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Breastfeeding: Dealing with Blocked Milk Ducts

Updated on July 13, 2011

What is a Blocked Milk Duct?

The breast has numerous milk ducts leading to the areolar (the brown area also known as the nipple).  Sometimes, one of these ducts can become blocked with milk resulting in the formation of a tender lump in part of the breast.  The part of the breast with the lump may appear red and feel hot.  It may also hurt to continue breastfeeding, however, unlikemastitis , it will not be accompanied by fever or malaise (the general feeling of being ill).  If it is not treated, the duct can become infected and progress tomastitis and eventually to a breast abscess.

Blocked milk ducts generally occur when the milk fails to drain completely from the breast.  This may be due to:

  • An ill-fitting bra.  This is also the reason why it is not recommended for breastfeeding women to wear bras with underwire.
  • Missed feeds or incomplete feeding.  It is often recommended that nursing mothers avoid waiting too long between feedings and that they allow their babies to empty the breast as much as possible during a feed.
  • Stress or illness.
  • Idiopathic (no known cause).

How to Deal with a Blocked Milk Duct?

The best thing you can do to relieve a blocked milk duct is to remove the milk that is trapped behind the blocked duct.  You can do this by either continuing to breastfeed, or to express the milk with a breast pump or by hand, however, breastfeeding is the recommended method.  Breastfeeding is the best way to remove the milk because a baby is the most efficient breast pump available.  Babies have the ability to empty the breast in a way that no breast pump is able to.  You would only consider expressing by hand or with a breast pump if your baby refuses to nurse. 

  1. Breastfeed on the affected side first because your baby’s sucking action is strongest when hungry.  This will help to dislodge the plug.
  2. Vary your baby’s position on the breast as this ensures that all the milk ducts are properly drained.  The best position to place your baby in to facilitate clearing of the blocked duct is one where yourbaby’s chin points to the area that is sore.  Make sure your baby has a proper latch for efficient nursing.
  3. You can assist drainage of the breast by taking a warm shower or using a warm compress and massaging the affected area from the top of the breast towards the nipple.
  4. Rest as much as possible.  Remember that blocked ducts can be caused by stress or illness.  If your body is run down, you are more likely to develop blocked ducts.  Take your baby to bed and nurse lying down.
  5. Take an anti-inflammatory painkiller like ibuprofen.  Blocked ducts can be very painful and nursing can feel unbearable.  Ibuprofen is also useful for reducing inflammation and generally safe for taking while breastfeeding but it is important to speak to your doctor first.

Preventing Future Blocked Ducts

1. Nurse frequently and avoid going too long between feedings.

2. Vary the position of your baby when feeding to ensure that all milk ducts are emptied properly.

3. There are some reports that taking lecithin, Echinacea and vitamin C can help.  Some studies have shown that 1200mg of lecithin taken three to four times a day can help prevent and treat blocked milk ducts.

If, after all this, you still continue to feel pain, or you develop a fever, it is important to pay your doctor a visit.


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