How To Unclog A Milk Duct: Why They Happen And What To Do

How To Unclog a Blocked Milk Duct (And Why It Happens In The First Place)

October 19, 2020 Updated January 25, 2021

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Want to know more about breastfeeding? Check out our package on the best breastfeeding positions, the baby rooting reflexhow to treat sore nipples, caffeine and breastfeeding, how to increase milk supply, and more. 

Anyone who claims that stepping on Legos is the worst physical parenting pain one can experience has clearly never experienced the aching throb of a clogged milk duct. But despite the fact that they’re super-uncomfortable and frustrating, these small, tender breast lumps aren’t usually a reason to panic. However, you’ll still want to deal with them ASAP so they don’t create bigger problems (like dreaded mastitis) — and so you can get back to your normal clogged-duct-free breastfeeding or pumping routine.

The first step in sorting out this issue is learning to distinguish between clogged milk ducts and other problems that often occur with nursing or pumping moms. Let’s explore the conditions and their differences so we can point you toward the right path for unblocking blocked milk ducts.

What is a clogged milk duct?

When a woman is breastfeeding, her breasts contain a series of ducts that transport milk from the mammary glands to the nipples. A clogged milk duct occurs when one of those ducts becomes blocked or milk has trouble flowing through it, and milk builds up behind the blockage. Nipple pores can also become blocked — this is called a milk bleb or milk blister.

What does a clogged milk duct look like?

File this under small blessings: You usually only have to worry about a clogged duct affecting one breast. On rare occasions, yes, both breasts may end up with clogged ducts at the same time. Either way, you may notice a hard, possibly wedge-shaped area in the affected breast(s). It might feel tender, hot to the touch, and even be reddened. It won’t be outright swollen or have hardened areas but that doesn’t mean the clog isn’t there. Some moms only feel localized pain but have no visual clues as to what’s going on. Another clue? Slower milk flow on one side. Let down could be more painful as well and you also experience a slightly low temperature.

If you have a clogged nipple pore or milk bleb, you’ll notice a small white dot on the nipple.

How do you unclog a milk duct?

Clogged ducts tend to resolve in a day or two with or without treatment, and they’re typically easy to treat at home. The fastest way to work through a clogged duct is to keep breastfeeding regularly. It makes sense if you think about it since the only way to unclog the duct is to move that blocked milk. Try out different breastfeeding positions to see if any seem to make the milk flow better. Oh, and make sure that when your little one is feeding that they’re draining the breast thoroughly. If they aren’t, you can finish up with a breast pump.

Outside of breastfeeding, you may find relief in a few other ways. Avoid wearing a too-tight bra to minimize the chance your plugged ducts are being exacerbated by external pressure. To help stimulate milk flow before feedings, try applying a warm compress to the area. While you’re at it, gently massage the outside of the breast, moving in toward the lump. Although you don’t want to give your breast a deep tissue massage, applying gentle pressure might help unblock the clogged duct. You can even use a (clean) personal vibrator or massager on the area to try to break up the clog.

To deal with the pain, it’s OK to take Ibuprofen or Tylenol to help with the inflammation. A cold compress is also a soothing reliever post-breastfeeding. Some moms also swear by placing chilled cabbage leaf on your breast to reduce pain and inflammation (just be careful, because this is also how some moms “dry out” when they’re finished with breastfeeding).

What does it feel like when a clogged milk duct clears?

It should be a relief when a clogged milk duct finally clears, but it can feel a little like the opposite. After a few days, the area of the clogged duct will feel slightly bruised for a few weeks. But thankfully, your supply should pick back up and your baby will be right back to receiving your full supply of milk. 

What causes a clogged duct?

Any mama who is breastfeeding may experience the unfortunate annoyance of a clogged duct. However, certain things could make it more likely to happen. These contributing factors include women experiencing oversupply, a poor latch by baby, pain that affects nursing or pumping regularly, restrictive clothes or undergarments, not fully draining the breasts at each breastfeeding session, and more.

What if I can’t get it unclogged?

If your clogged duct doesn’t go away after one or two days, it may have led to an infection known as mastitis. You might be suffering from mastitis if your entire breast (not just a small, localized area) is swollen or red and tender to the touch. This type of infection also generally causes fever and flu-like symptoms such as fatigue and achiness.

Mastitis requires medical attention, so call your doctor ASAP if you suspect you might have it. They’ll put you on antibiotics to clear up the infection. Upon taking the prescribed antibiotics, you should start to feel relief within 24 to 48 hours. Even so, it’s important that you get as much rest as possible — which, we know, is far easier said than done when you have a baby on the boob.

Can you keep breastfeeding with a clogged duct?

Since one of the ways to unclog a milk duct is to keep breastfeeding regularly, the answer is a resounding yes — you can and you should continue breastfeeding. Refraining from nursing when you have a clogged duct can actually aggravate the situation. So, get your breastfeeding on, Mama. If it truly becomes too uncomfortable, it’s time to seek medical advice.