You are likely to experience a number of complications in your breastfeeding journey. Many of these are going to cause you a lot of pain.
One in five breastfeeding mothers are likely to experience a clogged milk duct or mastitis. Being able to recognize the former in its early stages will allow you to treat this painful condition at home before you run the risk of infection.
In this post we will help you understand what causes your milk ducts to clog, and how you can treat this when it occurs.
We will also touch on what to do if an infection does set in and the treatment for mastitis.
How to Clear a Clogged Milk Duct
- Apply a warm compress or have a hot shower
- Massage the affected area of the breast downwards towards the nipple
- Feed your baby (or pump) until the breast is drained
- If feeding is complete pump or express any remaining breast milk
- Apply a cold compress after feeding to reduce inflammation or pain
- Repeat every two hours (pump or express if feed is not needed)
If you are experiencing recurring blocked ducts then 3600mg of a lecithin supplement can help prevent this. There are no side affects and this acts as an internal lubricant for you milk ducts.
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Causes Of A Clogged Milk Duct
There are a few reasons why a milk duct will become clogged. Some of the causes are preventable, while others may not be.
Inadequate Milk Removal
Babies that suffer from latching problems can only achieve a weaker suckle. The volume of milk extracted can be far less than you would expect for a feeding session.
A distracted or sleepy baby can also lead to a similar result, as can a reduced feeding time.
The buildup of excess milk can cause the breasts to feel tender and strained, and lead to engorgement in the breasts.
Skipped Feeding And/Or Pumping Sessions
Many mothers can also suffer from a clogged milk duct when they return to work because they do not take enough time out to pump during the workday. It is easy to get distracted at work and forget to pump.
Once baby starts sleeping through the night and you are no longer pumping or feeding during this time, your milk supply can back up.
It will take a few days for your body to adjust to the new feeding schedule and begin decreasing the supply naturally.
Pressure On The Breasts
Pressure on the ducts and breasts can be caused from wearing a bra that is too tight or constricting, sleeping on your stomach, or carrying a heavy diaper bag that crossed over your chest.
Inflammation is typically caused from injury, infection or allergic reaction.
With Mastitis, the duct that is blocked or obstructed becomes infected.
Infections can also occur from cracked and bleeding nipples that offer an entry point for bacteria, hospital stays and other prolonged exposure to bacteria and infectious organisms.
Stress, fatigue, and anemia have also been said to increase a woman’s risk of developing mastitis. Women with a weakened immune system also have a much higher risk.
Symptoms Of A Clogged Milk Duct Vs Mastitis
A clogged milk duct occurs when the milk flow through the duct is obstructed causing the milk to back up in the ducts and pain while nursing.
Sometimes the nipple pores may be obstructed, but most commonly the clog will be further back in the duct.
Typically, women will feel pain in only one breast and the clog will come on gradually, at first feeling just a little sore or a tugging sensation while the baby feeds.
This becomes more painful as the clog builds up. The breasts will also become engorged or feel tender or hot.
Women will also sometimes present a low-grade fever when a milk duct is plugged.
Risk Of Mastitis
Mastitis happens when the plugged duct becomes infected.
Symptoms of Mastitis include a hard lump near the area of the blocked duct, engorgement of the breast, swelling, and tenderness or pain.
There may also be red blotches or lines that look like veins that spread across the breast.
The pain will be the worst while the breasts are full and may subside slightly after feeding your baby when the breasts are not full or strained.
The pain with Mastitis will be greater than just a typical plugged duct and is most common in the first 2-3 weeks postpartum.But can occur at any stage of breastfeeding.
Mastitis also tends to only affect one breast at a time. Women whose plugged ducts lead to Mastitis will also experience a fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms.
With both a blocked milk duct and mastitis there are some other more uncommon symptoms including expressed breastmilk that looks stringy or lumpy, a decrease in milk supply from the affected breast, and the area remaining tender or red even after the duct has been cleared.
With mastitis, there is also a risk of the breast milk containing mucus or blood when expressed. The milk may also suffer from a salty taste and babies may refuse to feed from that side.
Treatment Of Clogged Milk Ducts
A clogged milk duct that has not developed into mastitis can usually be cured at home through the following natural process:
- Warm compress
- Emptying the breast
- Cold compress
1. Apply Heat to the Affected Breast
You have a number of options to warm up the area with the clogged duct:
- Have a warm shower: convenient and no mess
- Apply a warm compress or heating pad: retains heat longer
- Apply a washcloth or cloth diaper soaked in warm water: in case you need to just use what is available.
2. Massage the Breast to Improve Flow
To help relieve any pain from triggering the letdown reflex a pre-feed massage can be helpful. Combined with the heat, a gentle massage will help milk flow more freely and offer symptomatic relief.
Once the letdown reflex is triggered your breast will be prone to leakage. So to avoid mess and inconvenience we recommend you just do this in the shower if possible.
Gently massage the affected area downward toward the nipple as though you were pushing the blockage out through the nipple pores.
You can also massage the breast while your baby is feeding. Especially while feeding on the side with the plugged milk duct to maintain a consistent flow.
This reduces the work your baby has to do to get the milk to drain.
Dangle feeding can also help in this process. You simply lean over your baby while nursing and let gravity do the work for you and aid in the letdown of the milk.
3. Feed Your Baby
When feeding it can be helpful to start from the affected breast immediately after applying heat.
However, if this is too painful then feel free to switch to the other side after the letdown reflex is activated as required.
This may cause the breast to leak while you are nursing your child on the other breast, but the goal is drainage.
4. Express Milk to Full Drainage
If your baby is full or refuses to nurse, then you should continue to pump or hand express your breast milk until your breast is empty.
The affected breast should be kept as empty as possible while not neglecting the other breast.
5. Apply Cold Compress
After the feeding is completed, pump or express any remaining milk in the breast to ensure emptying and use a cold compress in between feedings.
Using a cold compress after feeding reduces inflammation and pain.
6. Repeat Every Two Hours
The fastest way to clear a plugged milk duct is to make sure that you are nursing frequently. Draining your breast at least every two hours will keep giving your body the best opportunity to work through the blockage.
Unfortunately, this means you are going to be missing out on some sleep – like this is any different to a normal day!
For best results, you should wake up and feed or pump to stay on that two hour schedule.
Tips to Prevent a Clogged Duct
Sunflower Lecithin can help grease your insides and help your body pass the milk through with less friction.
There are no side effects associated with this supplement and you should take up to 3,600mg per day.
Avoid Tight Clothes
Mothers should also be conscientious about the clothing that they wear and avoid ill-fitting bras and tight clothing that is restricting around the breast area.
The best bras that a breastfeeding mother can wear are those made specifically for nursing, are cotton and do not have an underwire.
Your body is working hard to produce breast milk, and a lack of water can put a strain on that process and is generally unhealthy.
Make sure you start your day with two glasses of water when you wake up. Then periodically drink what you need to get to your 8-10 glasses a day.
Let your body be your guide as to how much you need. If you feel thirsty or have darker colored urine then it is time to yo the intake!
In Case Of Infection
The treatment for mastitis is the same as a clogged milk duct. However, if symptoms persist or get worse after 24 hours doctors will typically prescribe an antibiotic.
Common antibiotics such as penicillin don’t work because the mastitis infection, staphylococcus aureus, is resistant to it.
Your physician may prescribe erythromycin, Cephalexin or clindamycin, among others. Medication is usually prescribed for a 10-14 day regiment.
Probiotics are also said to assist in the prevention and treatment of mastitis.
While this is a common complication when breastfeeding, as always prevention is better than cure. By sticking to a feeding or pumping schedule you reduce the risk of a blockage developing.
If you do notice a lump or blockage forming taking swift action at can eliminate the problem before you risk infection.
In the case of a more serious infection, and the onset of fever you should see your doctor immediately.