Breastfeeding is rarely as easy as moms expect it to be, and even if you've had a relatively smooth breastfeeding journey, chances are you'll still encounter a bump or two in the nursing road. No matter how closely you follow the "breastfeeding rules," most moms struggle with painful engorgement, clogged ducts, or mastitis at some point. But knowing what the difference is between engorgement and clogged ducts can clear up why you're experiencing these issues and help you avoid them in the first place.
Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, engorgement and a clogged (or blocked) duct are not the same condition. Therefore, they show themselves in slightly different ways and can be prevented using different techniques.
According to Lansinoh, engorgement is most common at the very start of breastfeeding, as your body adjusts to your milk coming in and your baby's nutritional needs. As the milk comes in, most moms experience uncomfortable fullness and tightness of their breasts. Typically, both breasts are affected, since it has to do with your overall milk supply, and your areola and nipple might look suppressed or flattened due to the stretching of the skin on your breasts.
That being said, engorgement can occur at any point while breastfeeding and for a number of reasons. It can happen if you missed a feeding, if your baby is going through a schedule change, or if you're working on weaning. Baby Med also noted that, when engorged, your breasts may feel warm to the touch and the sensation may extend all the way up to your armpit.
Relieving engorgement is best done with the help of your baby, as ensuring that you nurse consistently and regularly is key. Baby Center noted that you can also use ice packs to help relieve the pain and reduce excess swelling. You can also try hand expressing or using a breast pump to express the milk your baby didn't drink.
A clogged duct, however, is a bit more complicated and less common than regular old engorgement. As the name implies, a clogged duct refers to when one of the milk ducts in your breasts becomes blocked, causing a build up of milk and often leading to engorgement or an infection known as mastitis.
According to the aforementioned Lansinoh article, a clogged duct has a more gradual onset than engorgement and will typically only affect one breast at a time. You will likely feel a hard lump or wedge in your breast where the blockage is and will likely feel no warmth or redness. The lump may shrink when you nurse, but it will probably be painful to feed and painful to touch.
Often, the lump will pass in "stringy" or hardened bits as you express or nurse your baby. This is a good thing, as it means your body is ridding itself of the lump. If not remedied, a clogged duct can lead to mastitis, which according to Medela, is an infection or inflammation of the breast which can involve fever and more serious side effects.
To prevent a clogged duct, Mother Love noted that mothers should be sure to nurse with a proper and effective latch, gently massage the lump to help loosen it and nurse as often as possible.
Although they're not technically the same thing, a clogged duct and engorgement are two common issues that nursing moms face and knowing how to handle them can help you breastfeed with the least amount of discomfort as possible.