Getting a clogged duct can be a literal pain in the boob. Sometimes, they seem to come out of nowhere. Luckily, they can often be taken care of at home, so you can happily continue on your nursing/pumping journey. Other times, a plugged duct may be more tricky to resolve. Either way, in addition to treating the blocked duct, it is important to do some detective work to uncover why it happened in the first place and treat the root of the problem to avoid more clogged ducts in the future.
Clogged ducts are also called plugged ducts. Inside each breast is a complex network for making, storing, and carrying milk. There are about 15-20 sections, called lobes, of glandular tissue where milk is produced in each breast. (1) When the nipple is stimulated by your baby sucking, pumping, or other stimulus, the milk begins to flow. Milk travels through the mammary ducts towards the nipple.
A clogged or plugged duct happens when milk becomes backed up in the milk duct and is unable to flow freely toward and out of the nipple. Sometimes, this happens closer to the surface at the pore as a milk blister, which looks like a white spot on the nipple or areola that doesn’t seem to go away. Other times, it happens further back in the ductal system, where it is not seen but can be felt.
Plugged ducts will typically only be in one breast at a time. A clog can happen in any location on the breast from close to the areola or further up, even into the armpit area.
Engorgement - At the beginning of breastfeeding, milk transitions from colostrum to mature milk, and the volume of milk increases significantly. The more copious amount of milk and other fluid can cause swelling, putting pressure on the ducts. That pressure makes the diameter of the duct more narrow, making it hard for the milk to travel through the duct in that spot. If milk is not removed regularly and frequently, the breasts become overfull. Also, if you had fluids during the birth, this can contribute to the pressure on the ducts. (7) Engorgement can happen anytime during your nursing journey. Keeping your baby skin to skin and nursing often during the day and night will keep the milk flowing and prevent severe engorgement.
Infrequent nursing or pumping - Babies sometimes change their patterns when we do not expect it. A common time this might happen is a spontaneous night when your baby decides to sleep longer than usual, and you sleep too because, let’s face it, extra sleep is rare and most welcome. Next, you wake up and feel overfull because of the missed milk removals. Whether nursing directly at the breast or pumping, milk can get clogged in the duct if the time between nursing or pumping is too long during the day or night.
Timed feedings - if you watch the clock instead of your baby for feeding cues, you may stretch time too long between feedings. It is normal for babies to nurse every 2-3 hours and sometimes grab a snack in between. Babies often come to the breast for comfort and food as they get older. Those small snacks make your breasts less full. Allowing your baby to follow their natural feeding pattern means your breasts never become overfull from too much time between some milk removal. Nursing a distracted older baby in a sling is excellent for giving them a new and exciting view of the world as you walk with them while they can nurse at the same time.
Nighttime - It is biologically normal for babies to nurse overnight, and your breasts need to have milk removed to avoid getting overfull and maintain your supply. Going too long during the night without nursing or pumping will create more pressure on the ducts, and milk can back up in the ducts, increasing the risk of waking up with a plugged duct. When babies stay in close contact with you, they will wake frequently to eat during the night. (2) When separation or barriers to close contact with you are introduced, including swaddles or sleeping in a separate room, your baby’s natural waking pattern can become delayed, and a skipped feed is more likely. (3)(4) This can leave you susceptible to plugged ducts and may reduce your milk supply.
Improper flange fit - Proper flange fit makes pumping comfortable as well as effective. When your flange is too small or too big, less milk is able to flow and be removed. Compression on the areola from a flange that isn’t the right fit can inhibit milk flow from the ducts and create a clog.
Baby’s latch - Your baby uses their whole body to feed. They have to be comfortable in order to be able to latch deeply. Any tightness or restriction in any muscles they use to latch and breastfeed can make feeding hard. They may end up compressing an area of breast tissue. It may mean they cannot latch deeply and effectively to empty the breast (although your breasts are never completely empty). There can be several reasons for tightness causing a shallow latch or difficulties with efficient milk removal, including how they were positioned in utero, their birth, and oral restrictions. Meeting with a skilled IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) who can evaluate your baby’s oral function, reflexes, and positioning at the breast can help you decide how to best help them be more comfortable and capable of a deep latch.
Lacta-Biotic is a probiotic supplement from Legendairy Milk that may reduce pain and conditions caused by breast dysbiosis. Lacta-Biotic contains a strain of probiotics called Lactobacillus fermentum CECT5716. This strain is found in human breast milk and offers protection by promoting overall breast health for the mom and a healthy immune system for the baby. Lacta-Biotic can be taken during late-term pregnancy and all stages of life.
As the clog begins to resolve, you may notice thicker, stringy milk coming out when pumping or hand expressing. It is critical to treat plugged ducts as soon as you notice them. If they are left untreated, you are at a higher risk of it becoming mastitis. If you have any flu-like symptoms or notice a red area on the affected breast, those are symptoms that the plugged duct has progressed to mastitis, and you should contact your IBCLC and health care provider right away.
Finding the root cause of an issue is always the best way to prevent reoccurrence. If you experience plugged ducts on more than one rare occasion, get in touch with an IBCLC who can take a complete health history for you and your baby’s nursing journey, pumping and assess your baby’s latch to offer techniques and tips to avoid future plugged ducts.