Plugged Milk Ducts

Definition, Causes, Treatment, Prevention, and Complications

Breastfeeding Mother and Baby
Breast engorgement can lead to plugged milk ducts. Alex Bramwell/Moment/Getty Images

What Are Plugged Milk Ducts?

Plugged milk ducts, also called clogged milk ducts or blocked milk ducts, are hard, tender lumps that form in the narrow milk ducts of the breast. They block and prevent the flow of breast milk. Plugged milk ducts are a common breastfeeding problem, and they can cause swelling, redness, and pain in the area of the breast where they develop. 

What Causes Plugged Milk Ducts?

An Incorrect Breastfeeding Latch: If your baby is not latching onto your breast well, he may not be able to draw that much breast milk out of your breast.

When breast milk is left behind, it can block the ducts. 

Breast Engorgement: Breast milk can build up in your breasts and clog your milk ducts if you don't breastfeed often enough, miss feedings, wait too long between feedings, or supplement with formula. Breast engorgement can also develop when your baby begins sleeping through the night.

Blebs: Blebs can plug up the openings of your milk ducts and cause your breast milk to back up and get stuck in the narrow passageways that allow the milk to flow from where it's made in your breast out to your nipple.

An Overabundant Milk Supply: If your body produces too much breast milk, it can lead to breast engorgement and plugged milk ducts.

Excessive Pressure on Your Breasts: A bra that has an underwire, or one that is too tight, can put pressure on the breast tissue and lead to clogged milk ducts. The straps of an infant carrier or a heavy diaper bag can also cause pressure on your breasts.

Dehydration and Fatigue: Lack of rest and not drinking enough fluids can put you at a greater risk for developing plugged milk ducts.

Exercise: Plugged ducts can result from vigorous or strenuous exercise, especially of the upper body.

Weaning: If you wean your baby quickly, it can lead to breast engorgement, plugged milk ducts, and mastitis.

How to Treat Plugged Milk Ducts

  • Make sure your baby is latching on correctly. Seek the advice of a lactation consultant, your doctor, or a breastfeeding support group if you need help with your baby's latch.
  • Continue to breastfeed, and do it very often—every 1-3 hours or on demand—to keep your breast milk flowing through the ducts.
  • If it's not too painful, start feeding your baby on the side with the plugged milk duct first. Your child's suck will be stronger at the beginning of a feeding which may help to remove any clogged milk in the area. If that breast is too tender, begin the feeding on the opposite breast and wait until after the let-down reflex is stimulated, then switch to the breast with the plug.
  • When you're latching your child onto your breast, try to position him so that his nose or chin is toward the plugged duct. He may be better able to dislodge the blockage in these positions.
  • Apply heat to the clogged area before each feeding to help with your let-down reflex and the flow of your breast milk through your ducts.
  • To help relieve the obstruction, gently massage the affected area while applying heat, and while you're breastfeeding your baby.
  • Use hand expression or a breast pump after you breastfeed your child to remove more breast milk and try to free the blockage. It's important to empty the breast of breast milk as completely as you can.
  • Ask your doctor about taking a lecithin supplement. Lecithin is a healthy nutritional supplement that is safe to take while you're breastfeeding. It is believed to help resolve and prevent plugged milk ducts. A typical dose is one tablespoon of granulated or liquid lecithin each day or one capsule (1200 mg) 3 or 4 times a day.
  • See your doctor or a lactation specialist to learn how to use therapeutic breast massage and use it at home to help prevent and manage plugged milk ducts.
  • If you're looking for an alternative treatment, chiropractic ultrasound therapy can be used to help improve the symptoms of plugged milk ducts.
  • Get enough rest, and stay hydrated.
  • Wean your baby gradually, if possible.

How to Prevent Recurring Plugged Milk Ducts

  • Have someone with breastfeeding experience evaluate your breastfeeding technique.
  • Breastfeed your baby often. To keep your breast milk flowing through your breasts and prevent it from backing up in the ducts, you need to remove it regularly and frequently.
  • Do not skip feedings or wait too long between feedings.
  • Change breastfeeding positions with each feeding to allow your baby to drain the different areas of your breast.
  • Try to avoid saturated fats in your diet. Plugs tend to be fatty, so a low-fat diet may help prevent them from forming.
  • Avoid restrictive clothing and nursing bras that are too tight or have an underwire.
  • Do not sleep on your stomach. It puts pressure on your breasts.
  • Talk to your doctor about taking a daily lecithin supplement.
  • Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest.

The Complications of Plugged Milk Ducts

When treated right away, a plugged milk duct usually begins to get smaller or go away within a few days. But, when a plugged milk duct is left untreated, it can get worse and lead to more serious complications such as mastitis or a breast abscess.

It's Time to Call Your Doctor if:

  • The lump does not go away within three days.
  • The lump grows. 
  • The area is red, and it increases in size. 
  • You develop a fever.


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