Ducts in a woman’s breast carry milk from the mammary glands to the nipples during breastfeeding. Sometimes these ducts can become clogged, and then milk builds up behind the blockage resulting in a very painful lump.
If a blocked milk duct isn’t cleared as soon as possible, your breast may become engorged, inflamed, and may lead to mastitis.
So, if a sore lump appears in your breast, but you feel otherwise well, you will probably have a blocked milk duct. You may also see redness and warmth radiating from the lump. If you’re wondering if it’s mastitis, look for other signs such as fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms.
What causes blocked milk ducts?
Blocked milk ducts can occur when milk isn’t being fully drained from the breast, whether it’s because you’ve missed a breastfeeding or pumping session for some reason, or you’re having breastfeeding issues such as a poor latch or an oversupply.
Other reasons include irritation to the breast tissue from tight clothing or bras (or the underwires), or from sleeping on the breast. Sometimes, blocked milk ducts happen for no apparent reason.
You can relax because we’re here to provide you with some quick relief from the pain and 10 ways to unclog the duct, so you can start treatment straight away.
10 ways to clear a blocked milk duct
- Before breastfeeding, have a hot shower and massage the affected breast under the water to help break up the lump, or try a warm compress or warm (not hot) heat pack wrapped in a cloth and hold it to the area for a few minutes.
- Ensure that your bra and clothing isn’t too tight or restrictive. You might want to go braless while you feed, and/or wear a soft crop bra when you’re home.
- Give your baby your affected breast to feed from first, unless it’s really painful, in which case you can offer the unaffected breast first.
- Empty the affected breast thoroughly and frequently by feeding from that side as often as you can.
- If your baby doesn’t empty the breast, you can finish the process by hand pumping or using a breast pump.
- Pump the affected breast as often as possible. It may be painful, but it’s necessary if you want to be successful at unblocking the duct.
- Rest as much as possible and practice deep breathing to help trigger your let-down reflex.
- During feeds or pumping, gently massage the lump towards the nipple.
- Change feeding positions to help empty the breast. Many mums find dangle feeding (or dangle pumping) effective. This is where the baby (or pump) is under you while you lean over your baby on all fours and dangle your breasts to let gravity do the job.
- Cold packs or a chilled cabbage leaf placed on your breast after a feed can help to relieve pain and inflammation.
When to seek medical advice
If you can’t clear the blockage after 24 hours or you start to feel unwell at all, please see your GP as you might have mastitis. Phone the Australian Breastfeeding Association Helpline for additional advice and support. It’s a good idea to also see a lactation consultant to check your baby’s latch and positioning, and they’ll also provide some helpful tips to prevent blocked ducts in the future.
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