A common breastfeeding problem that breastfeeding mothers may encounter is a blocked milk duct.
If you feel a tender lump in your breast, it may be caused by a blockage in one or more of your milk ducts.
Milk can back up behind the blockage, causing inflammation and pain.
With prompt treatment, most mothers can remedy the blocked milk duct quickly, and resume comfortable breastfeeding.
Here's everything you need to know about blocked milk ducts (or plugged milk ducts, as they are called in the US!).
Blocked Milk Duct Symptoms
A mother can get a blocked milk duct at any time while breastfeeding. Blocked ducts rarely occur in the first five days after giving birth and most commonly occur within the first few months.
A blocked duct typically occurs in one section of one breast, and the onset is usually gradual.
If you have a blocked duct, you will typically feel/see:
- A tender hard lump in one section of one breast
- A patch of redness on the overlying skin
- Mild pain in the area of the blocked duct, especially when your let-down reflex occurs
- Mildly feverish. You may have a low-grade fever (<38.5 °C) but otherwise be generally well
Blocked Milk Duct Causes
A blocked duct is most likely to occur when milk is not removed from your breast frequently and/or effectively. For example, a blocked duct may occur due to:
- Your baby not attaching optimally to your breast
- If your baby doesn’t remove milk well from your breast (e.g. due to tongue-tie)
- If feeds are restricted (e.g. due to feeding a baby according to a schedule rather than according to his individual need)
- An oversupply of milk
- A white spot on your nipple that may create a blockage at one of the openings on your nipple. This may cause milk to get banked up long the same duct that leads away from your nipple opening into your breast
Speaking with an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor or seeing a lactation consultant can help you work out what may have caused your blocked duct and what you can do about it.
Blocked Milk Duct Treatment
If you have a blocked milk duct, it is important to keep breastfeeding as frequent milk removal will help to clear the blockage. If milk doesn’t continue to be frequently removed, there is a risk the blocked milk duct could become mastitis.
The following tips can help you clear a blocked duct:
- Apply some heat for a few minutes before breastfeeding (e.g. with a wheat bag)
- Loosen your bra or take it off during breastfeeds to prevent parts of your breast being squashed as this could reduce how well your baby can remove milk from your breast
- Feed first from the affected breast because this is the side that a baby tends to suck most vigorously at, and hence remove milk most effectively from
- During breastfeeds, gently but firmly stroking your breast with your fingertips from behind the blockage, towards your nipple
- Some mothers find it helpful to perform the above massage combined with hand expressing after the breastfeed, perhaps in the shower
- Use cold packs after breastfeeds for pain relief, and to help reduce inflammation
- Some mothers find changing breastfeeding positions helpful to unblock a blockage
- Rest as much as possible
Speaking with an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor or seeing a lactation consultant can provide you with more tips and information.
When To See A Doctor About Blocked Milk Ducts
If you have any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor:
- Flu-like symptoms (e.g. muscle aches, fever, chills, fatigue)
- Nipple damage with signs of infection (e.g. your nipple may be red, hot to touch and thick, yellow pus may be present)
- Presence of pus or blood in your breastmilk
- If a blocked milk duct is not cleared within 24 hours