Ouch! Having a clogged milk duct is one not-so-fun part of breastfeeding.
When I started breastfeeding my first child, I’d never even HEARD of a clogged duct. I had NO idea something like that could happen… and I got them all the time!
Thankfully I wasn’t the only one with that problem. Clogged milk ducts are fairly common, so there are lots of ways to go about treating and preventing them!
What Is A Clogged Milk Duct?
Good question! A clogged milk duct is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a milk duct within your breast that is blocked, which doesn’t allow milk to flow through it. The culprit of the clog is milk itself.
Sometimes clogged milk ducts are called plugged milk ducts or a blocked milk duct.
When milk sits too long in one spot, it starts to harden. It becomes thicker and causes the milk duct to become blocked up. Then, the milk behind the clog starts to pool. It can be very painful and requires some work to loosen up. Sometimes when releasing a clogged milk duct, you’ll see the milk come out. It might look thick, resembling cheese- but it’s just the thickened milk being released.
Clogged Milk Duct Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of a clogged milk duct are:
- A hard area in your breast. It might feel like a lump, bead or pea. The hard spot may also feel like a small rope in your breast.
- Redness and swelling. Usually, a clogged duct happens in one breast and is in one small area of the breast. It can be tender to the touch and look red.
- Warmth in your breast where the clog is. If you place your fingers over the tender area, you may feel warmth.
- Generally tender breasts. When you have a clogged milk duct, your breasts may feel tender and sore. It’s usually in the affected breast, which can be painful at the location of the clog and behind it.
- A frustrated baby and slower milk flow. Sometimes a clogged milk duct can make a big difference in the way your milk flows. Your baby may become frustrated when feeding on the breast with a clog because your milk flow slows.
- You may also start to feel feverish. If you start to get chills, a high temperature and feel generally sick – you may be coming down with mastitis. It’s possible to overcome it but if not, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor.
What does a clogged milk duct feel like?
A clogged milk duct feels like a round hardness in your breast. Some women describe it feeling like a marble. It will also be hot to the touch and painful. If the clog causes milk to severely back-up, it can feel more like a rope within your breast.
What causes clogged milk ducts?
Clogged milk ducts are an accumulation of milk in your breast as a result of milk pooling. It can grow red and inflamed and could lead to mastitis. You’ll notice it as a small, painful lump in your breast that hurts when you touch it.
Milk remaining in your breast for too long is a common cause of a clogged milk duct. There are a number of things that can make your milk pool:
- Prolonged pressure on your breast. A tight bra like a sports bra, underwires or too tight of a shirt can cause this. Anything that puts prolonged pressure on your breast can cause your milk to pool and result in a clogged duct.
- Baby preferring one side over the other. Breast milk can start to pool if your baby doesn’t feed on one side as frequently as the other. Your baby should remove milk from each breast frequently so be sure to feed your baby from both sides throughout the day.
- Stress, leading to a decrease in feedings. Again, anything that results in milk pooling can contribute to clogged ducts. Going through times of stress can result in decreased feeding frequency. Not only can this decrease your breast milk supply, it can also cause clogs. Try to stay consistent with feedings during times of stress.
- Certain foods cause clogged ducts more often. Some women struggle with clogged ducts when they eat specific foods. The biggest culprits are oatmeal and other high carbohydrate foods, saturated fats and dairy products, and sugar. Try reducing these foods in your diet to resolve and prevent clogged ducts. In addition, make sure you’re drinking enough water.
- Your milk coming in. Around 4 days after birth, your milk starts to come in. It can leave your breasts engorged, feeling extremely full of milk. They will regulate, but the first few days can be painful. It’s common to experience clogged milk ducts when your milk comes in.
- Oversupply. This is similar to engorgement when your milk comes in. Generally oversupply occurs with pumping moms, especially if pumping more than baby eats. When your breasts become overfull with milk, clogged milk ducts can result.
How To Clear A Clogged Milk Duct
Treatment depends on what the primary cause is, but ultimately moving milk will help the clog to loosen up. Here are some clogged milk duct treatments:
1. Get the milk moving!
Getting your milk moving is the best way to cure a clogged milk duct. The best way to do that is to feed your baby! Try to place your baby with their tongue facing the area of the clog, helping to work it out. You can also try laying your baby flat on the floor and sort of “dangle” over top of them to breastfeed. Let your baby and gravity help get the milk moving!
For pumping moms, you can try to pump and relieve the clog. This is a delicate balance because you don’t want to cause your breasts to become oversupplied- oversupply might exacerbate clogged ducts.
2. Try Moist Heat
There’s something about a hot shower that helps release clogged milk. Heat by itself can help and be soothing. But the steam from the shower adds another healing component. Sometimes just standing in the hot shower and letting the water land on your breasts will make the milk release.
Other than sitting in a shower, you can try to put some hot water in a bowl or cup. Lean forward and place your breast in the water for a few minutes. Follow with a feeding, and you might have things loosened up enough for your baby to work out the clog.
3. Breast Massage
Massage helps work out any stuck milk. Clogged milk ducts are a result of milk sitting too long in one spot. The longer it’s there, the more stagnant it becomes. Massage is a good way to get the milk flowing again.
The first time I got a clogged milk duct, I took a hot shower and used some serious pressure on the milk duct. It hurt enough to bring me to tears, but it worked! Try to use massage paired with a hot shower.
Hand massage is effective, but you could use a hand-held massager. Some even come with a heated attachment. If you don’t have a hand-held massager, an electric toothbrush is an option that achieves the same result. Turn it on and place the blunt end against the clog. Try different types of massage to see what offers relief. Any type of movement and massage will keep the milk from staying stagnant, beneficial if you’re experiencing clogged milk ducts.
4. Relieve Pressure
Taking pressure off your breasts will not only help with current clogged ducts, but could also help prevent relapses. If you start to notice a clog forming where an underwire bra sits or when wearing a tight shirt, relieve the pressure. Sometimes it helps to wear a loose bra or no bra to let your breasts have a break from any pressure.
Relieving pressure prevents milk from pooling and clogging. It also encourages your breasts to drain. If your breasts are allowed to rest without pressure, the milk can drain out. At nighttime, it may help to put a towel under yourself to catch any milk that drains out.
5. Change Your Diet
Dietary changes may also help prevent and relieve a clogged milk duct. Try to avoid foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates like oatmeal. Some people have trouble with saturated fats and dairy products. Focus on eating fruits and vegetables and stick to lean meats.
You can also add sunflower lecithin to your diet. It is found in many foods and is safe to take while breastfeeding. It helps make your milk less “sticky”. Sunflower lecithin is preferred to soy lecithin because soy can mimic estrogen in the body. Hormones are in flux while breastfeeding so it’s best not to introduce more. Additionally, it’s safer for your baby to take sunflower lecithin versus soy lecithin.
Try taking 1200 mg 3-4 times a day. If it seems to be working, you can decrease the dose slowly. Some women find that decreasing the dose will make their clogs come back, so if that happens it’s fine to continue taking 1200 mg 3-4 times per day.
Drinking plenty of water also helps! You don’t need to drink until you’re uncomfortable, just drink to thirst. Drinking a few extra glasses per day can help keep you hydrated.
How To Prevent Clogged Milk Ducts
Clogged milk ducts that occur over and over again can really be bothersome to a breastfeeding mom. But the best way to prevent clogged milk ducts is to keep the milk moving. Do this by preventing pressure on the breast and don’t go too long without breastfeeding your baby.
Following the same tips as above will help prevent clogged milk ducts. If you are one of those moms that continues to have recurring plugged ducts, try:
- Massaging your breasts before each feeding.
- Taking sunflower lecithin daily.
- Eat a healthy diet low in sugars and saturated fats.
- Feed your baby as soon as they show hunger cues.
- Wean slowly when you decide to stop breastfeeding to prevent overfull breasts.
How long does a clogged milk duct last?
A clogged milk duct shouldn’t last longer than one or two days. Occasionally if they are severe, they can last up to a week.
Following treatment guidelines will help to relieve the clog, but sometimes they do recur.
If you notice a lump in your breast that isn’t going away within a week, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor. Some women develop cysts or cancers within their breast (although this is rare). As always, if you’re concerned about a lump in your breast the best thing to do is notify your physician.
Clogged Milk Duct Vs. Mastitis
Signs of a clogged duct can be very similar to mastitis. Clogged ducts can also lead to mastitis if they’re left untreated for too long.
Mastitis symptoms are red, swollen and painful breasts along with a fever and chills. You can still follow the recommendations for treating a clogged milk duct and overcome mastitis. However, sometimes it progresses too far and you may need antibiotics.
In general, you shouldn’t have mastitis symptoms for more than 4 days. If it clears up on its own, it should happen by day 4. If it goes longer, chances are that you need antibiotics to overcome it. Whether you need antibiotics or not, keeping your milk flowing will help. Use massage, moist heat, and feed your baby frequently to try and overcome it.
Kealy Hawk, BSN, RN, CLC
Kealy is a Registered Nurse, Lactation Counselor, and most importantly a mommy! Her own baby feeding struggles gave her a passion to help moms throughout their feeding journey. She specializes in breastfeeding support and evidence-based formula recommendations. To talk with Kealy or take one of her breastfeeding or formula classes, visit https://littlebearcare.com.
If you liked this information, check out these other posts: