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What Causes Clogged Milk Ducts During Breastfeeding?

Your breasts contain small sacs called mammary glands that produce breast milk after childbirth. The breast milk passes from the mammary glands through tubes called milk ducts, also called lactiferous ducts and move out of the breast through tiny holes in the nipple to your baby while you are breastfeeding.

When your baby is latched on to the breast correctly while breastfeeding, the movement of your baby's tongue and gums help to press the milk out of the breast, so that your baby can feed on it, which is called suckling [1].

But, sometimes the milk ducts in your breasts can get clogged which can be quite painful and interfere with breastfeeding.

In this article, we'll talk what is a clogged milk duct, its causes, symptoms and how it can be treated and prevented.

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What Is A Clogged Milk Duct?

Clogged milk ducts, also called blocked milk ducts or plugged milk ducts, are hard, tender lumps that develop in the narrow milk ducts of your breast. This prevents the proper flow of breast milk. Clogged milk ducts are a common breastfeeding problem and about two-thirds of breastfeeding women experience clogged milk ducts [2].

You can feel a small, tender lump in your breast, which can cause swelling, redness and pain in the area where they develop.

A clogged milk duct if left untreated can lead to mastitis, an inflammation of the breast that results in breast pain, swelling, redness and warmth and causes flu-like symptoms [3].

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What Causes Clogged Milk Duct?

The common causes of clogged milk ducts are: [4] [5] [6] [7]

  • Improper breastfeeding latch - The chances of clogged milk ducts increase if your baby isn't latching onto your breast correctly, which makes them unable to suck out the required milk out of your breast. This causes the breast milk to leave behind and it can block the milk ducts.
  • Breast engorgement - Infrequent breastfeeding, short or skipped breastfeeding sessions and irregular breastfeeding schedules can also lead to clogged milk ducts.
  • Oversupply of breast milk - If your breasts produce too much of breast milk, it can lead to clogged milk ducts.
  • Too much pressure on your breasts - Wearing too tight bras or underwired bras can put pressure on the breasts and lead to clogged milk ducts.
  • Blebs - They are small blockages that develop on the tip of the nipple at the opening of milk ducts. This stops the proper flow of breast milk leading to clogged milk ducts.
  • Fatigue and dehydration - Not taking enough rest and not drinking adequate amount of water can also increase the risk of clogged milk ducts.
  • Exercise - Performing strenuous exercises can cause blocked milk ducts.
  • Weaning - Weaning your baby quickly can lead to blocked milk ducts.

There are other causes that also make you more likely to develop clogged milk ducts and mastitis.

  • History of mastitis while breastfeeding
  • Inadequate diet
  • Smoking
  • Cracked skin on the nipples

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Symptoms Of Clogged Milk Duct

  • A swollen, tender lump in the breast
  • Swelling and pain in the breasts
  • A small white dot on the tip of the nipple called a bleb
  • Pain during milk let-down
  • A feeling of discomfort that goes away after breastfeeding and pumping
  • Decrease in milk flow on one side of the breast
  • Thick or fatty milk that may look like strings when you express milk [8]

When To See A Doctor

If clogged milk duct is treated, it usually goes away within a few days; however, you should consult a doctor immediately if the lump starts growing, the lump doesn't go away within three days, you have a fever and you experience pain, swelling and redness in your breasts.

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Treatment Of Clogged Milk Duct

Clogged milk duct can be easily treated at home with the help of some easy home remedies.

  • Regular and consistent breastfeeding is one of the most effective treatments for resolving clogged milk ducts.
  • While you are breastfeeding or pumping, massage your breasts. Apply little pressure on your fingers and massage above the breast and outside towards the nipple.
  • Avoid pinching or popping the clog.
  • Wear loose clothing and do not wear tight-fitting or underwire bras.
  • Change your breastfeeding positions and ensure that your baby is latched onto the clogged milk duct, causing the milk to loosen up and drain out of the breasts.
  • Soak your breasts in warm Epsom salt water for 10 to 20 minutes and then massage the clog.
  • Applying a heating pad or warm cloth or taking a hot water bath for 20 minutes can help ease clogged milk ducts.

A study showed that ultrasound therapy was beneficial in the treatment of blocked milk ducts [9]. Antibiotics and over-the-counter pain relieving medications can help in the treatment of mastitis [10].

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Prevention Of Clogged Milk Duct

  • Use a breast pump to express milk after each breastfeeding if your baby has a weak latch.
  • Apply warm water compress before breastfeeding to the breast areas that tend to clog.
  • Apply cold compress to breasts after breastfeeding.
  • Breastfeed your baby often to prevent blocked milk ducts. Do not skip or wait too long between breastfeeding sessions.
  • Change your breastfeeding positions. This will allow your baby to drain the milk from different areas of your breast.
  • Avoid wearing too tight or underwire bras.
  • Keep your body hydrated.
  • Do not sleep on your stomach as this could put pressure on your breasts.
  • If you are weaning your baby, start by doing it gradually.
  • If your breasts produce excess breast milk, consult your doctor on how to reduce the oversupply of breast milk [11] [12].