Breast feeding challenges: avoiding and managing blocked ducts
Many breast feeding women will experience a blocked milk duct at some point. Learn how to avoid them, and how best to treat them.
Blocked ducts are a common frustration for breast feeding mums, causing pain, swelling and sometimes a decrease in milk supply. They occur when the flow of milk through your breast becomes obstructed (hence its other name, milk stasis).
The most common sign of a blocked duct is a hard lump in the affected breast, which may also be sore, red or swollen near the blockage. If the redness is large and/or spreading and you have flu-like symptoms (fever and general unwellness) then contact your midwife, nurse or doctor straight away as this can be a sign of mastitis. You may notice a decrease in your milk supply or strings of thickened milk when you express.
If you suspect you have a blocked duct, the best thing do is keep breast feeding. Even though it may be painful to start with, it can help to bring relief and prevent further complications like mastitis.
Common causes of blocked ducts
There are two main causes of blocked ducts – inadequate removal of milk and pressure on the breast.
The first can occur if your baby isn’t feeding efficiently, often due to a sub-optimal latch, weak suck, or tongue tie. Infrequent feedings, long separations from your baby or abrupt weaning can also put you at risk of blocked ducts.
The second – external pressure on your breasts – can occur from a tight or underwire bra, seat belt or even lying on your stomach. Anything that stops the milk flowing as it should can have an adverse effect.
Sometimes, plain old exhaustion puts you at risk of blocked ducts. When you’re run down and not eating well, you’re also more prone to mastitis (an infection of the breast) – which is why it’s so important to look after yourself.
How to treat blocked ducts
There are things you can do at home to help unblock your milk duct and relieve your symptoms. Here are some treatments to try:
Apply heat before a feed
A warm shower or compress before feeding can work wonders to help unblock the clogged duct. If you have a wheat bag, warm it in the microwave and then place over the sore breast for 10 minutes before feeding. Disposable nappies make great compresses, too! They hold heat for longer than a towel or cloth. If you suspect it might be mastitis, do not use heat and call your midwife, nurse or doctor.
Gently massaging the affected breast before and during a feed can improve milk drainage and can help with pain relief. Start at the blockage and massage towards the nipple to encourage milk flow.
Empty your breasts
Try feeding your baby every two hours. Start the feed with the affected breast if you can – if this is too painful, start on the other breast until you feel the letdown. Then, switch to the breast with the blocked duct. After your baby has finished feeding, pump or hand express to remove as much milk as you can.
Position baby so his/her chin is sitting on top of the lump or in line with the blocked duct – sometimes this can mean getting a bit creative. Wherever baby’s chin is sitting is the area of the breast being drained the best. This can help relieve blockages as baby is best at removing the milk.
If you’re worried about repeated blocked ducts or are unsure if you’re doing the right thing, you could contact a lactation consultant. They can help to correct any issues with positioning or latch, and can provide support if you already have a blocked duct.