Suddenly your baby sleeps for a longer stretch of time at night. Or maybe you had a busy day at work and forgot a pumping session? Whatever the change in your nursing or pumping schedule was, all you can concentrate on is the painful and tender lump on your breast. A clogged milk duct.
These frustrating and uncomfortable plugs often arise when you have a sudden change in nursing demand from your little one. Clogged milk ducts are also associated with high stress, or a change in routine.
A clogged milk duct can happen to any nursing mother. If you already have an over-supply then you may be even more prone to clogged milk ducts, like I was.
Let’s talk strategies and tips on how to clear a clogged milk duct fast and prevent Mastitis from developing.
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What is a clogged milk duct?
A clogged milk duct is an area of the breast where milk flow has been obstructed. The clog may form when you go to long without emptying the breast, inadequately emptied the breast, or something positioned on the breast caused a physical obstruction that prevented milk flow.
You will feel a hard, tender, and often painful lump on your breast around the affected area. If you are noticing extreme pain or redness, you may have more than a clogged milk duct. An infection, Mastitis, might present.
What is Mastitis?
Mastitis is an infection that forms at the site of a clogged milk duct that wasn’t cleared. You will know that you are dealing with Mastitis vs. just a clogged milk duct because you will experience:
- Flu-like symptoms including chills and body aches and high fever
- A red wedge-shaped warm spot on your breast over the affected area
Mastitis usually requires antibiotic treatment, but even with the antibiotic it is still essential to get that clogged milk duct cleared to heal completely.
Looking for more breastfeeding support? You can find more information to help identify and troubleshoot common breastfeeding challenges such as clogged milk ducts, mastitis, thrush, issues with latch and supply in our Breastfeeding Handbook.
What causes a clogged milk duct?
Like I mentioned in the beginning, a clogged milk duct is most often caused by a longer period of time when baby wasn’t nursing. An example of this might be baby sleeping a longer stretch at night, or suddenly going longer between daytime feedings.
Other causes might include a missed pumping session, an inadequate pumping session, or accidently skipping a feeding on one side.
Sometimes, pressure on the boob can cause a clogged milk duct as well. Common culprits are sleeping on your stomach, underwire bras or tightfitting bras or clothing.
How long does a clogged milk duct last?
In short, until you unclog it! A clogged milk duct will not just go away and is something that should be taken seriously every time. It essential to treat these uncomfortable clogs aggressively.
When should I contact my doctor about a clogged milk duct?
If you are already experiencing mastitis symptoms, (fever along with the painful, swollen lump on your breast) then it is crucial that you call your health-care provider and be evaluated for mastitis and determine if a course of antibiotics is necessary.
When I had my first clogged milk duct it was very clear when it had progressed to an infection. I had a high fever, severe chills, and body aches.
Do NOT wait to get medical attention if this happens to you, or if you have any doubt that it is more than just a plug.
How to clear a clogged milk duct fast
1. Nurse, Nurse, Nurse!
The most important thing to remember is that there is no reason to stop nursing baby when you are experiencing a clogged milk duct. Nursing your baby is essential to clearing it. Your baby’s suckling is likely much stronger and more effective than hand expression. Their ability to trigger a let-down is what is going to get the milk flowing again and clear the affected duct.
How to nurse when you have a clogged milk duct?
You should begin each nursing session on the affected side until the plug has cleared because this is when baby’s suckling is the strongest. Have a baby who only nurses on one side per feeding? Then only feed him/her on the affected side and pump the other side in between.
Your baby is one of your best ‘tools’ in clearing this fast. If it feels too painful to have the baby latch on, some resources recommend allowing the baby to suck the unaffected side to trigger the let-down and then switch baby over to the affected breast once the let-down occurs.
Vary your nursing position to help clear your clogged milk duct
The goal is to have baby’s chin on the plug because it will help gently massage it and get the milk moving. You may need to get creative with this. Try side lying or a football hold. Enlist the help of a partner or trusted friend if your baby still needs assistance latching and you need to lay in a different or unusual way to position baby.
Variation of position can really help in resolving the issue faster. If you are too engorged and too uncomfortable to use variation in position, then just stick with what feels comfortable and very gently massage the lump while the baby feeds.
Try a dangle feed
Lay your baby on your bed or the floor and hover over baby on all fours and dangle your breast into their mouth. The idea is that gravity, in addition to baby’s suckling, will help get things moving.
2. Rest and Fluids
You need to treat your clogged milk duct like any other illness. Your immune system will be working to keep infection away; resting and treating this like any other illness will help it heal faster. Additionally, you should increase your water intake and consider taking Vitamin C to give your immune system a boost.
Enlist the help of your partner or loved one
Ideally, you can enlist the help of a partner to keep the household afloat while you stay in bed. Have baby in your bedroom with you in a Pack n Play, bassinet, or swing so that you can easily nurse baby in bed (safely while you are fully awake). Then put them back to sleep independently without much physical exertion.
If they are awake and needing more activity or stimulation, then enlist the help of a partner so that you can rest and sleep while you are not nursing. While you are attempting some of the other strategies on this list that doesn’t involve baby, they can be in the care of a trusted caretaker or partner.
What if I have an older, mobile baby?
If your baby is older and will not be content in your bedroom in a Pack n Play or swing, reach out for support to entertain your mobile baby while you rest. Your main objective is to clear your plug before it becomes infected and progresses to mastitis.
3. Ice and Heat
How should I ice my clogged milk duct?
When your duct is plugged and you feel a lump, what you are feeling is the inflammatory response to the plug. Ice is going to reduce swelling and help that duct become less restricted and allow clearing to occur. I recommend icing in between feedings for 10 minutes. It will provide some relief to the discomfort and pain often associated with a plug as well.
How can I use moist heat to help a clogged milk duct?
Heat will be your best friend through all of this. Before each nursing session use a warm compress designed for the breast to aid in milk flow. You may also try soaking your breast in a bowl of warm water before feeding or in an Epsom salt bath. After applying warm heat to the breast gently massage the sore area before nursing. This gentle massaging can be continued while the baby nurses as well, especially if the plug is in a hard to reach spot.
Work on your clogged milk duct in the shower or bath
Take a hot shower and use hand expression to promote the plug to clear. I personally have had a lot of success with clearing clogged milk ducts in the shower or bath after a good nursing session with baby. You may even feel the plug progress toward your nipple and in some cases, see the nipple opening turn white as the clog makes it way out.
I’ve had experiences where I saw a tiny sand-like grain make its way out, a small almost string-like plug, and other times nothing appears at all and suddenly milk will just shoot out of the affected duct when it clears. These are all normal scenarios and nothing to cause alarm. It also may be a gradual release leading to eventual normal flow.
After applying heat to your breast, but before nursing, it can be beneficial to use vibration or a combing technique on the area to stimulate milk flow. An electric tooth brush is very effective in loosening things up and helping the duct clear.
This was recommended to me by another mom at a local mother’s group, and I found it extremely effective. Nothing in your home that vibrates? A regular comb or brush can be used in a similar fashion. Simply stroke it over the lump.
5. Eliminate Restrictive Clothing and Bras
While you are working to clear up your clogged milk duct, you should wear loose clothing to prevent any extra pressure. Wearing underwire bras, too tight shirts, or ill-fitting bras of any kind can lead to plugs because they restrict the milk from flowing the length of the duct when the baby nurses. As a nursing mother, remember to wear a bra that is comfortable and fits properly.
6. Pain Relief, Supplements, Medication
Of course, consult your doctor or midwife first before taking any medication, but I was given the okay to treat pain and inflammation with ibuprofen or acetaminophen. In my experience, taking ibuprofen around the clock while treating a clogged milk duct was crucial in my recovery. This is because of how much it reduced the inflammation around the plug allowing for quicker clearing. It also reduced pain, making nursing more comfortable and tolerable.
If you are experiencing repeated clogged milk ducts
If you are experiencing recurring clogged ducts you may be experiencing over-supply or have milk with a higher viscosity or stickiness than average. Many mothers find taking a lecithin supplement regularly can decrease the viscosity of the milk and reduces the occurrence of clogged ducts.
There are many natural remedies and strategies to aid in controlling an over-supply. Discuss these strategies with your doctor, midwife, or consider a private appointment with a lactation consultant.
Do not ignore the clogged duct and assume it will go away on its own
Clogged milk ducts need to be treated persistently and aggressively to prevent mastitis from developing. With determination and the above tricks, you will get that plug cleared. If your symptoms are not improving after 48 hours, seek medical attention even if you are not experiencing flu-like symptoms or fever.
In my experience, I could usually clear a plug within 24 hours but have had them last up to 72 hours. Keep drinking water, resting, and using these tips and you will be back to normal in no time.
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Alli Wittbold is a wife, mama, blogger, and online teacher. She feels passionate about connecting expectant mothers with childbirth class educators, and supporting them to achieve the birth they desire. After having her first baby delivered by a Certified Nurse Midwife, Alli is an advocate for midwifery prenatal care. She has learned so much about labor and delivery by attending and reviewing dozens of birth classes to help mothers learn and explore options. Alli co-authored the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook, resources she is proud to share with as many expectant and new mothers as possible. Read more about Alli.