If you’ve ever experienced clogged milk ducts, you know what a pain they can be. In my personal experience (and after four kids, I’ve had many), a clogged milk duct can range from a minor annoyance to a little slice of hell on earth.
Knowing how to treat clogged milk ducts is important for any breastfeeding mom. But even better is knowing how to prevent clogged milk ducts in the first place!
What is a clogged milk duct?
Unlike many medical terminologies, a clogged milk duct is actually just what it sounds like. It’s a milk duct (basically a tube in the breast through which milk flows) that becomes blocked. The blockage is typically milk that becomes trapped, or clogged, in the duct.
The clogged milk duct (sometimes called a plugged duct) can usually be felt as a firmer spot on the breast. As the clog sits, more milk backs up behind it, leading the clogged duct to become firmer. Think of it like a traffic jam in your breast.
As the clog worsens, the lump or knot you can physically feel gets firmer and more uncomfortable. Eventually, that whole area of the breast can become tender or even painful.
Why it’s important to prevent clogged milk ducts
As uncomfortable as a clogged milk duct is, that’s not the biggest reason you want to avoid one. The longer the blockage remains in the breast, the more time there is for bacteria to develop.
If this happens, you can develop full-blown mastitis, a breast infection that can be very painful and a legitimate threat to your health.
(If you think you have mastitis, contact your medical provider right away.)
So how can you avoid clogged milk ducts?
Following these four tips can help you prevent clogged milk ducts and the suffering that comes with them.
1. Empty the breast regularly.
It’s less important how often you empty your breasts and more that you empty them on a consistent schedule. Breastfeeding is largely a supply-and-demand system. If your body is used to breastfeeding every three hours, you need to do it every three hours.
Sure, there’s some wiggle room, but stretching too long between feedings when your body isn’t used to it is a recipe for clogged ducts. From personal experience, the first time I ever experienced a clogged duct was when I really needed to pump, but postponed it by three hours. I certainly learned my lesson after that. . .
It’s a good idea to keep a pump, even a manual one, around for unexpected delays or separation from your baby. This can also be helpful if baby sleeps through a feeding or weans unexpectedly or abruptly.
2. Avoid underwire and/or tight tops.
This one was tricky for me. I found any friction from my clothing absolutely intolerable while I was breastfeeding and/or pumping. But anything that was too tight was a recipe for a clogged duct.
Eventually, I settled for nursing tops/camisoles that were tight enough to prevent friction, but not too restrictive. If you wear a bra with an underwire and are experiencing clogged ducts, you should move to a bra without one. (Or perhaps, if you’re still having trouble preventing clogged milk ducts, ditch the bra altogether for a while).
3. Get adequate rest and care.
I know, this sounds a tad ridiculous, maybe even insulting, to a breastfeeding mom. Young babies require a ton of work and, often, many sleepless nights. I completely get that. But clogged ducts have been linked with inadequate rest and nutrition.
Make sure you’re getting enough water (important for any breastfeeding mom, not just those experiencing frequent clogged milk ducts). Try to sneak in as much rest as you can, whether that means taking an actual nap or simply lying down when possible.
Be willing to let your partner, family, and friends hold and care for the baby or your other children so you can rest when baby’s not feeding. After all, since you can’t outsource breastfeeding, try to outsource whatever else you can so you don’t find yourself completely depleted.
4. Take a supplement.
I’m not a doctor and this isn’t medical advice. Clear all supplements with your medical provider, in advance.
Just know that supplements like lecithin have been linked with lower incidents of clogged ducts. Experts aren’t quite sure why, but they think it may have to do with the viscosity (thickness/stickiness) of the milk.
If you’re experiencing plugged milk ducts frequently, you may want to discuss a supplement with your doctor.
Preventing clogged milk ducts may seem like work, but it’s worth it.
Even with all the breastfeeding support and tips in the world, breastfeeding and caring for a baby can be an overwhelming responsibility. Adding in clogged ducts can sometimes feel like the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.
However, most of the strategies to prevent clogged ducts are really easy to implement. If you’re frequently suffering from clogs, these relatively minor tweaks and inconveniences can make a world of difference.