If you've been breastfeeding for any length of time, you've probably heard of mastitis and breast infections. Scary words, right? Especially when you realize that those two, plus other breastfeeding aches and pains, are often related to clogged milk ducts. But what are clogged milk ducts, other than a terrifying thought? Can they be prevented or is it inevitable that your milk will eventually be corked and cause you pain?
According to KellyMom, clogged milk ducts are an area of your breast where milk is obstructed and unable to flow freely. It usually comes on gradually and affects only one breast, but the duct could be as close to the surface as a nipple pore or farther back in the tissue. Baby Center noted that a clogged milk duct often happens when you are making breast milk faster than you are expressing it, which causes the milk to back up into the duct, inflaming the tissue surrounding it, which then presses back on the duct.
For some mamas, they may only experience symptoms like a hard lump on their breast that is sore or tender to touch, redness on their breast, or a hot sensation according to Baby Center. But if left untreated, or accompanied by fevers, aches, or chills, the clogged duct could lead to mastitis, a breast infection.
In short, a clogged milk duct is exactly what it sounds like. The milk isn't able to flow through your breast, but your breast continues to produce more. Soon, it has nowhere to go, causing a lump in your breast that can be incredibly painful. KellyMom also noted that this is more common in women who have an oversupply or women who aren't emptying their breasts as much as they should (such as timing your baby on your breast instead of letting them nurse until your breast is empty). But, you are also at risk for a clogged milk duct if you wear too-tight clothing or bras that add pressure to your breasts, if you skip feedings or pumpings, causing your milk to back up, or if you've had any previous breast inflammation.
The good news is, clogged milk ducts can be treated. If it turns into mastitis, you'll want to reach out to a doctor for antibiotics, but if your clogged milk duct isn't giving you a fever, aches, or chills, you can treat it at home. It sounds painful, but KellyMom recommended nursing frequently, on the breast with the clogged duct, in order to remove it. By keeping it as empty as possible, you can stimulate milk flow and hopefully push through the clogged duct. It's also suggested that you pump if you can't nurse, as well as use hot compresses and a gentle massage to remove the clog.
Although a clogged milk duct is fairly normal, having them too often can be a sign something is wrong. International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Lori Isenstadt told Romper that chronic clogged ducts are a red flag and can signal that something is wrong, like a bad latch or a tongue-tie that is keeping your baby from removing all of the milk in your breast. If you're suffering from several clogged ducts, it's best to reach out to a lactation consultant to be sure there's nothing in the way of you emptying your breasts.