Clogged Milk Duct
Imagine your breast as an intricate set of pipes that pump milk from your body to your baby through a series of ducts. When too much milk passes through a pipe and isn’t getting removed, milk gets backed up and stuck. Like a clogged toilet (hello, bathroom analogy!) milk ducts become similarly clogged.
Plugged ducts don’t just happen out of nowhere. If your breasts are engorged because your baby is sleeping longer stretches at night, for example, it’s important to hand express just enough milk to relieve the tension and fullness. Think of engorgement — that water balloon about to explode feeling — as a warning sign that a clogged duct could be around the corner. If you relieve your engorgement often, you’ll keep the pipes flowin’ and prevent a plug from forming.
With that said, sometimes these things are unavoidable. Clogs can occur when:
- milk isn’t removed often or effectively enough (you were running out the door on a Monday morning and forgot your pump at home, and hand expressing at work didn’t do the trick)
- sleeping in a certain position puts pressure on breast tissue (you love sleeping on your stomach but your breasts may not)
- wearing too-tight clothing (ie nursing bra) that puts pressure on breast tissue (goodbye, underwire; keep your breasts supported, not suffocated)
Here’s how to tell that a plug has formed:
- You may feel a hard lump somewhere on your breast that feels tender to the touch.
- The affected area may be red, painful, and hot.
- You may feel more discomfort before you nurse or express milk on that side and less discomfort after a nursing or pumping session.
The good news is that clogged ducts are very treatable so long as you remain persistent; those plugs can sometimes be very persnickety!
Here are some effective ways to treat a clogged duct:
- Apply heat: Taking a warm shower or using a warm compress for 10 minutes before a nursing or pumping session stimulates blood flow and helps get the juices flowing.
- Begin nursing on affected side: Though you most often switch off between breasts every feed, you’ll want to begin all nursing session on the side where the clog has formed until it has been cleared, around 24-48 hours. This allows your little one to use her most forceful sucking to help dislodge the plug.
- Massage. Compress. Repeat: Massage breasts before, during, and after nursing sessions to help stimulate blood flow. Start where the plug has formed and massage gently toward the nipple. While nursing or pumping, compress the breast with a “C” shaped hand to help get milk to flow from the ducts all the way in the back of the breast tissue.
- Get to work between feedings: If baby is nursing every 3-4 hours, you’ll want to hand express or pump between feedings on the affected side for about 5 minutes. The goal is to empty the breast as fully and as often as you can until the plug works its way out.
- Try dangle feeding — it’s incredible! Your baby’s suck is stronger and more effective than any pump on the market. Lay baby on her back and dangle yourself over her while you’re on hands and knees. Once she latches on, gravity may help her pull the plug out (it’s happened to me!) Continue massaging and compressing the breast if you can.
If 24-48 hours has gone by and you feel symptoms are the same or worse, contact an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant for help.
Sarah Siebold is a native Los Angeleno and mom to cuddly and curious Noah. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Barnard College of Columbia University before receiving her M.A. in English and American Literature from NYU. After some time teaching and tutoring, she studied Pastry and Baking Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and dove head first into the fast-paced food world. Most recently, Sarah became a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor (CLEC) in 2017 from UC San Diego and feels like her professional interests and passions for teaching and food have coalesced. She pinches herself silly to get to do the work she loves with moms and their sweet babes. You can find Sarah at IMMA Lactation.