Clogged milk ducts, or blocked milk ducts, can be terribly painful. Believe me, I know. I’ve had more than I can count while pumping and breastfeeding my little ones. But they don’t have to give you grief for long. Just follow this ultimate guide for how to clear blocked milk ducts and you’ll be feeling like new again!
What are blocked milk ducts?
Basically, a clogged duct happens during lactation when the breast becomes engorged or doesn’t drain properly. Milk backs up into the duct and can become very painful.
The symptoms of clogged ducts include:
- lumps in the breast
- areas of the breast swollen and painful
- slower milk flow
- bleb (a fatty piece of milk that is stuck or clogging a hole)
- skin that looks lumpy
Now here is what surprised me: clogged milk ducts can also, sometimes, come with a fever.
Clogged ducts can lead to mastitis, which is a more serious condition. Mastitis is an infection in the breast and is usually accompanied by higher fever, chills, aches, in addition to most or some of the symptoms listed above.
Blocked ducts can also lead to other serious conditions like galactoceles or an abscess. How to clear blocked milk ducts doesn’t have one single answer, but there are many different things you can try to have success.
My Story with Clogged Ducts
I am incredibly prone to clogged ducts, and I have a history of breast health issues. I have had SO many of them while lactating that I’ve lost count.
After giving birth to my first son, I was exclusively pumping, which does not clear milk as well as breastfeeding does.
About 6 weeks postpartum I got a clogged duct that never seemed to go away. I went to a lactation consultant, several different ones, in fact, who always told me the same thing: alternating heat and cold, lots of pumping and hand expressing, warm baths, epsom salt, and massage. I googled “how to clear blocked milk ducts” many times over again trying to glean any gem that could help my poor breast.
Day after day, I did it all. It never cleared. It would get worse and then better, but I always had a hard lump where it was.
Eventually, after a few weeks of being unable to clear the duct, it became SO painful that I couldn’t even hold M on that side! I woke up in the middle of the night about 11 weeks postpartum convinced that my breast was ripping itself open from the inside out!
Turns out, it was.
Finally, I went to see a doctor, who performed an ultrasound. The doctor concluded that it was not a clogged duct, it was a giant (fast-growing) fibroadenoma. It wasn’t too huge a leap, considering that I have had fibroadenomas before. I thought perhaps my hormones were going crazy and had caused this thing to grow. He told me it wasn’t necessary to remove it.
But I was in a LOT of pain, so after advocating for myself, he agreed to do a biopsy to see if that’s truly what it was.
During the biopsy I was in such pain that my legs and arms went numb, I started hyperventilating, and went into a full blown panic state. (This had happened once before when I went to an awful acupuncturist.)
Considering my state, the doctor agreed to do a surgery THAT night.
I was given pain medications and allowed to rest during the day, but I could not eat.
M stayed with my in-laws.
The surgery happened around 6:30pm. I was wheeled into the operating room and nearly had another panic attack as they put me under. It felt like no time had passed when they brought me out again.
Groggily, I asked the nurse if it was a fibroadenoma. It was a galactocele or abscess. After slicing into my breast, puss, milk, and material oozed out. They cleared it and stitched me up. I was only under for 20 minutes.
By the time I had my surgery, I had had the clogged duct for almost 8 weeks.
Moral of the Story
Advocate for Yourself:
You know your body best. If you are in pain, TELL the doctor. I felt as if the doctor did not take me seriously when I explained how painful my breast had become. Finally when I almost passed out from hyperventilating during my biopsy, he realized that I was not making it up.
Don’t let a blocked duct go un-cleared:
I tried again and again to clear my clogged duct. Now, if something happens and I were to go more than a week without clearing a duct, I would do something else. (See my recommendation below.)
2nd Time Around
As I type, I am 5 months postpartum with my second son. My experience this time has been much different, and thankfully, my previous surgery did not prevent me from successfully breastfeeding this time!
I knew that I wanted to know how to clear blocked milk ducts ahead of time, while breastfeeding, because I seem to be unnaturally prone to them. So I developed a game plan for what to do differently in the case of another persistent clogged duct.
I have had probably more than eight clogged ducts in the five months since D was born. Most of them happened in the first 6 weeks while my milk was still increasing to its full supply. Each time, I’ve taken the steps I’ve outlined below and the clog cleared within 36 hours.
9 Ways to Clear Blocked Milk Ducts
The second you feel that nagging tingle like your milk is starting to get stagnant, do these things:
1. Take off your bra
The first thing you should do is take off your bra and go braless or even topless (around the house, anyway). A bra can constrict the blood flow to the breast, and you need blood flow to heal.
Here are some bras that I wear that don’t constrict blood flow to the breasts:
2. Use a Warm Compress
The advice from my lactation consultant was a good one, but unfortunately it’s time-sensitive. Apply a bed buddy or heating pad to your breast before you breastfeed or pump to get the blood stimulated to the breasts and your milk flowing. It’s very soothing as well.
3. Take Vitamin C
Considering that you could get a fever or develop mastitis from a clogged duct, you want to kick your immune system into high gear immediately.
Vitamin C is well-known for its ability to help the body stay healthy and fight infection.
4. Swallow a whole garlic clove
Garlic is an amazing antibiotic. So this can help in conjunction with the Vitamin C at preventing mastitis and bringing down a fever if you develop one. If you can’t find any cloves that are pill-sized, then chop up one and swallow it with some honey. When I get a clogged duct, I take 2 garlic cloves–one in the morning and one in the evening.
The other option is taking a garlic supplement.
5. Start taking Lecithin
Lecithin is a fat that is used for a variety of medical and health treatments. It can break down fat molecules so they aren’t so big. One of the thoughts as to why clogged ducts happen is because the fat in the milk gets too big to pass through the duct successfully.
Taking lecithin can help to break down the fat into more manageable pieces so that they can exit through the ducts without getting clogged.
I was instructed to take 4,800 mg of lecithin per day, at regular intervals.
6. Drink water
Dehydration can cause a number of problems in our bodies, including problems with breastfeeding. Drinking water can help to flush out toxins, as well as helps to carry nutrients to areas that need healing.
7. Have baby nurse on that side
Your baby is the most effective suction system to pull out that clog. It may be painful, but it will be well worth it. I have even taken to putting D on the side that has a clog every time he has to eat, and pumping on the other side.
Although less effective than your baby’s sucking power, you can try a pump combined with massage to try to clear your duct.
9. Have your SO try to suck the clog out
Okay, this may sound a little out of the ordinary, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I was exclusively pumping with M because he never latched, and trying to clear a duct with the pump was just not going to work.
A baby is far more effective at pulling out the clogs, but if you aren’t breastfeeding and your pump isn’t working, then the next step is to see if your husband, boyfriend, wife, girlfriend will try to suck on that side and pull the clog out.
Don’t wait to try this method if you’re an exclusive pumper. A clog should not go for more than 2 days before you need to go to the doctor. If you wait to try this method, it may be too late.
3 Ways to Prevent Blocked Milk Ducts in the First Place
As someone who is prone to clogged ducts, I always like to prevent the circumstances where a clogged duct can arise. Lecithin and water can also be used for prevention if you know you’re prone to clogged ducts. But there are a few other things that you need to know when it comes to stopping clogged ducts before they start.
1. Don’t feed on the same side twice
There have been times in the middle of the night that I accidentally fed D on the same side twice. This caused my other side to become engorged with milk. Preventing engorgement can help to prevent painful clogged ducts.
2. Stop wearing bras
I haven’t worn an underwire bra (or real bra of any kind, for that matter) for about seven years now, and I wouldn’t go back. I like to wear gentle nursing bras or bralettes that let my breasts breathe.
Underwire bras are the worst offenders when it comes to breast health. But if you go braless, that’s even better!
3. Watch for triggers
Are there certain things that always seem to precede your clogged duct? For me, whenever I have an intense workout the day before, I have a higher likelihood that I’m going to get a clogged duct the next day, even when I do try to drink a lot of water.
Caffeine could be another trigger. Although scientists claim that there is no link between caffeine and breast health, numerous women (including myself) have found a link between breast cysts/lesions and caffeine consumption.
Stress could be another potential trigger. We know that stress can cause our body functions like digestion to shut off. Why shouldn’t we think that there could be a connection to other bodily processes as well?
Whatever it is, keep an eye out and prevent it from happening so that you can breastfeed or pump without having to worry about getting clogged ducts or something much worse.
When the worst happens
In the future, if I am unable to clear a block in a week, I’m taking drastic measures.
You can go to the doctor to have them drain the clog. They put a tube through the skin to let the milk and puss out. Sometimes they heal, but sometimes they will be open wounds for the duration of breastfeeding. They can also have a high rate of occurrence, according to my midwife.
Another option is unilateral breastfeeding, or feeding only on the side without the clog. Our lactation system is built on supply and demand, so if one breast gets more nursing time, it will automatically adjust to meet the baby’s needs! How cool is that?! The other breast, if not used for nursing, will stop making milk.
Either way, you need to be concerned about engorgement and other complications. But I know for sure that if a clogged duct gets even worse, I know how to take action this time.
Have you ever had a clogged duct before? What was your experience?
Did you know how to clear blocked milk ducts?
When you’re breastfeeding or pumping, your breast health is of utmost importance. Make sure you keep yourself healthy with these tips!
And don’t let clogged milk ducts and mastitis get in the way of your breastfeeding journey!
Clear them up, work to prevent them, and hopefully you’ll have a great postpartum experience!
Have you had a clogged duct before? (Or now?)