When I first started on my breastfeeding journey, I had no idea how much extra stuff came along with it. Breastfeeding is hard, it’s painful at first, and it comes with some unpleasantries, like mastitis and a clogged milk duct or two.
Though it sounds somewhat innocuous, a clogged milk duct can be extremely painful.
For me, my entire breast becomes sore, and a hard knot forms where the clog is located. The knot is typically triangular in shape, like a cone pointing toward my nipple, and there can even be some redness on my skin.
Clearing the blockage by expressing milk is really the only solution once a duct becomes blocked, and a clogged milk duct can become mastitis if left untreated.
Methods to Relieve a Clogged Milk Duct
With both methods, I recommend taking a hot shower beforehand, if possible. This helps get your milk flowing. I’ve found the more milk I’m producing, the faster I can work out the clog in my milk duct.
Relieve a Clogged Milk Duct with a Breast Pump
By far my favorite method, this works best with a hospital grade breast pump like my Spectra, but any electric breast pump will work.
Step 1. Apply a Hot Compress
After taking a hot shower, the first thing I always do when trying to clear a clogged milk duct is apply a hot compress to my breast. This can be a microwaved rice pack, a heating pad, or these amazing breast therapy packs from Lansinoh. I prefer using the Lansinoh therapy packs, or I make my own hot compress by running a baby diaper under piping hot water from the tap. Baby diapers are super absorbent and made to prevent leaks, so they do a pretty good job of absorbing lots of water and staying hot without soaking you as you apply it. Leave the hot compress on for about 10 minutes. Gently massage the entire breast every few minutes. At this point, you’re really just desensitizing all that tender tissue, so don’t worry about working the clog out quite yet. Gentle pressure and circular motions are best.
Step 2. Start Pumping
Position flange on your breast to start pumping. Although the standard flanges that come with your pump work fine, I prefer to use my Pumpin’ Pals for this. They make using a breast pump more comfortable on good days, but they are magical for clogs.>> Add them right to your cart now! The way they wrap and support my breast helps, and they allow me to sit back in my chair. The more relaxed the rest of my body is, the easier it is to relieve the clogged milk duct. Before letting the breast pump do the heavy lifting to remove the clogged milk duct, make sure to adjust the settings of your breast pump! When working out a blocked duct, I typically keep it on the lowest setting for longer than usual. This helps really stimulate my let down reflex and get things clearing out. From there, I increase the vacuum strength every few minutes until I’m at the maximum level I can handle. That’s the really important part. Don’t allow the pump to stay on a setting that is stronger than you’re comfortable with. As I mentioned, my Spectra Breast Pump is hospital grade, so it allows me to use maximum suction, which I highly recommend if you can handle it comfortably.
Step 3. Massage with Purpose
Once you’ve started pumping, remove the hot compress and begin massaging with purpose. I know it’s time to start massaging when I start to see more than just a few drops of milk. Unlike the gentle massaging you did earlier, you’ll apply more pressure now. Concentrate on the area of knotted tissue of the clogged milk duct. Usually, this is cone shaped and points toward your nipple, but it could just be a sensitive lump, too. I like to alternate gentle circles with slightly more forceful pushing toward the nipple. Remember, too much force will cut off the milk supply like pinching a hose. Keep an eye on the milk being expressed inside the flange for a good indication of how much pressure is needed. Anytime your breast becomes too painful, stop massaging and apply the hot compress again. It’s also completely fine to work on your breast over several pumping sessions. While I’m usually able to relieve a clogged milk duct in one session using these steps, there are times when I end up taking some Extra Strength Tylenol and trying again later.That’s totally okay! You want to make sure you’re working with your body.
Relieve a Clogged Milk Duct by Nursing
Sometimes I either don’t want to pump to relieve a clogged milk duct or I’m too sore to use a breast pump. When I had mastitis, using a breast pump was simply excruciating, so I looked for other ways to find relief. I ended up using a method called dangle feeding.
Dangle feeding is exactly what it sounds like. The breast is dangled above the baby’s head as the baby lays on a flat surface, and your baby nurses in that position. The idea is to allow gravity to work with your baby to relieve a clogged milk duct. Since babies are much better at emptying your breast than any pump, this is a more effective method for some.
Step 1. Apply a Hot Compress
As mentioned in the pumping method, the first thing I always do when trying to clear a clogged milk duct is apply a hot compress to my breast. I really love these breast therapy packs from Lansinoh, but a heating pack or microwavable rice pack also works. I even make my own hot compresses by filling a baby diaper of any size with hot water from the sink. Because diapers are so absorbent, they are very effective at taking in lots of water and staying hot without soaking you in the process. Leave the hot compress on for about 10 minutes. Gently massage the entire breast every few minutes. At this point, you’re just desensitizing all that tender tissue, so don’t worry about working the clog out, yet.
Step 2. Position You and Baby
Lay the baby on a surface that is flat and allows you to lay alongside. I opted for my bed and used pillows to prop myself up alongside my baby.
The ideal position gives your baby access to your breast but keeps you positioned above. I like to lay down almost completely and prop my upper body up using my elbow and pillows. Make sure you have lots of those for support, as you’ll likely be in this position for 30-45 minutes depending on how long your baby nurses.It’s also good to note that clogged milk ducts can decrease the speed that milk flows. It may take your baby longer to nurse than usual.
Step 3. Dangle Feed and Massage
Allow your baby to latch on completely, encouraging as deep a latch as possible. My little one has a hit or miss latch and is an impatient eater, so using a silicone nipple shield is really helpful at the beginning of my nursing sessions. Keep your body above the baby for as much of the nursing session as possible, gently using one hand to massage your breast. Focus on the knot of round or cone shaped tissue where the milk duct is, but don’t forget about the surrounding tissue either. Milk ducts tend to meander around the breast and don’t always go straight to the nipple. After a nursing session specifically to relieve a clogged milk duct, I like to apply a warm compress again simply for comfort. My baby has a powerful sucking reflex which can leave me feeling empty but sore. A warm compress helps me to feel less sensitive overall.
No matter which method you use, anti-inflammatories and pain relievers can offer some pain relief while you sort out the clogged milk duct. Remember to keep nursing and pumping as normally as possible to prevent infection.
How do you know if it is a clogged milk duct or mastitis?
Plugged ducts are a blockage of the nipple pore or ductal system within one breast. If a blockage becomes inflamed or infected, it has become mastitis. I highly recommend checking KellyMom for more information on this, and always call your doctor if you’re unsure or begin to experience serious pain, red streaks on your breast, fever, or flu like symptoms as these could be signs of mastitis or other potentially serious infection.