A plugged duct occurs when the milk passageways in the breast become blocked.

Plugged ducts are a common problem that arises during breast-feeding. They happen when the milk is not drained fully from the breast or when there is too much pressure inside the breast. Milk gets backed up inside the duct and the milk may become thick and not flow properly. It may feel like there is a tender lump in the breast, which can be painful and uncomfortable for a new mother.

A plugged duct can be caused by:

  • failure to empty the breast during a feeding
  • baby not sucking well or having trouble feeding
  • skipped feeding or waiting too long in between feedings
  • producing too much milk
  • an ineffective breast pump
  • abruptly weaning the baby off breast-feeding
  • sleeping on the stomach
  • tight fitting bras
  • anything else that puts pressure on the breast for an extended period of time, for example bunched clothing, a backpack, or a seat belt

If you are getting plugged ducts on a regular basis (recurrent plugged ducts), your doctor may recommend that you increase your intake of a substance called lecithin. Lecithin is a natural substance that was first discovered in egg yolks. It’s also naturally found in:

  • soybeans
  • whole grains
  • peanuts
  • meat (especially liver)
  • milk (including breast milk)

You may also see lecithin as an additive to many common foods like chocolate, salad dressings, and baked goods. It is a substance that helps keep fats and oils in suspension (an emulsifier). Lecithin is a phospholipid, which has both hydrophobic (affinity for fats and oils) and hydrophilic (affinity for water) elements. It’s thought to help prevent the breast ducts from getting plugged by increasing the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the milk and decreasing its stickiness.

Lecithin is found in many of the foods we eat like organ meats, red meats, and eggs. These foods contain the most concentrated source of dietary lecithin, but they are also high in saturated fats and cholesterol. In order to help prevent cardiovascular disease and obesity, many women today are leaning toward a low-cholesterol, low-calorie diet that is lower in lecithin.

Fortunately, there are several lecithin supplements available at health, drug, and vitamin stores, and online. As there is no recommended daily allowance for lecithin, there is no established dosing for lecithin supplements. One suggested dose is 1,200 milligrams, four times a day, to help prevent recurrent plugged ducts, according to the Canadian Breast-Feeding Foundation.

Lecithin is suggested as one way to help prevent plugged ducts and any resulting complications. Plugged ducts can be painful and uncomfortable for both mother and baby. Your baby might become fussy if the milk is coming out slower than usual.

Most cases of plugged ducts will resolve on their own within a day or two. However, any time a woman has a plugged duct, she is at risk of developing an infection of the breast (mastitis). If you have flu-like symptoms like a fever and chills and a breast lump that is warm and red, see your doctor right away. You will need to take antibiotics to clear the infection. If not treated, mastitis may lead to a breast abscess. An abscess is much more painful and will have to be drained immediately by your doctor.

If you are prone to plugged ducts, talk to your doctor about using lecithin supplements. A lactation consultant can also help give you tips about breast-feeding your baby. Other tips for preventing plugged ducts include:

  • allowing your baby to fully drain the milk from one breast before switching to the other breast
  • making sure your baby latches on correctly during feedings
  • changing up the position you breast-feed in each time
  • eating a diet low in saturated fats
  • drinking lots of water
  • wearing a supportive, well-fitting bra

Lecithin is a natural substance and its components are already present in breast milk. It is also a fairly common food additive, so chances are you have already consumed it many times. There are no known contraindications for breast-feeding women and lecithin is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Currently, there are no scientific studies that have assessed the safety and efficacy of using lecithin for plugged ducts while breast-feeding, according to the National Institutes of Health. Dietary supplements, like lecithin, don’t require extensive research and marketing approval by the FDA. Different brands might have different amounts of lecithin in each pill or capsule, so be sure to read labels very carefully before taking lecithin or any other dietary supplement.

Always consult with your doctor before trying any dietary supplements while pregnant or breast-feeding.