The importance of prompt care for clogged milk ducts

Clogged milk ducts are unfortunate side effects of breastfeeding, but they're bound to affect most nursing moms at some point. Your milk ducts swell as your body continually produces milk, and as long as the flow of milk is regular and constant, you shouldn't have a problem with buildup. However, many things can add to congestion: your body may make more milk than is needed, you may have some trouble emptying your breast or perhaps your baby has slept through a feeding or two. In any case, a duct becomes clogged gradually and can cause considerable discomfort, so you should know what to look for and how to treat the breast safely and gently so you can begin to nurse comfortably once again.


How to spot a clogged milk duct

Can you feel a tender, red lump on the side or the bottom of your breast? Chances are you're dealing with a clogged milk duct, and whether it's already become a hard lump or it's merely an inflamed spot, it will probably feel more tender and painful before a feeding and during let down. In some cases, a clogged duct brings a decrease in milk supply or the texture of the milk may look a little thicker and less uniform.

When a duct becomes clogged in the early days of breastfeeding, it's most likely due to engorgement. This kicks in two to four days after the birth, when your breasts grow firm and heavy as they prepare to expel milk. And while your baby's natural sucking motions will help to keep the milk flowing, that can take some time if your newborn isn't latching easily. There are a few ways to deal with the discomfort and difficulties of engorgement, beginning with a supportive nursing bra that keeps your breasts stable and comfortable. Also, a warm shower before you nurse can help to dilate the milk ducts, making the milk flow more easily. If you do end up with a clogged milk duct despite your best efforts, there are several ways to find relief and keep your breasts healthy.

If you suspect that breastfeeding problems rather than engorgement led to the blockage, consider taking a breastfeeding class with a certified lactation consultant, midwife or other breastfeeding expert to modify your technique and learn about alternative positions that might work better for you and your baby. An oversupply of milk, nursing twins or sucking problems can lead to breast discomfort, and it's best to find out how to rectify these conditions early to prevent unnecessary suffering.

Avoiding Mastitis and Restoring Comfort

A clogged milk duct is bad enough, but if it goes untreated it could lead to a worse condition. Mastitis is an infection of the breast or milk duct, and treatment for the severe pain, aches and fever will come in the form of antibiotics. You'll want to do everything you can to avoid this unpleasant condition, and the first step will be to give your clogged duct a good amount of attention.

The primary way to avoid and cure blocked milk ducts is by emptying the breast completely after each feeding. Breastfeed on demand, pump frequently and offer the sore breast first so your baby's initial sucking strength will help to empty the breast. Alongside good nursing techniques, many women find relief with heat: a warm shower, heating pad or saline soak can break up the clogged milk. Alternatively, a cold compress is the best remedy for a painful breast after you've finished feeding.

If you do get mastitis, remember that it is completely safe to continue breastfeeding, and in fact breastfeeding will help to clear up the infection. Home remedies for mastitis include breastfeeding often (to avoid engorgement), getting plenty of rest and lots of fluids, and applying warm compresses or taking warm showers before nursing or pumping. Many women find that placing cabbage leaves in their bra can bring relief from the pain of mastitis, but you should still see your doctor for an antibiotic to treat the underlying infection. You can also take a mild pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprophen (Advil) to help with the pain. If breastfeeding is too painful, try pumping or expressing your milk by hand; the most important thing is to keep the milk flowing in order to unblock the affected milk duct and relieve the pressure in your breast.