Everything has been going so well in terms of breastfeeding. A few months in, you start feeling uncomfortable, and you notice a consistent lump in the breast. A few days later, it becomes tender and swollen. Breastfeeding becomes a painful job instead – how do you get rid of it?
You can treat plugged milk ducts at home in various ways. These include taking warm showers, massaging your breast, using warm compresses, ensuring a proper breastfeeding position and latch, and frequent breastfeeding or expression of milk. You can also try lecithin supplements and lactation massagers. Lastly, frequent meditation and destressing can help your body produce more milk and ease its flow along the milk ducts.
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What is a plugged milk duct?
A plugged milk duct is simply a milk duct in your breast that has been blocked, usually because of milk itself. This causes pain, swelling and redness.
A plugged duct can go by other terms, such as clogged duct or blocked duct. In this article, these terms are used interchangeably.
Why does this happen?
While mothers who have an overflowing milk supply need not worry about their child getting hungry, they are the ones prone to clogged milk ducts. When the breasts aren’t emptied out enough during lactation and breastfeeding, clogged ducts can form. This also happens when infants aren’t able to latch well.
Other possible reasons include pressure or a weight that affects an area of the breast. This includes an ill-fitting bra, the straps of a bag or front-carrier, or even a side-lying sleeping position.
Lastly, even stress can affect your milk supply and its flow through your breasts. Some mothers notice that the pain and discomfort lessen when they try to meditate and destress.
What are the symptoms?
How do you know that your milk ducts are plugged? Let’s discuss the most common symptoms below.
Most mothers experience sore lumps in a certain area of the breast. It may start out small, but it can increase in size, especially when left untreated.
Hard and engorged breasts
Plugged ducts can give the sensation of engorged breasts. Mothers who have clogged ducts commonly describe it as hard and engorged, whereas mothers who don’t have any duct problems have soft and engorged breasts.
The area surrounding the blocked milk duct may or may not have redness. However, this may also be a sign of a developing infection.
A lot of mothers may not experience outright pain at the beginning. Moms report feeling uncomfortable with their breasts, especially when breastfeeding.
What you can do
Take a warm or hot shower before your next breastfeeding or lactating session. Try massaging your breast as you stand below the shower. The heat may help decrease the size of the lump.
After showering, use a loose-fitting bra. Tight ones can cause unnecessary pressure on your breasts, which may contribute to clogging your milk ducts.
A few minutes before feeding your child, try using a warm compress on the affected area of the breast. You can use a warm heat pack, a heating pad, or even just a warm cloth. Make sure to test that the temperature is warm to touch (and not hot) before placing it on your breast. Use this for 5-10 minutes.
Others advise trying a warm, damp washcloth with some castor oil. Leave it on the breast for around 20 minutes, and clean up afterward to ensure that your baby doesn’t accidentally ingest the oil.
Make sure that your baby is placed in the correct position to latch properly and breastfeed, and that you are comfortable in your current position as well. Encourage your body to have a stronger milk let-down reflex by relaxing and focusing on your current goal, which is to breastfeed optimally.
Feed your baby as much milk as possible with the affected breast. Massage the area of the lump in the direction of the nipple, to help facilitate movement of milk through the ducts.
You can continue expressing your milk, either via a breast pump or hand expression, if you feel that there is still some milk left and your child has had enough for the session. This can also help facilitate the flow of milk and decrease the size of the lump.
Some mothers apply cabbage leaves straight from the fridge, over the affected area of the breast. Others use an ice pack. This helps reduce pain and tenderness after breastfeeding.
There are mothers who advocate the use of lecithin supplements. This over-the-counter supplement is said to be a natural fat emulsifier, which lessens the tendency of fat in the milk to clump together and cause a blockage in the milk ducts. However, this treatment does not work for all mothers. Speak with your doctor if you are interested in taking lecithin for plugged milk ducts.
Other ways to massage it out
Mothers have tried using a lactation massager, the other end of an electric toothbrush, or even a constantly vibrating phone over the lump. While it is unconventional, you can try this method, as some mothers have mentioned feeling the lump loosen up with exposure to vibration.
It’s best to treat your clogged milk ducts as soon as you can, not only for pain relief, but also to avoid decreasing your milk supply and developing an infection.
What to watch out for
Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue. In this condition, mothers commonly develop fever and general flu-like symptoms. They usually experience worsening pain, redness and swelling of the affected breast. It is advisable to see your doctor if you have these symptoms.
A breast abscess is a complication of mastitis. This can develop if mastitis is not managed in time. In this condition, pus forms along the milk ducts due to a worsening infection. This is treated with antibiotics and draining of pus.
Regardless if you feel like you have an infection or not, you can still breastfeed if you can, or express the milk out of the affected breast. This is still safe for your child to drink.
Plugged milk ducts may be caused by inefficient latching, insufficient breastfeeding or expression of milk, consistent pressure on a certain area of the breast, and constant stress.
There are different ways to handle plugged milk ducts, especially before, during, and after breastfeeding. If you notice signs of an infection, it’s best to see your doctor for prompt management.
Sarah is a healthcare writer, motivated by her love of reading books while growing up. She took up human biology and further studies in medicine, in order to fulfill her passion for helping kids. While she isn’t a biological mother yet, she has taken a young Siberian husky named Indy under her wing. She would love to someday travel the world and meet kids from different cultural backgrounds.