Welcome to the Carnival of Breastfeeding!
April 21, 2008
My husband and I live in Germany, and it is common practice here for a midwife to deliver the baby – even in hospitals – and to pay house visits for the first few weeks postpartum. As per my midwife’s instructions, my husband had made sure to buy a head of cabbage before our daughter was born. He washed the leaves and stacked them in our freezer. This, Frederike assured us, would come in handy when engorgement inevitably followed my milk coming in, and although the thought of icing my breasts with cabbage leaves seemed pretty strange to me, we decided to follow her advice. But I never experienced engorgement, and eventually, we thawed the cabbage and used it in a casserole. My baby and I were nursing champs, or so I thought.
The German word for a plugged duct is “Milchstau,” and it literally means “backed-up milk.” I think it really captures the way plugged ducts feel. You can’t really feel the plugged duct; what you feel is the immense and ever-growing pressure behind the blockage as your milk collects and your breast swells. When our daughter was about eight or nine weeks old, I woke up on a rainy Friday morning and noticed that my left breast felt really heavy. I figured it was just fuller than the other one, and so we nursed on that side. But afterwards, it felt worse instead of better, which didn’t make any sense to me. By midday I was sure that something was wrong, and I spent every spare minute searching the Internet for answers.After reading this description on kellymom, I was certain that I had plugged ducts. I followed the suggestions listed on the site and used heat before nursing, nursed frequently on the left side, and cooled the area after nursing. None of it helped. By the time my husband came home from work that day, I was a wreck. I was in tremendous pain, but worse still, I was completely frustrated by my inability to solve the problem. We were the breastfeeding pros! What had happened? Why had I thrown away that cabbage?! That evening, as Marie slept on my lap, I searched the Internet high and low for other solutions. The information on plugged ducts was more or less the same everywhere, so I started searching parenting forums for threads on the subject. The forums at babycenter finally offered some new insights. In a thread on plugged ducts (which is no longer on the site now that they’ve changed their design), various mothers kept mentioning the “white dot,” something that was like a pimple and could be popped. I looked at my breast but couldn’t see any white dot, so I scrolled through the entire thread, searching hundreds of posts for a more detailed description of the famous dot.
The “white dot,” it turned out, was a bleb – a blocked nipple pore. By pressing on the painful part of the breast, the bleb would bulge out, making it more easily seen on the nipple. I tried it, and suddenly I saw what looked like a tiny whitehead on my nipple. After having found their white dots, many of the women on the forum had simply popped them like a pimple. So, after washing my hands thoroughly, I gave it a whirl. I squeezed out a white plug of milk, no bigger than a grain of sand, and as soon as I pressed on the painful part of my breast, a thin line of milk shot out in an arc. Relief!Despite my success, however, I faced further discouragement. I started getting plugged ducts frequently – at least once a week – and there wasn’t always a bleb. In these cases, it often took more than 48 hours to resolve the clog, and those two days were always miserable. Also, I quickly learned that “popping” the blebs wasn’t such a great idea, as it took a while for the skin to heal. Still, when there was a bleb, it was much easier to clear the blockage, and the tips at the kellymom and Medela websites were very helpful. In particular, using a sterilized needle to “lift” the bleb off as described on kellymom worked really well, and the skin hardly needed any time to heal afterwards.
At some point, it seemed ridiculous how frequently I was getting plugged ducts and blebs, and I started to look for information on recurrent clogs. Several sources, including kellymom, advised taking a Lecithin supplement. I looked into it, but the cost seemed prohibitive, at least in Germany, where supplements are often sold only by pharmacies and thus include quite a mark-up. I also called my midwife for advice. She asked me if I had been under a lot of stress lately. I didn’t think I had been. The only trend I had noticed was that it always seemed to be raining when I had them. I joked that my left boob always knew when rain was coming. Based on what I told her over the phone, Frederike said she thought I was treating them correctly, and as long as they were resolving within about 48 hours and I wasn’t running a fever, they weren’t anything to worry about, no matter how annoying they were. She suggested I try positioning Marie so that her chin was pointing toward the painful area and that I keep my chin up and try not to get too discouraged.I was discouraged, though, and I couldn’t imagine doing this over and over again for months on end. I tried Frederike’s suggestion of having Marie’s chin pointed toward the clog, and since this meant somehow getting her chin to point up toward my shoulder, I needed to get creative. With a nursing pillow and my husband’s help, I managed to practice what I call “contortionist nursing,” and it did seem like it took fewer nursing sessions for the clogs to clear up this way. And I realized that there was a common factor besides the rain: almost every time I had a plugged duct, it was the weekend.
When I first noticed this, I considered myself lucky. With my husband home, I had more time to take a bath, apply heat to my breast and try to open up blebs. And he was there to help with our contortionist nursing. But it was a little strange that I almost always woke up on Friday morning with plugged ducts. It reminded me of times when I only got migraines at the end of the week, just in time for the weekend. It also reminded me of getting the flu on the second day of winter break during college – and then again right at the beginning of summer vacation. Maybe I was experiencing the same phenomenon. Maybe I really was under stress but wasn’t allowing myself to feel it. Instead, I was concentrating so hard on making it through the week that I didn’t realize I was saving up all my stress and frustration for the weekend, when my husband was home. I talked to my husband about my new theory, and it seemed plausible to him.
Shortly before I had my first plugged duct, my husband had started a very demanding project. He had to work very late, and even if he did get home early enough for us to eat dinner together, he often spent the evening working on his laptop. He couldn’t do anything about his working hours until the project was over, but after I shared my theory about stress and the plugged ducts with him, he started to make some small changes. We began eating breakfast together every morning before he left. Rather than continue working after he got home, he made an effort to spend more time with our daughter and me. And he made sure that there was always some cash in a drawer so that when he couldn’t make it in time for dinner, I could order takeout food and save myself the trouble of cooking after a long day. I didn’t magically stop getting plugged ducts, but they became less frequent, and that gave me hope.
When my husband’s big project was done, he went back to working normal hours and could be with us much more. The plugged ducts became a rare occurrence, once a month, perhaps. Now our daughter is ten months old, my husband is on paternity leave, and I’m working from home. The flexibility we have in structuring our day has made my daily life far more manageable, and I haven’t had a bleb or plugged duct in over two months. I am a little worried about what will happen when he goes back to work in a month and a half, when Marie will be a year old, but I’m pretty sure that if we do our best to keep in mind what we learned a few months ago, it’ll be OK. Making time for each other made all the difference.
The Carnival of Breastfeeding: “Thrush and mastitis and blebs, oh my!”• Mama’s Magic • Half Pint Pixie • Mom on the Go • Nurturing Notes • Breastfeeding Mums • The Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog • Blessed Nest Perch • Hobo Mama • Breastfeeding 1-2-3