One day you wake up with a painful lump on your breast that may be red and warm to the touch. You may notice a milk blister (it looks like a white head on your nipple) as well and find that nursing on that breast suddenly is very uncomfortable and painful. Alas, you may be suffering from a clogged milk duct.
Getting clogged milk ducts is one of the challenges that breastfeeding mothers face. This condition is aptly named because they are exactly that—milk ducts that have gotten clogged and inflamed. They are caused by many possible reasons. Improper latching or too much pressure due to ill-fitting nursing bras or sleeping on your tummy could be some of the possible causes for clogged milk ducts. Other reasons could be missing feeds for long stretches or stopping breastfeeding suddenly, or just plain stress. One or more milk ducts can get clogged up and the pressure of the milk that cannot pass from that duct causes pain, swelling and inflammation.
The good news is that getting clogged milk ducts is not a serious condition in itself. If treated at home early on, they can be managed and be removed in a day or two. Allowing the clogged milk duct to progress though may lead to a more painful condition called mastitis that needs medical treatment.
Here are a few ways to treat clogged milk ducts when they arise.
1. Nurse, nurse, nurse It may be painful and uncomfortable but nursing is the best thing for clogged milk ducts. The baby’s sucking is powerful enough to suck out the plug and the relief once this happens is immediate. Don’t worry about baby ingesting the plug—this is nothing more than milk that has thickened and blocked the milk duct. It will not cause any harm.
It is also best for you to offer the breast that has the clogged milk duct first. The sucking of the baby is strongest in the beginning and it’s that which can dislodge the milk plug that causes the clogged milk duct.
Some people even say that nursing with your child’s chin directed at the clogged milk duct is even more effective. It may need some acrobatic moves to do this but it is worth a try—especially since having clogged milk ducts can cause a fair amount of pain and discomfort.
If you pump milk instead of nurse, pump as often as possible. Though nursing is much more effective than a breast pump in removing clogged milk ducts, using the pump often is the next best thing. What is important is that the breast is emptied and the pressure from the clogged milk duct is relieved.
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2. Moist heat and cool compresses Using moist warm compresses and cold compresses help with the pain and the inflammation associated with clogged milk ducts. A hot, wet hand towel put on the lump a few minutes before nursing helps get the milk flowing better and may help melt away or dislodge the milk plug.
After nursing, use a cold compress to help deal with the pain of the inflammation. Do this a few times a day until the clogged milk duct is removed.
3. Massage While nursing, gently massage the clogged milk duct in the direction of the nipple. This will help move the clog slowly towards the nipple where it can be removed.
Massaging the area may not be something that you would want to do because it is sore and inflamed and most probably painful to touch, but it really does help.
4. Rest easy Getting enough rest will help your body heal itself and moving around with a clogged milk duct on your breast is painful so getting some chore-free days will really help in dealing with the pain. Just concentrate on enjoying your baby and nursing often and let others help you out while you heal.
Some clogged milk ducts, however, may come with milk blisters on the nipple and may need to be popped. A hypodermic needle may be used to gently break the skin and allow the milk to flow better through the pore, but be sure to ask your doctor about it first. Taking anti-inflammatory drugs compatible with breastfeeding can also be done under your doctor’s supervision as well. Within a day or two, the clogged milk duct should get dislodged and expelled. When this happens, relief is felt almost immediately.
Clogged milk ducts are part and parcel of the joys and challenges of breastfeeding. They may be painful and unpleasant to have and experience but it is important to remember that they pass. I think of them as little reminders to nurse a little bit more and enjoy a couple of days of cuddle time with baby.