Published on 5th August 2020

A plugged milk duct is a common problem during breastfeeding, but there are steps mothers can take to help recognise and treat the blocked duct before it turns into mastitis. Here are some helpful tips to healing your clogged duct and getting your milk flowing again. 

What is a milk duct, anyways? 

“Unclogging a duct.” 

The very phrase sounds like something a plumber would be investigating. However, it’s a common problem for breastfeeding mothers. A 2011 study found that 4.5 percent of women experienced clogged breastmilk ducts at some point during their first year of feeding.  

Before we get into the "do's and don'ts" of blocked ducts, it’s good to ask what a breastmilk duct even does, and why it's so important throughout your breastfeeding journey.

Your ducts are the tiny tubes that carry milk from your milk-making glands deep in your breast, all the way to your nipple. We can compare them to an orange: like the fruit, the glands in your breasts are divided into ‘segments’. Muscle cells squeeze milk along the ducts, which create a steady flow of milk to your nipple each time your baby feeds. 

When your baby is latched on and feeding, the movements of your baby’s jaws, gums, and tongue help to pull the milk through these ducts and out the nipple. Your let-down reflex is also something that helps your milk flow through the milk ducts, and out to your waiting baby. 

These magical little milk ducts play a massive role in the delivery of breastmilk to your child – but the downside is that they can also be a source of some frustrating breast problems

What causes a clogged milk duct? 

Like we said, blocked ducts aren’t uncommon, and the root cause is usually something that prevents the breast from fully draining the way it should have. This can be anything from pressure on your breast from too-tight bras or clothes, or feedings (and pumping sessions) that aren’t frequent enough. Stress is a big factor too – but which new mom isn’t feeling the pressure, to be honest? 

These clogs can even be caused by the way you feed your baby. For example, if your baby prefers one breast over another, it may lead to clogs in the breast that is used less often. Sucking problems and latching issues are other factors that can cause a backup of your supply. 

Here’s the real bummer: if you do nothing to take care of your clogged duct, there’s a chance that it will progress into an infection called mastitis. Untreated mastitis can cause the formation of breast abscesses and a localization of pus in the breast tissue – this all requires surgical drainage. So, please look after your ladies!

Recognizing a clogged milk duct 

Late night feeding sessions, engorgement, leaking… chances are, you know all about the joys of breastfeeding your baby. (And yes, you’ll know all about the incredible and sweet moments too!). 

Then one day, you feel a hard, tender lump. What’s this? Well, it’s the quintessential sign of a clogged breastmilk duct. But don’t worry just yet – these things can typically be cleared at home and can get you back into your normal routine. 

Symptoms can come on slowly and they generally affect just the one breast. 

You might experience: 

  • A lump in one area of your breast 

  • Engorgement around the lump

  • Pain or swelling near the lump 

  • Discomfort that subsides after feeding/pumping 

  • Pain during let-down 

  • Movement of the lump over time 

  • Milk plug/blister (bleb) at the opening of your nipple 

It’s also typical to see a temporary decrease in your supply when you have a clog. 

Managing your clog 

Stop, drop, and roll. No, seriously. At the first sign of a clogged duct, you can get to work on treating the issue. As it’s possible that the clog can progress into something more serious (mastitis!), we do recommend coming up with a management plan that’s monitored by a lactation consultant or a healthcare professional. 

One of the most effective treatments is massage, as it promotes the removal of milk from the blocked area. This is especially good to do while you’re feeding or pumping. To massage, start from the outside of the breast and apply gentle pressure with your fingers as you work your way towards the clog. 

Here are some other expert-backed tips to clear a clog: 

  • Continue to breastfeed – the idea is to drain the breast frequently. If this isn’t possible, we recommend our hands free breast pump, Elvie Pump, to relieve your milk-filled breasts. 

  • Start your feeding sessions with the affected breast, to ensure it gets the most attention from baby. 

  • Consider using a warm flannel or resting your breast bowl of warm water to encourage the flow. 

  • Trying different feeding positions can help clear the blockage. Sometimes, moving around allows your baby’s suction during feeding to better reach the blocked duct. 

If the blocked milk duct is not cleared after 24-48 hours, or if you start to develop flu-like symptoms, you should see your doctor to prevent infection. 

Help to latch on to 

We get it. Blocked milk ducts can be uncomfortable and frustrating to deal with – but keep at it. Treating it at home should be able to clear the clog without developing infection or require further intervention. Taking active steps in prevention can also be a big bonus for your breastfeeding journey. 

We know it might seem impossible – especially with a newborn baby – but take care of yourself as much as possible to help prevent issues like blocked breastmilk ducts. After all, self-care isn’t a luxury! 

Sneak in some cheeky naps, ask for help, or get an early night – even if you know you’ll be awake for a feeding session a few hours later. In general, just practice all the self-care you need to help you avoid feeling run-down. 

If you’d like ongoing support from a third-party, Unicef’s ‘Baby Friendly Initiative’ has plenty of organisations and resources to get you started. Here’s just a few other mother-support groups: