Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things many women go through — sometimes even harder than pregnancy or childbirth. It takes time to build a solid nursing relationship, and even then, there are so many wildcards that could influence your journey. You could be just getting into a good routine, when all of a sudden you notice a change. You might think, "Does my milk look different? What does it mean if my pumped milk is stringy?" Turns out, stringy milk could be a sign of a few things.
According to Kelly Mom, a leading resource on breastfeeding, stringy milk could be a symptom of two possible larger issues: clogged ducts or mastitis. Both clogged ducts and mastitis are common hurdles for breastfeeding mothers, and both could result in your expressed milk looking stringy. Leigh Anne O'Connor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), tells Romper, "Stringy milk is usually milk that has been static in the breast. This often happens after prolonged engorgement." Often, you'll have some pain or discomfort prior to noticing the stringy milk in order to clue you in that something is not OK, but some women don't realize they've had a clogged duct or mastitis until it has nearly run its course.
Clogged ducts and mastitis can be related (often, a clogged duct that is not taken care of can result in mastitis), but they present very differently. It's best to take a closer look at your symptoms to see which one might be afflicting you.
As Kelly Mom mentioned, a clogged duct is an area of the breast where milk flow is obstructed. This might happen in your nipple (and result in a milk blister), or further back into your breast in the ductal system. A clogged duct usually comes on gradually and affects only one breast (though it's very possible that you could have a blocked duct in both breasts at once — that one I know from experience).
If you have a clogged duct, you might feel a hard lump in your breast that is hot, swollen, and sore to the touch. It might feel larger or more tender before a feed and less so after you breastfeed, and you may notice a difference in milk output on the affected side as well (when a duct is clogged, your milk can't get through there).
When that clog finally releases (often a warm compress, lots of hand massaging, and intentional nursing/pumping can help), you might notice stringy breast milk during your next pump. That is typically just the thickened milk that was remaining in your breast. It's not unsafe for your baby to consume, but some people prefer to strain it out.
Mastitis, though it can be caused by a clogged milk duct, can also be caused by bacteria entering the breast (typically through a crack or duct opening on your nipple), according to the Mayo Clinic. Breastfeeding takes a lot of learning, and poor technique can often leave milk in your breast and lead to infection, which is the main cause of mastitis.
If you have mastitis, you may notice your breast is very red and warm and painful. You might also have a fever, chills, and feel really rundown. Mastitis usually requires antibiotic treatment, so it's best to get in touch with your doctor if you suspect you have it.
Mastitis can also cause your pumped milk to look stringy as well, for the same reason that you see stringy milk with blocked ducts. Strings or grains of thickened milk is simply what's been sitting in your breast. Again, it's not harmful for baby to consume, but you might prefer to strain it out.
Breastfeeding is no joke — there's so much to account for and it's truly hard to fall into a good pattern at first. Some women are more prone to clogged ducts and mastitis than others, and it has to do with individual milk supply, your own body, and how your baby nurses. Taking care of yourself first will always ensure that you're able to give your baby the best care possible.
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