The bane of every breastfeeding mother’s existence is clogged milk ducts. If you’ve ever experienced them, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, then keep reading. The goal of this post is to share with you what clogged ducts are, how they happen, what they lead to, and how to prevent them when possible.
Most breastfeeding mothers will experience clogged milk ducts at one point or another in their journey. Clogged ducts are more likely to occur in the early days of motherhood. Once your milk comes in and your body is working to adjust to the needs of your new baby, many moms will experience engorgement - when the breasts become overfull in between feedings. Engorgement can lead to clogged milk ducts.
The breast is made up of around 15-30 milk glands, which are connected to the nipple through milk ducts. When a gland is not properly emptied, it can cause milk and milk fat to clog up the duct, which keeps milk from flowing out of that gland. The key to avoiding clogged ducts is to be sure that the breasts are emptied regularly and fully. This can be VERY difficult in the beginning when you and baby are figuring each other out. Be sure to have a hand pump available to help with complete expression - or get really good with hand expression!
If you do end up with clogged ducts, there are several things you can do to remove the clog. Many of these are not pleasant and they do hurt, but they are much preferred over what happens if the clog is not taken care of immediately. First, be sure to be resting as much as you can. Lie down when feeding, sleep when baby sleeps, take a break from housework, and ask your support network for help if need be.
The least effective (but also least painful) way is to create warm compresses for your breast. If the clog is newly formed and you catch it early, a warm compress and firm massage can help release a clog. Apply a warm washcloth to the affected area before and/or during a nursing or pumping session. Using as much pressure as you can tolerate, massage your breast. Move from behind the sore area and then through it, towards the nipple.
Another good method is to use a vibratory object just behind the clog and moving toward and through the clog to break it up. Automatic toothbrushes are perfect for this because many have a pointed end. Warm showers and baths with firm massage help as well.
The most effective way to remove a clog is to feed baby often. Since it is tender and painful, it may be tempting to avoid feeding the baby on that side, or to reduce the number of feeds. Resist the urge to do this, as it can cause more severe problems to develop (such as mastitis). Nurse as much as possible, responding to baby's early feeding cues. Dangle feeding allows gravity to help the clog move down. Also, position baby so that their chin is in line with the clogged duct. This allows the most forceful part of baby’s suction to work directly toward the clog.
Having a clogged duct is painful. Removing a clogged duct is painful. The result of leaving a clogged duct to get worse, however, is torture. When a clogged duct is not treated, it can lead to mastitis. This is an infection of the glands in the breast that can cause fever, inflamed breasts, pain to the touch, and reduced milk volume.
Mastitis is treated with antibiotics, and you can continue breastfeeding despite having mastitis. In fact, it’s recommended because it helps to speed recovery. While it may seem odd to continue nursing when your breast has an infection, you cannot share the infection with your baby. Continue to breastfeed. Make sure you’re nursing often! And, don’t forget your other breast in your quest to clear up the infected one. If you do, you’ll be repeating the same scenario on the other side.
Remember, if you feel like a clog is starting, address it quickly. Clogged ducts don’t take long to form, but the earlier you catch them and treat them, the more likely you are to avoid mastitis!
Make sure to contact a certified lactation consultant if you ever have any worries or questions along your breastfeeding journey.