Clogs. If you have one, then you know they suck. If you haven’t had one, then it’s best to be prepared for the possibility.
Clogged milk ducts can affect anyone, though they seem to affect exclusive pumpers more often than women that are nursing.
I’m sure it has to do with the fact that a baby is much more effective at moving milk than a pump will ever be.
So, since I don’t have a baby to help me out of my sticky situations (no pun intended), I have found my own ways.
These are some of my tried and true solutions to help get rid of clogs to help prevent the horror that is mastitis.
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What is a Clogged Milk Duct?
A clogged milk duct is when there is a blockage of one or more ducts that carry milk from your breast down to your nipple.
A clogged duct can be very uncomfortable and even painful. They can also cause a decrease in your milk supply and if left untreated, can lead to more serious complications such as mastitis or a breast abscess.
Needless to say, you should take care of any clogged ducts sooner rather than later.
How do You Know if You Have a Clogged Milk Duct?
Knowing that you have a clog isn’t always obvious if the clog happens to be on the smaller side and you aren’t paying attention.
The clogged milk duct will feel like a hard spot in your breast. You may also notice a decrease in your milk supply or even some redness over the area.
A drop in supply won’t be very obvious if you are directly nursing your baby, but if you are pumping then you will probably notice the drop immediately.
The size and the location of the clog can vary, but the result is still the same. You have a clog and you need to get it out.
Is a Clogged Milk Duct Painful?
I have had many, MANY clogs over the course of my breastfeeding journey.
I’ve had some as small as peas that I could barely feel, and I even had one the size of a large egg that was so painful to the touch I was in tears every time I had to pump.
A clogged duct is not always painful, but it will probably be uncomfortable. It’s also important to note that the worse it is the more it is going to hurt.
That’s why it’s better to take care of it as soon as you notice it rather than waiting.
Causes of Clogged Milk Ducts
A clogged milk duct happens when the milk gets too sticky to freely move through the breast. This can happen for several reasons.
The number one cause of clogged milk ducts is not emptying your breasts.
If you are leaving milk in your breasts either because you are stopping your nursing and/or pumping sessions too early, or you are going too long in between sessions, then will be more likely to develop a clog since your milk is being allowed to build up.
Keeping your milk moving is a must, not just for clog prevention, but also to help keep up your milk supply.
If you are directly nursing your baby and he has a bad latch, then it is very possible that he is not moving your milk adequately.
If you believe that the latch could be the culprit, then I would strongly suggest meeting with a licensed lactation consultant to give you some hands-on tips to help your baby latch appropriately.
Going too long between nursing and/or pumping sessions can cause your breasts to get engorged and uncomfortable. This is likely to lead to a clogged milk duct.
Blebs, or milk blisters, can block the milk from leaving your breasts. Keeping your nipples clean and free of any buildup will help with this.
Just like with becoming engorged, if you have an abundant supply of milk, then it is possible that you are not moving it as much as you need to in order to keep clogs at bay.
If that is the case, then you will need to consider whether you would like to try to decrease your milk supply, or if you would prefer to pump to ensure that the milk isn’t sitting for too long.
Wearing a bra that is too tight or sleeping on your stomach can cause added pressure to your breasts.
That extra pressure can cause your milk ducts to become restricted forcing the milk to get stuck.
Breast milk is a very fatty substance. It needs to be for your baby’s growth and development.
If you are dehydrated, then all of that fat begins to stick to itself more than normal since it doesn’t have enough water to help thin it out.
This causes the milk to get trapped in your breasts and thus a clog is formed.
Trying to wean too quickly can cause clogged milk ducts since you are more likely to become engorged between sessions since your body hasn’t had time to adjust.
Weaning slowly will always be better for your breast health than trying to stop breastfeeding cold turkey.
How to Unblock Your Milk Ducts
Pump (or Nurse) More Often
If you have a clog then the milk is, by definition, not flowing. You need to get that milk flowing again to be able to remove the entire clog.
Pumping more often will help with that. Sometimes the clog will come out all at once. Sometimes it’ll come out in bits and pieces.
Either way you need to get it out as soon as possible before it gets infected. Trust me, you do not want mastitis.
Pumping more often, even if it’s for shorter sessions, is better than longer sessions spread out. You don’t want that milk sitting too long.
Check Your Fit
Tight fitting clothes or bras can cause the milk to become constricted and get stuck (aka clogged).
I used to get small ones from my breast shields because I was holding them on too tight.
Even a sleeping preference can cause clogs. So, check for outside factors that may be causing your issue and remove them, then go on to the next steps.
If you aren’t already, start taking lecithin. Lecithin helps to make your milk less sticky so it’s easier to come out.
Whether soy or sunflower, it doesn’t really matter. I personally have the NOW Sunflower Lecithin and it works great.
For clogs I’ll increase the dose to 2 tablets 4 times a day.
Use a Manual Pump
I love my manual pump for getting out clogs. I have the Medela Harmony and it is awesome!
I have a little more control over the suction and the placement which makes it easier to manipulate it how I need to.
Pro tip: Use your manual in the shower. Get the water as hot as you can stand and then go to work. Doing this always helps me get my clogs out.
Massaging during pumping or nursing can help to loosen up the clog. You want to apply firm pressure to the area to try to push it out.
Be firm, but don’t torture yourself. If you’re hurting yourself then it’s just going to make it harder because it’s going to be swollen and inflamed.
If it gets too tender then you can always take some Motrin to help with the pain and inflammation.
I’d suggest taking it 20-30 minutes before pumping to help during the next session.
A heating pad, a hot shower, a hot towel, anything will work. I’ve even filled a diaper with hot water before. (It totally works)
Heat will help to loosen up the clog to allow it to move through. You want to use the heat in conjunction with the massage while pumping.
Take an electric toothbrush, or a vibrator, and dig it down into the clog. You want pressure. The vibration will help to really break up the clog so that it can slip out.
Get your pump all set up, preferably with a pumping bra. Once you’ve created the suction, transition to a leaning over position.
You basically want your boobs to be pointing at the floor. You can do this by getting on all fours or leaning against something and letting the girls dangle that way.
Once you’re there, if you can, unhook your bra and let gravity do the work.
Your pumps will stay on as long as the bottles aren’t too full and heavy. Having the extra force of gravity can really help to move the clog in the right direction.
Some women even swear by dangle pumping for each pumping session just to empty more thoroughly. Something to consider.
You can also do this with your baby. The idea is still the same, just have your baby underneath you to feed while you’re on all fours.
I know you’re already drinking a ton of water, but start guzzling more. Being really hydrated will help that clog thin out a bit which makes it easier to move. So go on, drink up!
I’ve also noticed that on days where I am a little light on my water I’m more likely to clog or take a really long time to empty. Water is vital!
Check for Blebs
A bleb is a blister caused by trapped milk rather than a blister caused by friction. It will usually be white or yellow and will generally bulge with milk if you apply pressure behind it.
It is caused when a layer of skin grows over a nipple pore. They are painful and can definitely be the cause of your clogged duct.
To remove them, try putting your breast in a hot Epsom salt bath prior to pumping.
This will help it heal as well as to help soften the skin to allow the milk to get through. Try that a few times, and if nothing is happening then you may need to remove the excess skin.
Gently rub on the area with your finger or a wet wash cloth. I like to do this in the shower.
The hot water will help loosen the skin. If that doesn’t work then you may need to get it drained. Don’t do this yourself! You will need to see your doctor to prevent infection.
How Long Does it Take a Clog to Go Away?
There is no set amount of time for a clogged milk duct to resolve.
The general rule of thumb though, is that if it is there longer than a week, then you should go see your doctor.
Most clogs will be gone in a few days if you are following the suggestions above.
Will a Clogged Duct Resolve on its Own?
Small clogs are more likely to go away without much effort on your part, but the larger ones you will probably need to help out.
Regardless of the size of the clog, it is never a good idea to leave it in for too long.
Clogged milk ducts left untreated can lead to mastitis or even form a breast abscess that will require drainage if you aren’t careful.
Can You Feel a Milk Duct Unclog?
Depending on the size of the clog, you should be able to feel the hard spot soften up.
It may not be apparent at first, but the spot should no longer be firm and should feel like normal breast tissue.
You might even see some white, stringy material come out of your breast if you are pumping. That’s just part of the clog.
Don’t be alarmed if you see it, or even if you don’t. I personally never passed the stringy material for any of my clogs.
How to Prevent Clogged Milk Ducts
Pump or Feed Often
Moving the milk is key, I cannot stress this enough.
Making sure to empty during each session is also very important.
Feed your baby on demand rather than on a schedule, and pump as often as your baby feeds if you are away or are an exclusive pumper.
Do Not Skip Sessions
Skipping nursing and/or pumping sessions can get you into trouble, especially if you are prone to clogs. Many women are and you won’t really know until it happens.
Nurse or pump frequently and you should not have trouble with clogs.
Water, water, water. It is SO important during breastfeeding. Pay attention to your water intake.
Aiming for 100 ounces a day is a safe bet while breastfeeding. It sounds like a lot, but your boobs will thank you.
I like to carry my Hydroflask water bottle around to help me remember. I never would have made it a year pumping without it.
Avoid Tight Clothing
Bras with underwire and an ill-fit can definitely make clogged ducts more likely to appear.
Skipping the bra altogether or opting for a soft sleeping bra can make a HUGE difference.
Avoid Added Pressure to Your Breasts
Try to avoid sleeping on your stomach if at all possible. You might even notice that you get clogs if you happen to sleep on one side more than the other.
Sleeping on your back, or at least not on your breasts can really help.
Also try to avoid any exercises that put extra stress on your breasts. Stick to other types of exercises for a little while.
Daily Lecithin Supplements
Taking lecithin supplements daily completely changed my life. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.
I had mastitis twice in 3 months with I can’t tell you how many clogs in between before I started taking lecithin daily.
After that, I didn’t have a single clog throughout the remainder of my pumping journey.
That’s nine straight months without a clog. Trust me, the lecithin is worth it.
When to See Your Doctor
If the clog is there for more than a week, or if you start running a fever and getting flu-like symptoms, then you need to go to the doctor ASAP.
You’ll need to get checked for an abscess or mastitis. There is no natural mastitis treatment that has been proven to work. Mastitis is an infection and you need to be very careful.
If you think you may have mastitis, or if you clog hasn’t gone away after trying the above steps, then go see your doctor. It is better to be safe than sorry.
When dealing with clogs, it is definitely better to remain on the offensive. So drink plenty of water, take some lecithin, and empty fully and completely and you should be fine.
Have you had a clogged milk duct? What have you tried to get it out? Leave me a comment below or join the conversation in our Facebook group.
Until next time!