warm. Then, apply the warm compress again every few hours.
This technique works especially well to help get breastmilk flowing right before you feed baby.
8. Use gravity to your advantage
One way to nurse baby that may help loosen a clog is called "dangle feeding." This involves nursing while you lean over baby, or positioning baby so they're feeding from under the breast, so gravity can help unclog your duct.
You can try a similar technique with pumping – pump while you lean over, so your nipples point towards the floor and milk can flow down with gravity.
9. Try the castor oil compress technique
Science hasn't proven the castor oil compress technique effective, but many moms swear by it for helping to unclog a milk duct. So, if you've already tried other ways to unclog your milk duct, it may be worth giving this one a try.
Here's how to use the technique:
- Wet and warm a washcloth, as if you were making a warm compress.
- Fold the washcloth at least three times, so it's the size of the breast lump.
- Apply cold-pressed castor oil to the washcloth.
- Place the washcloth on the lump area.
- Cover the washcloth with plastic wrap.
- Use a hot water bottle, another warm cloth, or a heating pad on "low" to apply heat to the lump area. The area should feel warm, but not hot.
- Keep the compress in place for 20 minutes.
- Rinse your breast with water after using the compress, and before you nurse. This way, baby won't ingest castor oil during a feed.
10. Use Epsom salts
Some moms report that soaking the breasts in a warm Epsom salt bath, for around 10-20 minutes, helps unclog a milk duct.
Other moms have used a manual, suction-style breast pump called a Haakaa, and filled it halfway with hot water and 1-2 tablespoons of Epsom salts. They then submerged the nipple in the salt solution as they let suction attach the pump, and left the pump attached for 10-15 minutes.
What if you can't relieve the clog?
If you've tried at least some of the techniques above, a clogged milk duct should clear up within 24 hours.
But if the clog doesn't go away within a few days, or you develop a fever, you likely have mastitis, an infection of the breast. Often, mastitis requires medical attention and prescription antibiotics to clear, so you should talk to your doctor if you suspect mastitis.
Clogged milk duct vs. mastitis
If you experience these symptoms together, you likely have mastitis:
- Pain, swelling, tenderness, or redness in the entire breast
- Headaches, body aches, fatigue, chills, or other flu-like symptoms
But if the following describes your symptoms, you probably only have a clogged milk duct:
- Pain or tenderness only in the lump area
- Redness only in the lump area
- No symptoms outside of the lump area (no fever and no flu-like symptoms)
How to prevent future clogged milk ducts?
These tips can help you avoid a clogged milk duct in the future:
- Nurse as often as baby needs it, or pump on a regular schedule.
- Stay away from tight clothing and tight bras.
- Try different breastfeeding positions.
- If you're changing your breastfeeding frequency, ease into the schedule change.
- Consider asking your doctor about lecithin supplements (to help thin your breastmilk).
- See a lactation consultant if you need help getting baby to latch properly.
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