A clogged milk duct is a miserable experience. The longer the clogged duct persists, the worse that experience tends to be. Knowing how to get rid of a clogged milk duct as quickly as possible is crucial for any breastfeeding mom.
First, what is a clogged milk duct?
Milk flows through a breastfeeding mom’s breast through a series of tube-like structures called milk ducts. Think of it like a sophisticated plumbing system. Just like with actual pipes, a clog can form and mess things up for everyone.
If milk gets stuck in the duct, it can create a blockage that prevents more milk from moving through. That creates a backlog that can be painful, forming what feels like a knot on the breast.
Over time, as the clogged duct persists, the blockage and backlog can increase. This creates an ideal environment for bacteria to grow.
That bacteria can lead to mastitis, an infection of the breast. Mastitis can be serious and make you very ill. (If you think you have mastitis, contact your medical provider right away).
The best way to prevent a case of mastitis is to get rid of a clogged milk duct promptly and deliberately.
While it’s true that some clogged ducts will clear on their own, others will require more deliberate efforts from you. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which is which. Since time is of the essence, it’s best to move aggressively to get rid of a clogged milk duct.
I recommend trying all of the following treatment suggestions as soon as you notice a clogged duct.
Remember: These are helpful tips, not medical advice. For actual medical advice or questions, please consult a medical provider.
Empty the breast often.
If you typically feed every three or four hours, try feeding every two. If your baby isn’t hungry that often, try pumping the clogged breast in between.
Feed your baby on the breast with the clogged duct first. Baby’s suction is strongest at the beginning of a feed and that will increase your chances of clearing the plugged duct.
Empty the breast completely.
The less milk you leave sitting in your ducts, the lesser the potential for clogs. Often, a milk duct won’t be completely clogged and milk can still move through it. In that case, you’ll lower your chances for infection by regularly removing as much milk from the clogged duct as possible.
One way you know this is helping is by judging your discomfort level before and after feeding (or pumping). If the breast is more tender and the knot is more firm before you feed, and the discomfort and firmness lessens after a feeding, chances are you’re at least still partially emptying milk from that duct.
A baby who doesn’t feed well or has a poor latch may have difficulty adequately draining the breast. If you’re experiencing frequent clogged milk ducts, you may want to consult a lactation specialist or check out these breastfeeding tips.
Use a hot compress on the breast with the clogged duct.
Heat may encourage the milk to flow more freely and the duct to unclog. You can use a warm washcloth, a hot compress/heating pack, or a hot shower to apply heat to the breast. (Obviously, be careful not to scald yourself and be mindful that your nipples may be more sensitive if they’re sore from breastfeeding.)
The AAP specifically recommends moist heat between and/or just prior to feeding for the treatment of clogged ducts.
Gently massage the area with the clogged duct.
There’s actually mixed recommendations from lactation consultants on this. Some encourage you to gently massage the area of the clogged duct, moving from the base of the breast, over the clog, and toward the nipple. Others say this is pointless because milk ducts don’t travel in a straight line toward the nipple.
If you want to give massage a try, go for it, just don’t be too aggressive. While it may be tempting to try to knead the clog out (and I’ve actually seen this recommended), you have to be careful. You don’t want to apply too much pressure and risk potentially damaging the duct or, worse, encouraging new issues or clogged ducts in other places.
Avoid restrictive clothing and sleeping on your stomach.
When you’re trying to get rid of a clogged duct, you want to avoid anything that puts additional, regular pressure on the breast (and, in turn, the milk ducts).
This means no underwires or tight tops. You may even want to consider temporarily wearing a larger bra size or going without a bra at all.
And definitely don’t sleep on your stomach. If you sleep on your side, try to sleep on the opposite side of the breast with the clogged milk duct.
If you find you’re experiencing recurrent clogged ducts, and you regularly do some of these things, you may want to make some minor lifestyle adjustments in hopes of preventing more clogged ducts in the future.
Get adequate rest and hydration.
Excess stress and poor nutrition are linked to higher incidents of clogged ducts. Be sure you’re getting as much sleep and rest as possible (which, I know, may not be that much with a young baby).
You may also want to increase your fluid intake while trying to treat a clogged duct (which is generally a good idea anyway for breastfeeding moms).
Treating a clogged milk duct may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it!
If you’ve read through all these tips and feel a little overwhelmed by the laundry list of things to do, I have good news. Most of these recommendations are quick and easy fixes (choose a different shirt, drink a glass of water, etc.).
Plus, you don’t have to do everything listed here. Every strategy you implement increases your chances of successfully clearing the clogged duct quickly, and that’s what you want.
But in the end, like most things in motherhood, just do the best you can by trying whatever seems most manageable to you.