How to Unclog a Milk Duct When Breastfeeding
Congrats! You had a baby and now your breasts are growing to a size you didn’t know was possible. Your baby is feeding around the clock, you haven’t slept more than two hours for the last week (if you’re lucky), and breastfeeding is going well.
Then, boom! There’s a lump. Where did it come from? Is it normal? Should I rub it? Ice it? You consult Dr. Goggle and now you’re worried you have a rare disease.
Despite the power of Google, this is why I recommend working with a lactation consultant before beginning your breastfeeding journey. When things like lumps pop up, you know what to do and where to get help and support. But today I’m going to share how you can unclog a milk duct.
Clogged ducts happen. During those first few weeks postpartum, while your breast milk is regulating, clogged ducts can be common. While most clogged ducts resolve by themselves within 24-48 hours after onset, a prolonged blockage can predispose you to mastitis. Dealing with clogged ducts is frustrating, but with the right support, early identification, and care you can feel confident taking on your clogged ducts.
What Is A Clogged Duct?
A clogged duct is a localized hard lump, nodule, or wedge-shaped area of engorgement in the breast most commonly caused by a build of milk. This can be due to multiple causes. Some of the most common are; infrequent feedings, breast pressure from wearing a bra that is too tight, poor latch, ill fitting breast pump flanges, a weak pump, or simply stress.
Clogged ducts can feel overwhelming, but don’t beat yourself up if you get one. It happens. Look at this as an opportunity to rest, drink a lot of water, nourish yourself, practice grace, and really focus on slowing down. Remember, while breastfeeding is natural, you and your baby are learning a new skill.
Signs and Symptoms
Clogged ducts are most commonly present in one breast, but can occur in both. Clogged ducts are often tender, hot, swollen, and the area can look red. In some cases, you may notice an area is more tender or painful, but without any swollen or hard areas.
Rarely, you may notice a low-grade temperature (below 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit). On the affected side you may notice a temporary decrease in supply and during your let down it may be more painful. After the clogged duct has cleared, usually within a day or two, it is normal for the area to feel bruised for a couple weeks.
If you develop a fever over 101.3, chills, or flu-like symptoms you need to contact your provider. This is a sign your clogged duct may have developed into mastitis.
How to Treat
When my clients call me and describe the first stages of a clogged duct here's my go to:
Feed: Feed, feed, feed on the affected breast. You cannot feed/pump enough on the affected side. Remember, clogged ducts occur from a build up of milk.
Warm Compress: Before you feed or pump take 5 minutes and apply a warm compress (a warm washcloth will do).
Massage Your Breast: Then using your favorite oil, rub gently in front of the lump for a couple of minutes. It’s important to rub in front of the clogged duct. Think of it like a traffic jam. You need that car in front to move in order for all the backed up cars to get through.
Use Gravity: Finally, express milk while using gravity to your advantage by leaning over baby, while pumping, or hand expressing.
Epsom Salt Soak: In addition, you can also try an epsom salt soak. Fill a bowl with warm water and epsom salt. Again, use gravity to your advantage and lean over the bowl. If you have a silicon breast pump fill the pump up with water and epsom salts and soak your breast.
Take some extra time in a hot shower and massage in front of the clog. Remember to also wear loose clothing and bras during this time. Begin your feedings on the affected side first.
If it is too painful, try feeding on the affected side after the first let down. Try to position baby so you can massage from the front of the clogged duct down towards the nipple. Use breast compression to really support milk removal.
You may need to pump or hand express post feeding if baby is unable to drain your breast. In between feeds you can use cold compresses and Ibuprofen to reduce inflammation and Tylenol if the pain persists.
Hopefully with this treatment, you can avoid mastitis. Antibiotics are not used to treat a clogged duct, but may be necessary if you develop mastitis.
Again, if you are worried you have mastitis please contact your provider.
Lecithin can be used to help prevent recurrent clogged ducts. Lecithin is a natural food element and is safe to use while breastfeeding. The recommendation is 3600-4800 mg, usually one capsule 3-4 times daily.
Once you’ve gone a couple weeks without any clogged ducts you can slowly reduce the amount of capsules you take. Continue to reduce the amount you take as long as there are no recurring clogged ducts until you are no longer taking them. You may need to continue to take 1-2 capsules per day to prevent blockage. ]
An important note: high doses may exacerbate symptoms of depression. If you struggle or have struggled with depression please DO NOT take lecithin without speaking to your provider. It’s always a good idea to check with your provider before beginning any new medication.
You’re Doing Well
Clogged ducts happen even when you are vigilant about pumping and baby is nursing well. If you’re getting clogged ducts frequently this is a sign something needs an adjustment. Maybe you need to feed more frequently, add in some compressions while nursing, switch out a flange size, or work on baby's latch.
My biggest tip? Don’t go at it alone. Reach out to your lactation specialist, Le Lache, or other local breastfeeding support groups. Add some support to your team. Lastly, I’ll be real, clogged ducts are a real pain in the boob. Don’t blame yourself.
Remember when a bump pops up in your breastfeeding journey it’s a sign to slow down and focus on you and baby, NOT a sign you are failing! With some self love and knowledge you can overcome anything.