How to Unclog a Milk Duct

By Shelley Frost
Woman breastfeeding her newborn outside.
Woman breastfeeding her newborn outside.

Idyllic visions of smiling moms peacefully nursing newborns often give way to breastfeeding difficulties, such as plugged milk ducts. When a duct that carries milk to the nipple gets blocked, you'll notice a tender lump and possible redness in a wedge shape. The sometimes-painful problem can happen because of poor positioning during breastfeeding, tight bras or long periods between nursing. A few changes to your nursing routine and extra care for yourself helps resolve the clogged duct before it becomes infected.

Nurse Regularly

The tenderness may make you hesitant to nurse on the affected side, but don't miss on the opportunity to resolve the problem. Nursing often gets the milk flowing through the breast and can help unblock the milk duct. Nurse on the breast with the clogged duct first -- your infant's voracious appetite at the beginning of a feeding causes him to suck harder and can help empty the affected breast. Repositioning your infant so his chin points toward the blocked duct can help unclog it and keep the milk flowing. Empty the breasts thoroughly each time you nurse. If your baby doesn't empty the breast during the feeding, use a breast pump to remove the remaining milk. Continue nursing or pumping frequently throughout the day and night.

Change Your Habits

Rest helps when you have a clogged milk duct. La Leche League International recommends resting as much as possible. Try nursing your baby while lying down. The positioning may help empty the breast while giving you the rest you need. Wear loose clothing, as tight, restricting clothing can cause clogged milk ducts. Skip the bra completely if it feels comfortable to relieve pressure on your breasts. The Healthy Children website from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests not sleeping on your stomach, as this can also cause pressure.

Heat and Massage the Area

Warmth and massage can help unclog the milk duct and ease any discomfort you feel. Massage the area of the blocked milk duct while taking a warm shower. If you don't have time for a shower, place a heating pad, hot water bottle or moistened and warmed compresses on the area. Massage the breast as soon as you remove the heat. If possible, nurse your baby or pump while the area is still warm. You can also massage the breast before every nursing session, even without the heat to help unblock the duct. Work toward the nipple as you massage.

Get Professional Help

Despite the best efforts for relief, a blocked milk duct can sometimes become infected and turn into mastitis or a breast abscess. You'll know the breast became infected if the area is red, swollen and painful to the touch. The area might also feel hot when you touch it. You may feel sick, including flu-like symptoms and fever. Call your physician if you don't see any improvement after a few days or if the fever exceeds 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Also call if you see that your milk contains pus or blood, or if red streaks form on the breast. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Ask about the possibility of pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, which will also help with the inflammation.

About the Author

Based in the Midwest, Shelley Frost has been writing parenting and education articles since 2007. Her experience comes from teaching, tutoring and managing educational after school programs. Frost worked in insurance and software testing before becoming a writer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education with a reading endorsement.