|Of the many joys of breastfeeding, plugged ducts are not one of them. Having had several bouts while nursing my son (but luckily, not my daughter), I can speak from experience that it is something fairly painful and unfortunately, something that is usually not easily or quickly remedied.
So what exactly are plugged ducts? Let's quickly review the anatomy of the breast. There are round glands in the breast that produce milk. These glands empty into tubes called ducts. The ducts then empty into collecting sinuses which then empty out the nipple to your baby.
When a thickened mass of milk or cast-off cells block a duct, this is what we mean by a plugged duct. This can occur when milk does not empty completely in one area (using one nursing position, so that milk is completely emptied in one area, but not another) or if there is constant pressure on one area of your breast (i.e. from a tight bra, sleeping in a particular position, bunching up your shirt under your arm while nursing).
When a plug duct develops, you quickly feel a tender and hard lump in one area of your breast. Some women may only experience swelling. It is not accompanied by fever or flu like symptoms. If you do experience fever or flu-like symptoms at any time, contact your doctor immediately, as these are symptoms of a breast infection called mastitis that requires antibiotic treatment.
As mentioned earlier, treatment of a plugged duct often requires a fair amount of work. There are several things to try:
- Warm compresses often help increase drainage. Keeping a warm compress over the plugged duct as often as possible can be helpful.
- A mild analgesic such as Tylenol can help.
- Also, rest rest rest!
- The key treatment however, is nursing. Have your baby nurse frequently on the affected side (most experts recommend offering the affected side first) with his/her chin pointing towards the duct. Massage the duct downwards towards the nipple while baby is nursing and in between as well. This will also help "loosen" the plug.
- A breast pump can be very useful to help keep the unaffected breast from becoming engorged. You can also use the breast pump on the affected side, especially if your baby is older and is not nursing as frequently.
- When the plug is released, you will know! The tenderness will be gone and the lump will disappear. Your baby may actually spit out the plug, or may swallow it (as my son did). If after several days, the plug is still present or you feel you are developing symptoms of mastitis, contact your doctor for further treatment. It may take several hours up to days for the plug to resolve.
Having said all that, the question that most frequently comes to every mother's mind (including mine!) is, how does one prevent this from happening? Certainly, alternating positions, keeping clothing loose, and examining what positions you breastfeed in can be useful. Unfortunately, in some cases (like mine), the cause may never be quite clear. The best one can do is as mentioned above and if and when it does occur, constant work on the plug will eventually clear it. Just hang in there!
If the plugged ducts are not improving or it is intefering with breastfeeding, then call your doctor or lactation consultant for treatment.
- When Latching: a great guide to latching on effectively when breastfeeding, with pictures and step by step instructions.