Identifying and clearing blocked milk ducts

Blocked milk ducts & mastitis: Home remedies that can help

As a nursing mother, it is a wonderful feeling to feed your baby and establish a close bond. But there can also be challenges associated with breastfeeding. One of these is blocked milk ducts, which can, in some cases, lead to mastitis. In this article, we give you some tips on dealing with blocked milk ducts, and share home remedies that can bring relief.

Blocked milk ducts: What does this actually mean?

The first few weeks after childbirth are a wonderful time full of new experiences for first-time mothers. But, along with all the happy moments, breastfeeding also has its fair share of challenges. Many mothers experience milk accumulating in one breast along with symptoms of discomfort. This phenomenon is known as blocked milk ducts.
Blocked milk ducts occur when a milk duct becomes blocked and the breast milk cannot flow freely when breastfeeding. The milk accumulates in a certain area of the breast. The affected breast will feel warm, sensitive to pressure and can even redden. When you touch the breast, you can sometimes feel lumps with a clearly defined structure. This often leaves you feeling frustrated and helpless that the precious milk cannot flow in the usual way, and interrupts the close bond between you and your baby that develops through breastfeeding.

Signs of blocked milk ducts:
  • Breast is painful with localized redness
  • Swelling
  • Hardness, and some small lumps can be felt
  • Discomfort
  • Raised temperature or mild fever, up to 38.5 degrees Celsius

Mastitis as a result of blocked milk ducts

If blocked milk ducts are not treated in time, or cannot be cleared, a bacterial breast infection (mastitis) may develop. The symptoms go beyond blocked milk ducts, and can manifest as a flu-like condition throughout the body. This painful condition is accompanied by fever, headache, and acute discomfort. 
The transition from blocked milk ducts to mastitis usually happens without any warning. So, it is very important to take steps to clear blocked milk ducts without delay, by breastfeeding frequently and resting sufficiently. If your symptoms do not improve after 48 hours, the mastitis treatment is having no effect 24 hours later, or you have symptoms of fever, you should consult your doctor immediately to discuss what medication you need to treat the mastitis.

Mastitis: Breastfeeding to aid healing

In spite of the difficulties associated with mastitis, it is usually advisable to continue breastfeeding. The benefits of breastfeeding and the breast milk diet remain unchanged, even if blocked milk ducts require immediate attention. The love and closeness that result from breastfeeding are invaluable to you both, and support future development. It is important to be aware that this situation is temporary, and there is support available to help you cope during this time. Trust your own feelings and get the help you need to maintain the breastfeeding relationship.
Woman pumps milk with manual breast pump

Causes of blocked milk ducts

Blocked milk ducts always occur when the breast is not emptied fully. Reasons for this can include your baby not taking enough milk to empty the breast, or too much milk production – but external factors such as stress can also cause blocked ducts.

Your baby does not take enough milk to empty the breast

A common reason for blocked milk ducts is the baby not taking enough milk during breastfeeding to empty the breast. It is not unusual, especially in the first few weeks after childbirth, for the breastfeeding relationship to take some time to establish. Perhaps your baby has yet to find the perfect suckling position at your breast, and is not taking milk from some of the ducts. It is important to get support from your midwife or breastfeeding consultant so that you get to know the different breastfeeding positions, and ensure that your baby suckles at the breast effectively. However, blocked milk ducts can occur when weaning: As your body has been used to producing a certain amount of milk over the last few months, it will maintain this level of production, even though some breastfeeding sessions have been replaced by solids. Since the breast will not then fully empty, there is a risk of blocked milk ducts.

Too much milk is coming in

Blocked milk ducts can also result when the milk comes in, and the production of breast milk is in full swing. In the first few days after childbirth, your body produces colostrum, a highly nutritious first milk, that your baby needs in small quantities. After a few days, colostrum turns into what is known as transitional milk, and ultimately, into “mature” breast milk. In this transitional phase, it can happen that your body will produce more milk than your baby needs at that time.

External and emotional factors

External factors, such as physical or emotional stress, can also cause blocked milk ducts. Pain after childbirth, the stress of motherhood, too many visitors, or even clothing that is too tight, can all contribute to blockages in the milk ducts. Make sure that you have a well-fitting nursing bra that does not constrict you in any way, and allows enough room for the blood to circulate properly.

Clearing blocked milk ducts with home and other remedies

If you suffer from blocked milk ducts – don’t panic. Despite being a painful condition, there are a number of different ways to clear blocked milk ducts. Home remedies can also help to relieve pain and clear the blockage.

Keep latching on – as often as possible

If you have blocked milk ducts, it is important to continue breastfeeding. Frequent latching on allows the accumulated milk to drain away, and the amount of milk to adapt to your baby’s needs. Try to get your baby to latch on every two to three hours to encourage milk flow. Warm compresses before breastfeeding can help, by expanding the blood vessels and milk ducts, so that the milk can flow more freely. To empty the accumulated milk effectively, it is best to position your baby so that their chin points towards the site of the pain.

Hand express the remaining milk

If you have the sensation after breastfeeding that your breast is not completely empty, you can remove the remaining milk by hand expressing. Gently massage your breast with your hands and then slowly hand express the milk. Your midwife or breastfeeding consultant will show you how to do this. Warmth can also be helpful in clearing blocked milk ducts more quickly.

Clearing blocked milk ducts: Pumping to express milk

If your baby does not want to suckle while you have blocked milk ducts, or if you need speedy relief, you can also express the accumulated milk by pumping. Pumping blocked milk ducts has yet another advantage: Unlike hand expressing, you can immediately store the pumped milk in a bottle, so that it is not lost and can be fed to baby later. However, only pump until it is no longer painful so that you do not continue to stimulate milk production.

What helps when milk ducts are blocked: Cooling the breast

After breastfeeding, hand expressing or pumping blocked milk ducts, it is helpful, to cool the breast. Cooling helps to temporarily reduce milk production, and relieve pain and swelling. Effective home remedies include quark poultices or cooled white cabbage leaves, as they adapt well to the affected site, and have an anti-inflammatory effect. Similarly, traditional cold compresses from the drugstore or cold washcloths can also bring relief. Important: If your pain and symptoms still persist after around two days, consult your doctor for advice on what to do next.

Blocked milk ducts: Prevention options

Are you wondering whether you can prevent blocked milk ducts, and avoid repeat complications? The good news is: You can! There are a number of things you can do to help yourself.
  1. Rest is the be-all and end-all: To avoid stress, you should take rest breaks, whenever you need to. The time after childbirth is known as lying-in for good reason! Listen to what your body is saying. Tension and pain are clear signs that you have reached your limits. Be careful and considerate of yourself, because your body has just performed a miracle by coping with pregnancy and childbirth!
  2. Latch on frequently: Frequent latching-on not only brings relief should you already have blocked milk ducts, it can also help to prevent blocked milk ducts in the first place. This way, you make sure that the breast is constantly emptied, providing your baby finishes all the milk in the breast.
  3. A healthy and balanced diet: By taking good care of yourself, you are also taking good care of your little one. A healthy, considered diet when breastfeeding can help to prevent blocked milk ducts. 
  4. The right clothing: Physical stress can also trigger blocked milk ducts – and can happen if your clothing is too tight. Make sure that you do not feel restricted by your nursing bra, or by any other clothing.