Breastfeeding and pumping can be painful at the outset, but in most cases, the discomfort eases as your body begins to regulate production and your baby develops a proper latch. Unfortunately, pain can still flare up again long after you’ve adjusted to breastfeeding.
Often, this takes the form of plugged ducts, which occur in response to insufficient drainage. These can form due to changes in supply or as your baby sleeps for longer periods at night. Plugged ducts are also common when weaning.
Forming lumps in the breast, clogs cause localized pain and can make breastfeeding and pumping more difficult. They can also lead to more severe health complications, including mastitis.
Determine Whether It’s a Clogged Milk Duct or Mastitis
Before you address a plugged milk duct, it’s important to confirm that you’re not suffering from mastitis, which may require a more aggressive approach to treatment.
Typically, mastitis goes beyond a simple plug to include a variety of symptoms. Many of these resemble the flu. Fevers and general fatigue are especially common.
If your symptoms are limited to discomfort, swelling, or tenderness of the breast, a clogged duct is likely to blame. This less severe condition can often be addressed at home. If not handled proactively, however, your clogged milk duct could progress to mastitis.
Home Remedies for Clogged Ducts
Once you’ve ruled out mastitis, take action to prevent the clog from developing later. A variety of simple, at-home solutions can help you relieve clogged ducts. If you make an active effort to ease the clog, you could see results in as little as 24 hours.
These plugged milk duct remedies are among the most effective:
Nurse More Often on the Clogged Side
Nursing on the side with the clogged duct may be uncomfortable, but this is one of the most effective options for draining the breast and getting milk flowing normally. If possible, nurse on demand, or at least once every few hours. Begin with the plugged side but don’t neglect the other side, as this will increase the potential for additional clogs.
When nursing isn’t possible, pump frequently. Exclusively pumping mothers may need to empty the breast even more often than those who nurse or use a combination of the two techniques, as breastfeeding tends to be more efficient. Some mothers who pump see success with a solution commonly referred to as “dangle pumping,” in which they lean forward while pumping to let gravity help work the plug out.
Regardless of whether you nurse or pump, you may find it helpful to apply a warm compress to the affected area prior to letdown. This will get the milk flowing and may make the first few minutes of breastfeeding or pumping with a clog less painful.
Massage the Affected Breast
Massage is a go-to technique for mothers who frequently suffer from clogged ducts, as it provides both short-term relief and, in some cases, a long-term solution. Breast massage can minimize pain even when new mothers aren’t dealing with clogs.
At first, massaging may feel uncomfortable. Begin slowly near the outer edge of the breast before working your way towards the plug. A kneading motion is often the most effective technique.
If you can handle a little extra discomfort, apply firm pressure while actively seeking a “hurts so good” type of sensation. This may feel unpleasant in the moment but can quickly break up blockages.
Another useful technique: placing your thumb or fingers directly behind the clog and pressing towards the nipple. Soaking in a warm tub or taking a shower while massaging may help.
While massaging by hand can be effective, many mothers find greater success with specially-designed lactation massagers, which can be used not only before and after nursing, but also while pumping to encourage faster letdown and a more thorough emptying of the breast.
Ibuprofen is safe to take while breastfeeding and may help to relieve both inflammation and discomfort. Acetaminophen is also generally safe for breastfeeding and can be taken when dealing with a clogged duct.
When to Visit a Doctor
As mentioned above, clogged ducts can increase the likelihood of developing mastitis, which is a far more serious condition. If your clog doesn’t go away after 48 hours and you begin to notice flu-like symptoms, consider visiting a doctor.
If diagnosed with mastitis, you may receive a prescription for antibiotics. Otherwise, your doctor can help not only by suggesting immediate solutions for your current clog, but also with determining any underlying problems that might contribute to ongoing blockage.
Your doctor may refer you to a lactation consultant, who can provide further insight into issues that prompt plugs. In some cases, ultrasound therapy can be effective for easing clogs.