Breastfeeding is natural. However, just because it’s considered natural doesn’t mean it can’t still be painful and difficult!
If you’re breastfeeding your child, one of the unpleasant experiences you may encounter is a clogged milk duct.
Wondering if you have a clogged duct and how to treat it? Thinking about trying to pop the painful spot with a needle to make it feel better?
Before you decide to take matters into your hands, let us explain what a clogged milk duct is, treatment methods for it that are safe to try at home, and when it’s a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider.
Before considering treatment options, you’ll want to determine if what you’re experiencing really is a clogged duct.
A clogged milk duct is when a duct in the breast becomes blocked or is otherwise unable to drain well. Common causes include:
- skipping a feed
- not fully emptying a breast during a feed
- being under extreme stress
Symptoms of a clogged milk duct include:
- a lump in the breast (that may move over time)
- engorgement, pain, or swelling around the lump
- discomfort that tends to increase during letdown and decrease after feeding/pumping
- milk blisters or “blebs” at the opening of the nipple
You may have heard the term “milk blister” or “bleb” before, but not know what they are. A milk bleb is typically related to poor or shallow latch and the baby’s mouth applying excess pressure on a part of the breast as a result.
A milk blister, which usually is more serious and painful than a milk bleb, is due to skin that grows over a milk duct. Some potential causes of a milk blister include:
- issues with a baby’s latch, tongue movement, or suction
- excess milk supply or pressure on a part of the breast
- thrush, which is a yeast infection in the mouth (when this is the cause, it’s common to experience multiple blisters instead of just one)
A milk blister is different than a clogged duct; however, it may be related to or lead to a clogged duct. (A small amount of milk will frequently develop behind the blister, but a milk blister doesn’t necessarily clog a duct. Many milk blisters never result in clogged ducts!)
To put it simply: No. Popping a milk blister can lead to infection, and the risk is much higher if you do it yourself.
For best results, it’s recommended to try some of the expression methods we’ll discuss below and see a doctor for additional help if there are signs of an infection or you find yourself in excruciating pain that prevents breastfeeding.
If you have a milk blister:
- Before breastfeeding, place a warm compress over the nipple for several minutes. (The heat can help open up the duct.)
- Then, have the baby feed off the breast with the milk blister first.
- Keep your nipple area moist between feeds by doing things like placing olive oil on a cotton ball inside your bra, applying vinegar to your breast pad, or soaking your breast in water mixed with Epsom salt several times a day.
- Make sure to compress the area behind the nipple during feeds to try to express any blockage that may be building up. Breastfeeding frequently to keep breasts soft can also help with this!
If you have a clogged milk duct:
- Massage your breasts during feeding sessions to try to get as much milk as possible out. Start at the outside of the breast and work toward the plugged area. (Bonus points for doing this in a shower or warm and steamy environment.)
- Offer the affected breast first as babies tend to suck more strongly at the beginning of a feeding session. Consider also trying a variety of breastfeeding positions to encourage your baby’s mouth to apply pressure to different parts of your breast.
- Feed your baby frequently to keep breasts as soft and empty as possible.
- Avoid tight clothing — and maybe even go braless for a bit
- Willing to try anything? Some people have held the flat part of an electric toothbrush against their blocked duct, so the vibrations can help remove it.
You should reach out to your healthcare provider if breastfeeding has become so uncomfortable it feels impossible to continue. Clogged ducts will not improve with milk building up in the breast, so it’s important to get the milk out.
You should also notify your provider if you notice signs of infection (including fever or red lumps in the breast) as these can be signs of more serious conditions like mastitis, which may require antibiotics.
In addition to a doctor, you may wish to speak with a lactation consultant if clogged ducts or milk blisters are:
- reducing your milk supply
- making breastfeeding extremely painful
- leading baby to prefer the bottle
They can help to get your breastfeeding journey back on track.
You shouldn’t try to pop the blister yourself, but if your doctor determines it’s the best course of action, you can expect them to:
- Wash the area well with soap and water, patting it dry after.
- Use a sterilized needle to lift the edge of the blister. (You’ll notice that they’ll use a lifting motion at the edge of the blister instead of a piercing motion. They also won’t push inwards, as that can cause bacteria to travel deeper and lead to a greater chance of infection.)
- Perhaps remove any extra loose blister skin with tweezers and small sharp scissors.
- Wash the area again with soap and water. They’ll also likely instruct you to apply antibiotic ointment to the area after breastfeeding sessions.
When it comes to treating clogged milk ducts, it can be tempting to take matters into your own hands. But that can lead to infections and more problems.
Before reaching for a needle or trying to pop any milk blisters, start by keeping your breast fully drained of breast milk and clean. If you notice signs of infection or things don’t start to improve after a few days, make sure to reach out to your doctor. They can prescribe medications and pop the blister if necessary.
One last thing to keep in mind is that a lactation consultant or a local breastfeeding support group can be helpful as you navigate clogged ducts, milk blisters, or any other bumps in your natural (but probably not completely pain-free) breastfeeding journey.