Last Updated on September 8, 2021
Blocked milk duct while breastfeeding is a common problem that can happen to 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 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. It is usually caused by a clogged gland in your breast.
Basically, your breast is trying to tell you that it needs some help because it is producing more milk than the baby can handle. This causes a lot of pain as well as 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 few things you can look out for to determine whether or not you have plugged milk ducts:
- Milk blister: You may notice white breast skin which is often accompanied by a hard spot in the breast that can almost feel like a ball. It should be understood as there is 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.
- Poor drainage: This is the very obvious sign you may realize while breastfeeding. It could happen in one breast or both breasts (right and left) which can coincide 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 reduce. Moms 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 obvious indications you may have plugged milk ducts.
- Breast lump: You may feel a small, soft bump or tender lump in your breast under the nipple that is usually tender when touched. If you situation is more serious, there is no surprise if there is a hard lump under your nipple as well.
- Breast pain: You may also experience a lot of sharp stabbing pains in the breast while breastfeeding as well as when your baby is latched on and drinking milk from it. This can be very uncomfortable during normal activities like walking, turning over in bed or even just moving around too quickly because the breast milk ducts are blocked.
- Breast engorgement: One or both of your breasts are very full and hard. This is because the milk ducts have become blocked preventing your body from releasing all of the built up pressure causing a great deal of discomfort.
- Heat: The area of affected breast will feel warm and may even start to get red like a pimple that is about ready to pop. Then there might be some blockage going.
- Mild fever: If you are unaware of already having blocked duct for 2-3 days, you may notice higher body temperature and a mild fever that last for more than 24 hours.
- Body ache: 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 moms barely think of this case. If you have been experiencing itching, burning or irritation around the nipple area it could be a sign 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.
- Bacterial infection: If your nipples are not carefully sanitized, bacteria can develop around or on top of your nipple which causes more pain and inflammation that leads to blocked ducts as well.
- Breastfeeding habits: There is a quite number of 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 results in clogged duct.
- Baby’s positioning: While breastfeeding, the way you position your baby can also 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 in a sudden way.
- Medications: Some medications you are taking while breastfeeding could also cause blocked ducts due to their effect on your body.
- Temperature change: You may try avoiding hot shower or heat exposure because sudden changes in temperature can trigger plugged ducts signifying that it is the cause of clogged milk ducts.
- Tight clothing: Wearing tight and unbreathable clothes across the stomach and breast areas will also lead to clogged milk ducts.
- Diet: If you are eating dairy products that contain lactose or if you’re consuming too much foods with caffeine then this likely cause clogged milk ducts .
- Lifestyle habits: This could be also considered as one major factor that can lead to plugged milk duct where you have bad sleeping patterns or do not drink enough water which results in your body being dehydrated and thus, lack of good circulation.
Will clogged milk ducts unclog itself?
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 it can be accessed by your baby. 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 be back to their regular narrow state and you can then resume breastfeeding.
How to relieve plugged milk ducts?
Plugged duct 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 at least 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 therapeutic breast massage. You should try to lie down, use your hands and move gently in a circular motion, clockwise for 5-10 minutes everyday. Make sure you massage the whole surface of your breasts and work both towards nipples. It will be more effective if you your hands are warm and add on some organic herbal massage oil. This will ease the pain and increase the milk flow.
If using your hand requires too much efforts, do not be shy to ask 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 you are using a warm compress to relive duct walls and soften the dried milk clog in your gland when it’s more swollen. It’s a simple way to relieve the blocked milk flow and soothe your tender gland quickly. As soon as you have finished bathing, pat yourself dry with a clean towel or let air-dry in fresh area of 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 just relieve the plugged duct, especially if your baby isn’t able to breastfeed at all times. Plus, don’t forget to massage other breast while pumping one of them because this help the minor blocked area to open quickly.
Stop wearing tight clothes
Being a mom is the time to choose the 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 if it presses against your breast very hard, then there will be extra pressure on your breast and possibly cause blocked duct.
Take herbal supplements
There is always something that you can learn from other cultures. Asian moms have some effective herbal remedies for blocked duct like using Indian lettuce (Lactuca indica) or Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa). They just simply add on those leaves on their salad bows and keep having them for 3-5 days.
Therefore, it is herbal medicines that you can find in your grandma’s herbal cabinet or at any pharmacies nowadays. Herbal remedies are known to be very effective and safe for breastfeeding mothers, however, it may not work right away especially if the plugged duct has been there for quite some time already.
Ask you husband for help
That might sounds weird and quite personal but it is something that you could consider. Sometimes, the plugged ducts needs to be relieved by some pressure that the baby is not able to provide. In this case, do not be too shy and ask your husband for little help to improve milk drainage. He can also give you a simple massage with both hands, which the baby would have done if it was in its place.
Talk to other parents
Have a little chit chat or share your experiences with those having this happen before to get advice on ducts and mastitis prevention. You will get surprised that they may know a lot about breast milk problems since they are also dealing with the same issues.
When to seek for professionals?
After 5 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 do these:
- If you are new parents and have not had many experience with breastfeeding, it is advisable that you 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 go about it. It is not something that you should be shy or embarrassed of, 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 days, plugged duct remains, breast milk is not coming out and you still suffer from:
- More breast engorgement
- Nipple discharge: There are yellow, sticky nipple discharge that looks like pus coming from the nipples when breastfeeding.
- Symptoms of mastitis include: 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 the risk factors of an infection. You must stop breastfeeding and immediately seek medical profession help. You will be recommended dose such as ibuprofen or antibiotics.
If the infection is not treated properly, it could spread to your breast tissue or even develop mastitis or periductal mastitis. As you can understand, mastitis is a serious condition that should not be ignored under any circumstances. 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. WTO (World Health Organization) reports that this kind of cancer is the first breast disease in women suffering from. Ducts and mastitis are very connected. It’s better to prevent than cure!
How to prevent plugged milk ducts?
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 above 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? Share your story with us in the comments below:
- Say goodbye to tight bra. The human lactation specialists usually recommends 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 diapers every two hours or, at least, when they get wet. Wear disposable diaper for more than an hour run a higher risk of developing bacteria or fungus that can contribute to sore nipples or breast abscess.
- Do not get stress: Stress hormones (cortisol) increase and block the milk. Try to relax and rest more often.
For more lactation articles, check out our blog page. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to comment below or send us a message so we could provide answers for your particular situation and help prevent plugged ducts from happening in the first place.
Sophie is a former primary school teacher and passionate about parenting. She enjoys writing, reading, cooking, and making memories with her family.