The truth is clogged milk ducts can be painful and uncomfortable. If they’re not dealt with promptly, they can lead to a complication called mastitis – localised swelling and inflammation of the breast that’s triggered if a blocked duct isn’t cleared.
If you’re breastfeeding and concerned about blocked milk ducts, try not to worry, there’re a few ways to relieve them! This guide is here to help you understand what causes blocked milk ducts and to let you know what you can do about them.
What is a blocked milk duct?
Narrow tubes called mammary ducts carry breast milk from the segmented glands (lobules) in the breasts to the nipple. If one of the glands isn’t drained properly as a baby feeds, the milk can’t flow through easily, and the ducts can become blocked.
Blocked ducts can happen if:
- Your baby has a tongue tie.
- Your baby is having trouble latching on.
- Your baby misses some breastfeeds.
- You wear tight-fitting bras that irritate your breast tissue.
- Your breasts are engorged.
Blocked milk duct symptoms
Let’s run through the symptoms of a blocked milk duct and what to look out for. Some common signs and symptoms include:
- Breasts that feel painful.
- Areas of the breasts appearing darker or redder in colour depending on your skin tone.
- Breasts that are warmer to the touch than usual.
- Feeling a small tender spot or sore lump in the breast.
- Baby fussing more when feeding because they’re struggling to get milk out.
- Breasts that still feel full even after feeding or pumping.
How to unclog milk ducts
First and foremost, you must get plenty of rest, eat well, and stay hydrated, even if you’re feeling under the weather. A clogged duct is unlikely to fix itself without intervention, but there are a few techniques you can try to unclog milk ducts and relieve the pain they cause.
- Don’t stop breastfeeding and you should still feed frequently from the affected breast to try and clear it. Prioritising breast milk removal and keeping your supply flowing lowers the risk of mastitis developing.
- Breastfeeding or expressing more often if your boobs feel uncomfortably full. But if you have an oversupply of breast milk, don’t over massage or pump excessively.
- Gently massaging the lump using your hand or a lactation massager in the direction of your nipple while your baby feeds.
- Using a warm flannel compress or taking a warm shower to encourage milk flow before feeds to stimulate milk let-down.
- Using cold packs after feeding or expressing to relieve pain.
- Expressing milk after feeding, either by hand or using a breast pump.
- Getting your baby’s feeding position and latch checked by your health visitor, midwife or lactation consultant.
You can tell that a blocked milk duct is cleared if you can no longer feel a lump, and you may see extra thick breast milk come out while you’re pumping or hand-expressing.
If the blockage hasn’t cleared after a day or two, or you notice that your symptoms are getting worse, there may be a risk of developing mastitis, so don’t hesitate to contact your GP.
The symptoms of mastitis are:
- Red, or darkened areas of your breast that feel hot, inflamed, and painful to touch.
- A temperature over 38.4°C.
- Flu or fever-like symptoms like aches, a fever, chills, or tiredness.
- Nipple discharge that’s white or contains blood.
Tips for preventing blocked milk ducts when breastfeeding
Blocked ducts are very common, but if you’re just beginning your breastfeeding journey, these tips on how to help prevent milk ducts from becoming clogged in the first place may come in handy.
To reduce the risk, try to:
- Avoid wearing tight clothing, bras or things that restrict your breasts.
- Avoid sleeping or lying on your stomach, as this can press on the breast and lead to clogged ducts.
- Check that baby’s latch is correct and comfortable for you both.
- Breastfeed or express regularly and avoid long gaps between feeds or pumping sessions.
Blocked milk ducts FAQs
Let’s cover some answers to the most common questions that parents ask about blocked ducts when breastfeeding.
Will pumping help a clogged milk duct?
Yes, pumping more often, alongside maintaining your usual breastfeeding schedule, can help relieve clogged ducts. Expressing breast milk encourages it to flow, which can help to remove the blockage.
Can I take painkillers to help with pain in my milk duct?
Yes, ibuprofen or paracetamol are safe to take while breastfeeding and can help to reduce inflammation and manage pain.
It’s always a good idea to check with your GP or midwife before taking any medication while breastfeeding, and it’s also important to note that people who are breastfeeding shouldn’t take aspirin.
What should I do if a clogged milk duct won’t unclog?
If you’re struggling to unclog a blocked duct, don’t be tempted to try and pop it because this can lead to a higher risk of infection.
If none of the recommendations we’ve listed above work for you, you should seek medical help from a doctor or midwife to reduce the risk of the clogged duct leading to mastitis.