Many women experience clogged milk ducts at some point in their breastfeeding journey. If addressed quickly, a clogged duct can be resolved relatively easily without medical treatment. In this piece, I’ll explain everything from what a milk duct is to what you can do to prevent or relieve a clogged duct.
What is a milk duct?
A milk duct is a pathway for breast milk to travel through the breast and out the nipple.
What is a clogged duct?
A clogged duct (also referred to as a blocked or plugged duct) happens when milk becomes stagnant in the duct.
What are the potential side effects of blocked ducts?
Side effects of blocked ducts can include breast tenderness, breast pain, nipple pain, redness, heat, decreased supply, and palpable lumps. Occasionally, babies will be fussy at the breast due to the decreased flow of milk caused by the blockage. When a clog has dislodged, you may express stringy clumps of milk, although you might not notice them unless you’re pumping or hand expressing. This milk is safe for your baby to consume.
What causes plugged ducts?
There are many reasons women get plugged ducts while breastfeeding. By being aware of what can lead to clogged ducts, you may be able to reduce your risk of developing one.
Engorgement: Breast engorgement generally occurs a few days after birth when milk volume is increasing rapidly. It also may occur when supply is overabundant or the breasts are not properly emptied (e.g., your baby sleeps longer than usual, and you wake up with full, firm breasts).
Ill-fitting bras: Bras with underwire that goes toward the axillary (armpit) area or bras that are too tight or constrictive may block milk ducts (and even lymph drainage), preventing milk from draining adequately.
Ineffective emptying of the breast: This can be from missed feeds or pumping sessions, less frequent feedings due to a busy schedule or weaning, hurried feeds, oral anatomy issues, nipple shield use, and even poor latch.
- Unnecessary pressure on the breasts: Tight clothing, diaper bag straps, baby carriers, and sleeping on your stomach can all put pressure on your breasts, which could lead to clogged ducts.
How can you prevent and manage clogged ducts?
Dangle feeding/pumping: While on hands and knees or leaning over a bed or table, allow your breasts to dangle freely and nurse, pump, or hand express. This allows gravity to help pull the clog free.
Electric toothbrush: Turn on your electric toothbrush, and use the back (flat) part of the head to help loosen the clogged area.
Epsom salt bath: Following the ratio on the package, fill a large bowl or bathtub and allow breast to soak, massaging the breast if desired.
Frequent feeds/milk expression: Empty the breast often to help promote drainage and prevent clogs.
Heat: Using heat before breastfeeding can help milk move freely and relieve clogs. Warm washcloths, showers, and hot packs can provide heat. Exercise caution and place a cloth layer between you and the heat source to prevent injury.
Lecithin supplements: These supplements are thought to help decrease the viscosity of the milk, allowing it to flow more freely through the milk ducts. Lecithin supplements may also be used to prevent recurring clogged ducts.
Medications: Use only as prescribed by your physician for pain and inflammation relief.
Positioning: Switch up your nursing position to provide a new angle for proper milk duct drainage. Nurse your baby with their chin pointed toward the clog.
Rest: Get plenty of rest; remember to care for yourself in order to care for your baby. Take your baby in bed with you and continue breastfeeding there to get more rest. Practice safe-sleep measures to help ensure your baby’s safety if you fall asleep.
Therapeutic breast massage: Massage may help to dislodge clogs, promote lymph drainage, and encourage milk removal.
- Ultrasound therapy: Research from the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine suggests the use of ultrasound once a day for two consecutive days may help free clogs. Physical therapists and chiropractors who use ultrasound therapy for clogged ducts report better results.
If you feel like you may have a clogged duct and your symptoms aren’t subsiding with proper management, it’s important to act quickly and reach out to an IBCLC, your OBGYN, or your primary health care provider for further assessment and treatment. If a clogged duct isn’t managed in a timely manner, it can result in mastitis and, potentially, breast abscess.
While a clogged duct can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean your breastfeeding journey has to come to an end. Your milk supply may dip, but it should rebound quickly after the clog has resolved, allowing you and your baby to breastfeed for as long as you both desire.
- Wambach, Karen, and Jan Riordan. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation.
Jones & Bartlett, 2016.
This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Please reach out to an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or your health care team with any questions.