Updated: Mar 10, 2020
The first weeks of breastfeeding are a time of adjustment for a new mother. Even a mother who has previously breastfed may find herself encountering new challenges. For one in ten new moms, that challenge will be clearing a blocked (also known as clogged) duct.
Blocked ducts are a common breastfeeding obstacle that affects women of all ages and breastfeeding backgrounds. Even having successfully breastfed a previous baby without incident does not prevent you from developing a blocked duct. Blocked ducts occur when there is a buildup of milk in the milk ducts of the breast that cannot pass. Signs of a blocked duct may be subtle and not immediately noticeable until you are in some discomfort. Some symptoms of blocked ducts are tender breasts with localized pain and a decrease or cessation in milk flow from the breast. Blocked ducts can be treated at home and should be treated promptly.
What to do when you have a plugged duct!
Apply moist or dry heat to the affected breast and gently massage to try to clear the blockage. Let your baby’s feeding help you clear the blockage. One of the best methods for removing the blockage is to soak your breast in warm water immediately before feeding. Then feed your baby in a position (such as you on all fours and baby on the floor) that will allow gravity and baby’s feeding to pull the clotted milk down and out. A lactation consultant may be useful in helping you learn effective ways to clear the blocked duct.
Untreated blocked duct = mastitis
In cases where blocked ducts are not treated promptly or entirely, you can develop a condition called mastitis. Mastitis is a blocked duct accompanied by inflammation and possible infection. If you develop mastitis, it is crucial to keep track of your symptoms and schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. Depending on the severity of the blockage and presence of infection, you may need antibiotics. At the same time, you work to clear the blocked duct.
How to know if you have just a blocked duct or if it developed into mastitis!
Symptoms of mastitis versus a blocked duct are pus or blood in your milk, nipples that appear infected, red streaks on the breast from the areola to your underarm, chills and a sudden fever that goes above 101 degrees. If you are fatigued and experiencing any of the symptoms listed for greater than twelve to twenty-four hours you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.
The treatment for mastitis is similar to that of a blocked duct. You can also try compresses of calendula, chamomile, or lavender. Massaging the breast with a lavender or chamomile infused oil (avoiding the nipple and areola) in between feedings may also bring some comfort.
How to prevent mastitis
Over 200,000 women per year develop a case of mastitis. The best way to prevent a blocked duct and mastitis is to feed your baby often. Keeping your milk flowing will not allow a blockage to form. Make sure your breasts are fully emptied at feedings, pumping after feedings if you have more milk than your baby will take at a feeding. If you experience engorged breasts, you should treat them promptly by feeding, pumping, and using warm heat to keep your milk moving and your breasts soft. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that doesn’t constrict your breasts. Make sure you are frequently washing your hands, especially before touching your breasts and nipples. Avoid creams and ointments that can clog the pores of the nipple and cause milk not to be expressed fully. If you frequently experience blocked ducts, ask your healthcare provider about a supplement of soy lecithin. Reducing saturated fats and increasing unsaturated fats can also help. Nursing is the absolute best way to treat a blocked duct - nurse, as long and as often as you can. Your blocked duct and even possible infection cannot hurt your baby.
If you have questions or need support, please check out our Facebook group. You are not alone - there are many great women and lactation professionals in this community that can offer support and advice on breastfeeding challenges.
La Leche League. (n.d.). Mastitis. Retrieved from https://www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/mastitis/
Boakes, E., Woods, A., Johnson, N., & Kadoglou, N. (2018). Breast Infection: A Review of Diagnosis and Management Practices. Eur J Breast Health, 14(3), 136–143. doi: 10.5152/ejbh.2018.3871