Last Updated on February 9, 2023
Blocked milk ducts while breastfeeding are a common problem for any mother. This article will help you understand what blocked milk ducts are, how they usually happen, and the best way to unclog them. It also provides tips on preventing blocked milk ducts for mothers in order not to face mastitis or worse when it happens.
What Is a Blocked Milk Duct?
You may have heard of blocked milk ducts before and must be wondering what they are. Blocked milk ducts are blocked tubes in your breast that prevent the excess milk from draining normally. A clogged gland in your breast usually causes it.
Your breast is trying to tell you that it needs some help because it produces more milk than the baby can handle. This causes much pain and inconvenience because breastfeeding becomes difficult with all this extra pressure on your breast tissue.
Symptoms Of a Blocked Milk Duct
How do you know if you have plugged milk ducts? These are a few things you can look out for to determine whether or not you have plugged milk ducts:
You may notice white breast skin, often accompanied by a hard spot in the breast that can almost feel like a ball. It should be understood as too much pressure built up in your breast due to the plugged ducts or even from mastitis (more on this later). There will be visible changes in the breast area, such as swelling and redness which goes along with pain when your baby feeds.
This is an undeniable sign you may realise while breastfeeding. It could happen in one breast or both breasts (right and left), coinciding with the milk blister formation described above.
Reduced milk flow
As milk accumulates in the milk ducts or milk blister, it can cause your flow to decrease. Mums who usually do milk pumping can easily see the flow is much slower than usual or considerably less. This can be one of the most apparent indications you may have plugged milk ducts.
You may feel a small, soft bump or tender lump in your breast under the nipple that is usually tender when touched. If your situation is more serious, there is no surprise if there is a hard lump under your nipple as well.
You may also experience a lot of sharp stabbing pains in the breast while breastfeeding and when your baby is latched on and drinking milk from it. This can be very uncomfortable during routine activities like walking, turning over in bed, or even moving around too quickly because the breast milk ducts are blocked.
One or both of your breasts are full and hard. This is because the milk ducts have become blocked, preventing your body from releasing all of the built-up pressure and causing great discomfort.
The affected breast area will feel warm and may even start to get red like a pimple about ready to pop. Then there might be some blockage going.
If you are unaware of already having a blocked duct for 2-3 days, you may notice a higher body temperature and a mild fever lasting more than 24 hours.
You might also feel like you have the flu with an overall sense of fatigue, loss of appetite and maybe even some back pain too. This is because your lymphatic system, which produces white blood cells to fight infection, has been working overtime.
What Causes Clogged Milk Ducts?
Here are several common causes leading to clogged ducts.
Dead or broken skin
Some mums barely think of this case. If you have been experiencing itching, burning or irritation around the nipple area, it could signify that dead skin is built up and blocking milk ducts in your breasts. Usually, the plug is caused by scar tissue build-up from previous breastfeeding due to some damage to breast tissue while nursing.
If your nipples are not carefully sanitised, bacteria can develop around or on top of your nipple, which causes more pain and inflammation that leads to blocked ducts.
A few frequent breastfeeding women said their baby feeds mostly on one breast side than the other breast, which leads to one side being filled with more milk than the other and resulting in a clogged duct.
While breastfeeding, how you position your baby can cause clogged milk ducts. Baby’s mouth should be placed at the base of the nipple and not too low or high on the breast to avoid blocked milk flow.
Suddenly stopping breastfeeding
When you start weaning your baby, your milk drainage can not flow freely like before. Stopping breastfeeding gradually would be better than doing it suddenly.
Some medications you take while breastfeeding could also cause blocked ducts due to their effect on your body.
You may try avoiding hot showers or heat exposure because sudden temperature changes can trigger plugged ducts signifying that it is the cause of clogged milk ducts.
Wearing tight and unbreathable clothes across the stomach and breast areas will also lead to clogged milk ducts.
Eating dairy products containing lactose or consuming too many foods with caffeine will likely cause clogged milk ducts.
This could also be considered a major factor that can lead to plugged milk duct where you have bad sleeping patterns or do not drink enough water, resulting in your body being dehydrated and thus, lack of good circulation.
How To Relieve Plugged Milk Ducts?
Plugged ducts could be painful and make you get frustrated sometimes. However, it’s not always the end of the world if you know how to stop or slow down these symptoms. There are lots of things you can help yourself.
Gently massage affected breast
Try to hold warm compresses against the plugged duct for about five minutes before you do a therapeutic breast massage. It would help if you tried to lie down, use your hands and move gently in a circular motion, clockwise, for 5-10 minutes daily. Make sure you massage the whole surface of your breasts and work both towards the nipples. It will be more effective if your hands are warm and you add some organic herbal massage oil. This will ease the pain and increase the milk flow.
If using your hand requires too much effort, do not be shy to ask for help from others. If you have never done this before, feel free to ask your health visitor.
Take a warm bath or hot shower
Doing this method is like using a warm compress to relieve duct walls and soften the dried milk clog in your gland when it’s swollen. It’s a simple way to quickly relieve the blocked milk flow and soothe your tender gland. As soon as you have finished bathing, pat yourself dry with a clean towel or let air dry in the room so that it won’t be wet when you lie down afterwards. Lie on your back so that you can gently move stagnant milk through the duct toward your nipple.
Pump regularly to improve milk flow
Another way is to use a breast pump. You should not worry about how much milk you obtain from that breast, as it’s important to relieve the plugged duct, especially if your baby isn’t able to breastfeed at all times. Plus, don’t forget to massage the other breast while pumping one of them because this helps the minor blocked area to open quickly.
Stop wearing tight clothes
Being a new mother is the time to choose loose clothing with good and breathable materials like cotton. Do not wear tight bras once you start feeding your baby. If your bra is tight or presses against your breast very hard, then extra pressure will be on your breast and possibly cause a blocked duct.
Take herbal supplements
There is always something that you can learn from other cultures. Asian mothers have some effective herbal remedies for blocked ducts, like using Indian lettuce (Lactuca indica) or Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa). They simply add those leaves to their salad bowls and keep having them for 3-5 days.
Herbal remedies are known to be very effective and safe for breastfeeding mothers. However, it may not work immediately, especially if the plugged duct has already been there for quite some time.
Ask your husband for help
That might sound weird and quite personal, but it is something that you could consider. Sometimes, the plugged ducts need to be relieved by pressure that the baby cannot provide. In this case, do not be shy and ask your husband for little help to improve milk drainage. He can also give you a simple massage with both hands.
Talk to other parents
Have a little chit-chat or share your experiences with those who have had this happen before to get advice on preventing ducts and mastitis. You will be surprised that they may know much about breast milk problems since they are also dealing with the same issues.
Will Clogged Milk Ducts Unclog Themselves?
The answer, simply put, is yes in most cases. Milk ducts are narrow tubes that carry milk from the lobules (milk-producing glands) to the nipple, where your baby can access it. Sometimes these narrow tubes get clogged and will unclog themselves if given enough time, usually around five days after symptoms first appear. At that point, the ducts will return to their regular narrow state, and you can resume breastfeeding.
When To Seek Professional Help
After five days, if there is still no relief after taking care of your blockage and getting back on track with breastfeeding, it might be time to seek professional medical advice.
If you are a new parent with little experience with breastfeeding, you should talk to your lactation consultant or breastfeeding specialist. They will give you all the breastfeeding answers and even guide you on what to do and how to do it. It is not something that you should be shy or embarrassed of. A breastfeeding counsellor will help you solve your problem for the betterment of both you and your baby.
If this does not work out well after a couple of days, the plugged duct remains, breast milk is not coming out, and you still suffer from:
- Nipple discharge: There is yellow, sticky nipple discharge that looks like puss coming from the nipples when breastfeeding.
- Symptoms of mastitis: Flu-like symptoms such as fever or chills. This means your immune system is fighting off an infection.
- Throbbing or pain in the breast: The skin of the affected area may feel hot, warm and reddish-looking.
These could be infection risk factors, and you should immediately seek professional medical help. You will most likely be recommended doses of antibiotics.
If the infection is not treated correctly, it could spread to your breast tissue or even develop mastitis or periductal mastitis. As you can understand, mastitis is a severe condition that should not be ignored. Breast pathology warns that it may lead to mammary duct ectasia, breast cancer or related breast diseases, which are very dangerous for your health and wellbeing. The World Health Organization reports that this kind of cancer is the first breast disease in women suffering from it. Ducts and mastitis are connected. It’s better to prevent than cure.
How To Prevent Plugged Milk Ducts
- Say goodbye to tight bra: Lactation specialists usually recommend using maternity bras that are not too tight since they won’t compress the ducts and therefore reduce the risk of developing clogged ducts.
- Clean your breasts regularly: You should always wash your breasts with warm water before and apply cold compresses after feeding to prevent plugged ducts from occurring.
- Change disposable nappies every two hours or when they get wet: Wearing disposable nappies for more than an hour increases the risk of developing bacteria or fungi contributing to sore nipples or breast abscesses.
- Do not get stressed: Stress hormones (cortisol) increase and block the milk. Try to relax and rest more often.
The next time you’re experiencing some pain or discomfort due to a blocked duct, don’t panic. You may be able to reduce the severity of your symptoms by following these simple steps that we have outlined for you.
We would love to hear from moms who have experienced this firsthand! How did you handle it? Please share your story with us in the comments below.
Sources and References
Sophie is a former primary school teacher and passionate about parenting. She enjoys writing, reading, cooking, and making memories with her family.