I was lucky that I didn’t experience terribly sore nipples in the first weeks of breastfeeding my boys. But, holy hell, I did get some horrible plugged ducts a few months in. And let me tell you, that is some breast pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Plugged ducts are literally what they sound like. Your breastmilk gets “stuck” inside your milk ducts. The most frequent cause of plugs is you didn’t breastfeed or pump as frequently as you normally do, or that your baby didn’t empty your breast as fully as usual. There are a whole bunch of other causes of plugs, but those are the top ones.
Sometimes a small plug will unclog itself easily over the next few times you nurse or pump. But others became really backed up. The area around the plug then becomes tender to the touch, and the nearby skin may look red and inflamed. Also, did I mention it hurts like hell? Also, if you wait too long to clear up the plug, it can sometimes lead to mastitis, a bacterial infection of the duct that usually comes with flu-like symptoms and requires antibiotics. Fun times, I know.
Luckily, most cases of plugs are relatively short-lived and can be easily cleared by nursing or pumping frequently (some suggest starting with the plugged side first to make sure it gets fully emptied) as well as some breast massage to kind of “work out” the plug. However, sometimes the go-to conventional methods just don’t work.
In those cases, here are some off-the-beaten-path methods that actually work wonders for those pesky plugs that won’t just go away:
1. “Dangle nursing”
Sometimes you need to let gravity do its thing when it comes to clearing plugs. “Dangle nursing” is exactly as it sounds. You get on all fours, or lean over your baby, letting your boob hang down. Then you nurse—often. Massage the affected breast while you’re nursing and, many times, the plug will clear up immediately.
2. Place an electric toothbrush or vibrating phone over the clog.
It sounds kind of ridiculous, right? But something about the vibrating motion can help loosen and break up the plug. It has been the miracle cure for many moms I know.
Still, when it’s 2 a.m. and there are no medical professionals available for help, it’s good to have a go-to list of things to try.
3. An OTC supplement called lecithin
Lecithin is a naturally occurring fatty acid that can be purchased in pill form at the drug store. It doesn’t necessarily cure your plug when you already have one, but many mothers who have repeated plugged ducts find that it helps prevent them in the first place. Of course, you should talk to you doctor or lactation consultant about proper dosage and usage for lecithin before you start using it.
4. Therapeutic breast massage
General breast massaging can be really helpful for plugs, but a technique known as therapeutic breast massage—which alternates hand expression and specific breast massage techniques—can prove to be extremely helpful for your most stubborn plugs. Check out this video for tips and to learn the ins-and-out of the technique.
5. Castor oil compress
This is definitely one of those things that requires consultation with your doctor, but for many moms who have plugs that don’t respond to any other treatment, castor oil compresses are often the thing that finally cures them. The Pump Station has a clear explanation for how to prepare these compresses, as well as their use. As they point out, make sure to thoroughly clean your breast after use and before nursing your baby.
6. A hot shower
My favorite way to clear plugs was to take a long, hot shower (which, as an added bonus, is a total treat for a mom), and direct the shower nozzle right on my plug. At the same time, I would massage the plug and try to express milk by hand from my breast. Then, once everything was flowing nicely, I would come out of the shower and nurse my baby. Plug cleared!
7. Change your bra
Underwire bras are a big no-no for women who are prone to plugs. Sometimes just changing into a less tightly fitting bra can make all the difference and clear things up. Some women even find that wearing tight tank tops can impede their milk flow, so consider switching those out as well.
Of course, you shouldn’t rely solely on these at-home methods to cure your plugs. Persistent plugs should always be discussed with your medical provider or lactation consultant, especially since plugs that don’t clear can turn into infections like mastitis, or something more serious (and exceptionally painful) called an abscess which often needs to be surgically drained.
Still, when it’s 2 a.m. and there are no medical professionals available for help, it’s good to have a go-to list of things to try. Trust me, it gets to a point where you won’t even bat an eyelash when you find yourself nursing while hanging upside down over your baby, simultaneously giving your boob a massage with your electric toothbrush.
Oh, the things we do for our kids!