Breastfeeding is a liberating and emotionally fulfilling experience. It bonds the mother and child. It provides optimal nutrition that nothing else in the world compares to. A Seminars in Perinatology publication notes the composition of a mother’s milk being roughly 3 to 5 percent fat, 0.8 to 0.9 percent protein and 6.9 to 7.2 percent carbohydrates.
ts rates of postpartum depression are lower in women who breastfeed. Also, mothers have provided testimony for years that credits nursing their baby with their postpartum weight loss. According to WebMD, this long-disputed theory that breastfeeding leads to weight loss is a pretty solid argument, citing a Danish study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that shows higher rates of breastfeeding correlating with a greater likelihood of weight loss by six months postpartum.
While it seems like a perfect experience, there are some potential downsides. Knowing how to handle them ahead of time makes a huge difference, and not knowing how can lead to unnecessary stress that can hinder the breastfeeding relationship. Blocked milk ducts are just one possible adverse event you might experience while breastfeeding.
What is it?
Milk ducts are the vessels that run throughout the breasts and carry milk from alveoli to the nipple. The hormone prolactin aids in increasing the width of these ducts so that milk can flow through them more freely and in larger quantities. When large amounts of milk attempt to pass through and can’t, the ducts can get clogged, much the way a drain would if a fatty substance passed through it with one end remaining closed. That closed end is the nipple.
The pain that accompanies a blocked duct is usually at its worst before a feeding or pumping session when the breasts are full. After such, the pain lessens and may even go away altogether, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the signs if something feels off. The other symptoms of a blocked duct are pretty hard to ignore, but they could easily be confused with other issues. Red flags include:
- Hot spots on the breast
- Hard lumps that are sore to the touch
- Milk blisters or blebs
Swelling of the breast tissue may be subtle. You might not see swollen lumps, but if your bra is suddenly tighter, give your breasts a good look and check for new lumps and bumps or warm spots and discoloration. It can be difficult to confuse normal discomfort that comes with breastfeeding early on and clogged ducts. La Leche League International states as many as 80 to 90 percent of women experience redness and nipple soreness with nursing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a lactation consultant or your midwife or doctor if you aren’t sure.
Milk blisters, also known as blebs, occur when a pore on the nipple becomes clogged. The skin grows over this clog and causes a small milk blister to form. These usually have a white head and are sore to the touch. They can be lanced with a sterile needle and should be kept covered until healed afterward.
Will it Happen to Me?
The short answer is — maybe. Certain women do seem to be more prone to blocked ducts. Those who have experienced it in the past when breastfeeding other children may find they do again. Going long spurts between feedings or pumping sessions contributes to the greater likelihood of a blocked duct. Essentially, the longer the breast goes without draining, the more probable a milk duct becomes.
In addition, wearing bras that don’t fit well can contribute to the cause. Breastfeeding mothers fare the best when they say goodbye to underwire bras until after they’ve weaned. Speaking of which, weaning should also occur over an extended period of time. Doing so abruptly can also lead to clogged ducts, as can stress or switching to a less powerful pump setting.
Treating blocked ducts immediately is important. Left to fester, they can easily turn into mastitis — a painful inflammation that affects the whole region of the breast, can hinder milk supply, and sometimes requires antibiotics to clear if bacterial infection occurs. In 3 to 11 percent of cases of mastitis, abscesses are known to occur, according to Kelly Mom.
It’s important that mothers with blocked ducts continue to breastfeed on that side. In fact, it’s best to offer that side first every time since baby’s sucking will be strongest at first latch. Despite the pain and the idea that the breast is full because of the clog, breastfeeding signals the body to produce more milk, which can aid in pushing the clog through the duct. The breast will drain more effectively if the baby’s chin is pointed toward the region of the duct that is clogged. Changing up your position or the way you hold your baby while nursing may also help. If you’re used to the clutch or football hold, now might be a great time to try side lying or laid back nursing. Midwifery Today attests to this position actually being the biological norm and likely to produce a successful breastfeeding relationship between mom and baby.
Moms can use warm compresses and cold rags applied directly to the skin to help alleviate pain. Applying pressure can be uncomfortable, but it may help the duct to move closer to expulsion if you use the heel of your hand to force the clog through the duct from the site of the clog to toward the nipple. Ibuprofen can be used to relieve swelling that may be impeding clearing of the clog, but mothers should consult their doctors before using any medication — even over the counter drugs — while nursing.
Stay hydrated and keep eating well. Try not to stress over the blocked duct. That only tends to make things worse by impeding the release of oxytocin, which helps with letdown and to keep milk flowing. Many mothers attempt to avoid blocked milk ducts and still find themselves suffering from them. Should you develop a fever at any time when you have symptoms of soreness or redness in the breast, you should seek prompt medical attention. Fever is a strong indicator of infection. Left untreated, that is something that could actually permanently impair your supply. Know the warning signs ahead of time; know how to treat this issue should it occur, and you’ll be fine.