A blocked nose. A plugged drain. A jammed highway. Obstructions of any kind are usually unwelcome, and often pretty aggravating. It’s no different when you’re breastfeeding, pumping, or both: a clogged milk duct is something all new moms could do without, but it’s unfortunately common while nursing.
Thankfully, while a clogged duct can be troublesome (not to mention a little painful at times), it’s rarely cause for too much concern. Plus, there are several straightforward ways to clear a clogged duct and resume your nursing journey free of undue pain or discomfort.
What is a plugged milk duct?
A plugged, clogged or blocked duct describes one of the milk ducts in your breasts becoming obstructed, which in turn stems the flow of milk to the nipple. A milk duct (also called a breast duct) is a small, thin tube that carries milk from glandular tissue (lobules) to the nipples. Each nipple has around nine milk ducts, and if one of these becomes blocked it can cause pain, discomfort, and often inflammation for a nursing mom.
Plugged milk ducts are common, affecting up to 1 in 5 women during nursing — and while they’re not serious, if left untreated they can lead to other conditions such as mastitis, an inflammation of the breast which may cause redness, pain, a burning sensation, and general flu-like symptoms.
What causes a clogged milk duct?
A clogged milk duct is usually the result of the breast not draining fully during nursing. There may be a number of reasons for this, but most commonly it’s because your baby is missing feeds, you’re leaving too long between feeding or pumping sessions, or your little one is struggling to latch properly and therefore isn’t draining your breast of milk at each feed.
You may also experience blocked ducts when your baby’s feeding schedule is changing — for example, as you reduce the number of breastfeeds during the weaning process — while something as straightforward as wearing a bra that’s too tight can put undue pressure on the breasts and prevent them from draining fully.
How can you tell if you have a clogged duct?
The telltale sign of a clogged milk duct is a small, hard lump appearing on the breast, which may be red and inflamed and is often tender or painful to the touch. The symptoms of a clogged duct are often confused with engorgement or mastitis — and there are similarities and crossovers — but there are significant differences between these three conditions.
If you’re experiencing one or more of the following symptoms, you may be suffering from a blocked breast milk duct:
A small, hard lump on the breast which may move or change in size, especially after breastfeeding or pumping
Redness and swelling around the lump
Pain or discomfort, which may be at its worse during feeding or pumping and subside afterwards
Small white or yellow blisters (known as milk blebs) on the nipple
How to unclog a milk duct
Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to clear a clogged milk duct, and the problem will usually resolve itself within a couple of days as long as you’re following the right advice. You’ll rarely need medical intervention, as a few simple at-home remedies are normally sufficient to unclog a plugged duct.
How do you unclog a milk duct at home?
The most effective way to treat a clogged duct is to ensure you’re regularly draining the affected breast of milk (no milk left behind!), while there are also a number of additional remedies you can use to alleviate the problem:
Continue to breastfeed or pump regularly and consistently. You should aim to feed or pump at least 8 times per day, ensuring you drain the breast fully at each session (your breast should feel lighter and produce little to no milk when you squeeze it).
Breastfeed from the affected breast first. Babies tend to suck hardest when they first start feeding (naturally, because that’s when they’re at their most ravenous), so offer them the breast affected by the blocked duct first.
Pump in between feeding sessions. If your baby is full up before they’ve drained all the milk from your breast, use a breast pump to express the remaining milk. You can always store this and use it for a bottle feed later.
Change breastfeeding positions. Alternative feeding positions — such as ‘dangle feeding’, which involves crouching over your baby on all fours — can improve milk drainage, while you may also consider positioning your baby so that their nose or chin is pointing toward the blockage.
Apply a warm compress. Before each feed or pumping session, apply a warm cloth or heated pad for around 20 minutes, which may help your milk to flow more freely. You can also try soaking your breasts in warm water mixed with Epsom salts for a few minutes.
Massage the breast. Before and during feeding or a pumping session, gently massage the blockage in the direction of the nipple. This may help to stimulate milk flow and drain the blockage.
Wear a loose-fitting bra. Tight-fitting clothing can put extra pressure on the breast and make it more difficult for a blocked duct to clear. Avoid wearing tight or underwired bras and opt for loose-fitting clothing where possible.
What is the fastest way to get rid of a clogged milk duct?
The quickest way to unclog a milk duct is simply to empty the breast of milk regularly, whether through consistent breastfeeding, pumping, or both. If your little one is not draining the breast during each feed — for example, because they have a poor latch — using a pump to express the remainder of your milk after each session will ensure your breast is fully drained and help to unclog a blocked duct.
You can also speed up the time it takes for the duct to unclog by applying a warm compress to the breast before feeding to stimulate milk flow, gently massaging the clog by pushing it towards the nipple, or switching up your breastfeeding position — for example, by laying on all fours and letting your breast ‘dangle’ into your baby’s mouth, a little extra gravity can make it easier for you to drain your breast.
How long does a clogged milk duct take to clear?
Providing you’re draining the breast regularly, a clogged duct should clear within 1 to 2 days without requiring any medical treatment. You should aim to be breastfeeding or pumping between 8 and 12 times per day (or at least every 2 to 3 hours) and emptying the breast fully each time. If the blockage persists for longer than a few days, it can lead to mastitis — which can be painful and may require antibiotics to treat.
Can a milk duct unclog itself?
If you continue to breastfeed or pump regularly and consistently — draining the breast fully at each feed or pumping session — a milk duct blockage should clear on its own without the need for any medical assistance. However, you can help the process along by applying techniques such as massaging the clog towards the nipple, applying a heating pad to the breast before a feed or pumping session, and wearing loose-fitting bras and clothing.
Should I stop breastfeeding if I have a clogged duct?
No, you shouldn’t. Regardless of whether you’re exclusively breastfeeding or pumping or doing a combination of the two, it’s important to continue draining the breast frequently — so you should stick to your normal feeding or pumping schedule. You should also try to feed as frequently as possible from the breast affected by the blocked duct.
Additionally, you may want to experiment with different feeding positions, ideally positioning your baby’s nose or chin so that it points towards the clogged duct. Applying a warm compress or gently massaging the breast before you start feeding may also stimulate milk flow and help to clear the blockage.
How to clear a clogged milk duct while pumping
If you’re exclusively pumping and you develop a clogged duct, the trick is to continue pumping regularly (at least 8 times a day) and ensure that you completely drain your breast of milk at each session. You can help to clear the duct by gently massaging the hard lump in the direction of your nipple as you pump.
As with breastfeeding, you may also find that your milk flows more freely when pumping if you apply some warmth to the breast and nipple first — you can soak your breasts in warm water, for example, or apply a warm compress before each session.
A clogged milk duct can be unwelcome and uncomfortable — particularly when you’re feeding or pumping — but following these at-home treatment tips should prevent it from sticking around for long. Just remember, the key is ensuring your breasts are completely empty after each session, even if that means expressing a little extra milk by pumping after a feed.