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Breastfeeding Challenges: what are clogged ducts and how to treat and prevent them

Learn how to prevent and treat the clogged ducts that sometimes occur when breastfeeding.

I thought giving birth was going to be the hard part. And I mean, it’s not a cake walk – it’s a pretty incredible accomplishment – but I truly had no idea how many challenges would come after.

I planned to breastfeed and had the six months as my personal goal, though I ended up going a bit longer with my first and a bit shorter with my second.

But I had no idea how far away that goal was going to seem when I was experiencing some of the challenges that often come with breastfeeding or chestfeeding*.

One such challenge? Clogged ducts. These painful little bastards can feel bad enough to derail your journey, but there is a lot you can do – the first of which is being aware!

What are clogged ducts?

Clogged ducts are just that, clogged milk inside the milk duct. The clog obstructs the flow of milk through the breast and can be anywhere in the duct, from right at the nipple in the main breast area to all the way back into the armpit.

What causes clogged ducts?

A lot of things can contribute to clogged ducts but essentially the root cause is the ducts not being fully emptied during a feeding or pumping session.

Some things that can lead to your breasts not emptying fully are poor latch (ugh, this was something I struggled with), or the use of an improperly sized flange. Learn how to find the right size flange for you and if you’re looking for the best flanges out there when the standard ones aren’t working, we personally love Pumpin Pal (they’re pricey but excellent).

Another top contributor is altogether missing a feed or pumping session. Keep in mind that even if you plan to give some bottles, it’s important for maintaining supply and breast health to continue to pump at that time as you would normally feed.

Last, and probably a bit surprising, is tight clothing or holding your breast too firmly in one spot during a feed. Both of these things can block milk from flowing freely during the feed). It’s also recommended you avoid underwire bras. Treat yourself to a really great nursing bra instead!

How will I know if I have a clogged duct?

The most tell-tale sign you have a clogged duct in your breast tissue? Pain! This can feel sore and/or achy, or sometimes can be quite intense – almost like engorgement but escalated. Not fun.😬

Aside from being painful, you’re often able to identify clogged ducts by touch. Spend some time examining the tissue in your breast by hand and they can usually be felt as a hardened area.

Note, the release of a clog can sometimes feel quite sharp, or you may not even realize you’ve released it at all. 

Breastfeeding Bundle

How worried should I be? Are clogged ducts dangerous?

There are many things you can do to prevent or treat clogged ducts (we dive into that below), but if left untreated, clogged ducts can lead to mastitis – which is an infection that you definitely do not want to get. At the first sign of mastitis (symptoms can include fever or red lines that run along the skin), get yourself to a care provider.

And no need to worry about baby, either. It is perfectly safe if a clog releases while you are nursing your baby. After all, a clog is simply made up of milk – just a little more solid and sticky. Some babies may spit up but many won’t even notice.

How do you prevent clogged ducts from occurring in the first place?

Your best bet is to prevent clogged ducts altogether, but of course that’s easier said than done – and I would know. I experienced clogged ducts quite frequently. The best way to avoid them from occurring altogether is to feed on demand rather than by the clock, and to make sure you empty the breast each time.

As mentioned before, a properly fitted nursing bra, like this seamless, wireless nursing bra from Bravado, can go a long way. And ensuring you have a good latch is so, so important. We’ll keep saying it until the end of time: this should not be painful. If you are able to, hire an IBCLC if you think something funky is happening with your latch or you are experiencing pain.

Last, use a high quality nipple balm after each feeding or pumping session to help keep the environment moist and prevent any hard cracks or scabs, which can sometimes block the milk at the nipple actually causing clogs.

How to treat clogged ducts from breastfeeding or pumping

Again, if you suspect you have mastitis, see a care provider as soon as possible. Symptoms such as fever or red lines running along your breast are signs of infection (yes, some redness can be normal but infection can set in quickly so be vigilant). And keep emptying the breast even if you suspect mastitis, we want that clog OUT!

But if this is not the case yet and you are just experiencing clogged ducts, then there are things you can do to treat them on your own. One quick note first: do not wait to treat clogged ducts! No one has time to be in pain – especially with a newborn – and untreated clogs can lead to mastitis.

One simple thing you can do to treat clogged ducts in your breast is to apply heat before feeding or pumping. And massaging the blocked duct when you are feeding or pumping. You can even buy some vibrating gadgets specifically for this, or to be perfectly honest, save yourself some money and use a clean vibrator if you have one. Note that massaging will cause some discomfort, but that’s normal.

Or, you can “dangle feed”, which is where you put your baby on the floor and literally dangle your breast into their mouth. Ah, the lengths we go!

And just as with prevention, emptying the breast frequently helps to treat clogged ducts and make time for lots of soaking in Epsom baths for comfort (or you can add Epsom salts to a bowl of warm water and literally dip your breast in!). In the days after releasing the clog, be extra mindful to keep that breast emptied. Last, if you have recurrent blocked ducts, consult with an IBCLC or your care provider to see if taking lecithin may be a good option for you.

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