Breastfeeding as a bonding experience is not the same for all women. While some mothers have a smooth sail, others face a lot of difficulties. It’s important to be aware of the problems that may appear at any time. Let us look at one such problem of plugged ducts that is faced by a lot of mothers.
What Are Plugged Ducts?
Ducts are tubes that carry milk from the alveoli (where it is produced, deep inside the breast) to the nipple. Plugged milk ducts, which are also known as clogged milk ducts or blocked milk ducts, usually feel like hard, tender lumps. They block and prevent the flow of milk and can cause swelling, redness and pain in the area of the breast where they develop. The appearance of plugged ducts is gradual and it usually affects only one breast.
Here are some of the most common factors that lead to plugged ducts:
When your baby does not latch on to your breast correctly, milk cannot be drawn properly and thus may not be emptied from the breast. A build-up of milk eventually occurs which blocks the ducts.
Infrequent feedings and oversupply of milk
A long interval between feedings and production of milk in excess can cause a build-up of milk, thus increasing the chance of plugged ducts.
Constricting the breasts
Wearing tight clothes or accessories that are tight may put pressure on the breast tissue and lead to plugged milk ducts. Sleeping in a position that puts weight on your breasts or sleeping on the tummy, can also put pressure on the breasts.
A nipple bleb looks like a small white spot on the tip of the nipple and hurts when your baby feeds. Blebs can plug up the openings of your milk ducts and block the flow of milk.
Exhaustion and stress
Lack of rest may lead to a greater risk of plugged milk ducts. Just like our other muscles, the small muscle fibres that push the milk through the breast requires energy. When you are exhausted, the milk will be harder to push through and can clog the breasts. Also, under stress, the production of oxytocin (the hormone that is responsible for releasing milk in the breasts) is lesser.
Ideally, weaning should be done gradually, whereby you give your body time to adjust to the reduced frequency of feeding. If you wean your baby quickly, it can lead to clogged milk ducts.
How Can Plugged Ducts Be Treated?
Ensuring that the milk continues to flow is the first step in resolving plugged ducts. Here are a few ways to treat plugged ducts:
Latch and position
Make sure your baby is latching on correctly. Start feeding your baby on the side with the plugged milk duct first, making it as empty as possible, while not neglecting the other breast. If the affected breast is too painful, switch to the other side after the let-down reflex is activated. This may cause the breast to leak while you are nursing your baby on the normal (other) breast.
Vary your nursing position to help clear the duct faster. Try holding your baby so that his nose or chin is pointing towards the area of your breast with the plugged duct. The goal is to have baby’s chin on the plug because it will help gently massage it, clearing the blockage and get the milk moving.
Lean over the baby while nursing and dangling your breast into the mouth, which is sometimes referred to as dangle feeding, allows gravity in addition to baby’s suckling to assist in the let-down of the milk.
Nursing your baby is essential to clearing a plugged duct. Your baby’s ability to trigger a let-down will let the milk flow again and clear the affected duct. Continue to breastfeed every 1-3 hours or on demand.
Applying heat to the clogged area before each feeding will help your let-down reflex and the flow of your breast milk through the ducts. Warm compresses can be done by taking a hot shower with a heating pad or a soaked washed cloth, or by submerging your breasts in a basin of water.
Massaging the breasts will improve the flow of milk out of the breast and offer relief. It is best done in the shower, as this usually triggers the let-down reflex. It can also be done after applying warmth before you nurse your baby. To help relieve the obstruction, gently massage the affected area downward toward the nipple as though you were pushing the blockage out through the nipple pores. Be careful not to press too hard as doing so could cause inflammation or swelling.
Wear loose clothing
It’s important to wear comfortable clothes to prevent any extra pressure. Wear a bra that fits properly. Avoid carrying heavy bags/carriers that will put pressure on your breasts.
Get ample rest and stay hydrated
Get as much rest as possible and try not to be stressed. Staying hydrated is also essential to keep moving the milk through your breasts. Also, consult your doctor to discuss a treatment and medication if required.
It is important to note, that if left untreated, a clogged duct can evolve into mastitis – a painful infection of the breast tissue that is often accompanied by fever, a yellow discharge from the nipple, nausea or vomiting, and the breasts feeling hot or having red streaks. Identifying the causes and taking steps to fix the blockage as soon as possible will not only ensure you get back to problem-free nursing but also prevent further complications.