Clogged Milk Ducts: Prevention and Relief

A young mother is breastfeeding her newborn while sitting on a couch at home.Breastfeeding is a lovely and rewarding experience—except when it’s not. Clogged milk ducts are one of the most common challenges faced by nursing mothers, but there are some easy remedies that can get things flowing smoothly once again.

What are milk ducts?

The breast isn’t a balloon filled with milk (though it may feel like it sometimes). It’s actually filled with around 20 glands that produce milk, and then little tubes, called ducts, carry the milk to your nipple. You may have also noticed by now that there isn’t just one hole in your nipple, like on a baby bottle. There are lots of tiny openings that can spray milk everywhere if baby decides she’s finished nursing before you really wanted her to be.

How can ducts become clogged?

Sometimes, when a baby doesn’t fully empty the breast of the milk that has let down, the milk can sit there and get kind of thick and lumpy. The longer the milk sets, the larger the blockage can become, pressing on nearby ducts and possibly closing them, too. Then, when baby is ready to nurse again, the milk can’t get through. Too-tight nursing bras or restrictive clothing can also cause clogged ducts.

Recognizing clogged ducts

You’ll be able to feel if your milk isn’t flowing properly, but there are other telltale signs:

  • Pain or tenderness at the site of the blockage
  • Redness and/or warmth of the skin over the clog
  • A lump you can feel, or even a noticeably larger area of the breast, depending on the size of the clog

Finding relief

The first, most important thing ever is this: You have to keep nursing on the breast that’s blocked, even though it hurts. Otherwise, it will get bigger and hurt worse, and could lead to a very unpleasant infection. Consider switching positions when breastfeeding, so different ducts receive more suction. Your baby may be able to clear the blockage on her own, but if not, here are some tips:

  • Take a hot shower, and really focus the hot water on your breast. This can quickly “melt” the thickened milk and clear the duct.
  • Use a hot compress between showers.
  • If you see a small blister-type thing on your nipple, it could be a blocked pore keeping milk from flowing. Carefully remove this blister—it will hurt—and clean the area to prevent infection.
  • Massage the painful area to try to dislodge the clog.
  • Let baby give it another go after you try some of these tips, and you may find your problem solved.

If you aren’t able to find relief, or if you develop a fever and the pain worsens significantly, it’s time to call your health care provider or a lactation consultant.