Having one clogged duct is painful and annoying. But if your ducts keep clogging, it becomes insanely frustrating. For breastfeeding moms who want to keep nursing but keep facing this obstacle, it can be one of the most upsetting parts of the breastfeeding journey or even the whole postpartum experience. (Way worse than dirty diapers.)
There are several ways to treat recurrent plugged milk ducts. Other dietary supplements like thyme, B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, probiotics, and evening primrose oil can help, but one of the best treatments is lecithin, which can be derived from sunflowers.
Is sunflower lecithin safe for breastfeeding?
Yes! There are no contraindications, or medical reasons not to take lecithin while breastfeeding. Lecithin supplements are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (the FDA). According to LactMed, it's usually gentle on the body, without other side effects. It won't affect your milk supply. It can even be used to treat high cholesterol. One of its ingredients is phosphatidylcholine, which may improve your memory--researchers are testing whether it could be used for Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.
Still, you should run it past your doctor and pediatrician first.
There's just one warning. Women who grow depressed easily may experience depression while taking a high dose of lecithin. If this describes you, definitely talk to your doctor first. If you do use lecithin, monitor your symptoms and alert your doctor if you feel persistently sad or numb.
What is lecithin and how does it work?
Lecithin is a phospholipid naturally found in plenty of foods, like soybeans, egg yolks, whole grains, peanuts, liver, and—best of all—sunflower oil. It’s even found in milk, including breastmilk. So you’re not introducing something new, you’re just giving your milk a boost.
(It doesn't improve your milk production, but it does improve your milk!)
Soy lecithin is also an effective treatment (unless you're allergic).
It’s also a common food additive, often seen in dressings, baked goods, and chocolate. It’s used as an emulsifier, which helps keep fats evenly distributed.
That’s also why it’s helpful in your breastmilk. Your milk already has some lecithin, but adding more keeps the fats even better distributed throughout the milk.
A lecithin molecule has a hydrophobic end that hates water but gloms onto fats, and a hydrophilic end that loves water and holds on tight. So the lecithin grabs the nice rich fats--that could otherwise create a blockage--and keeps them connected to the rest of the milk.
That way, after milk letdown, the fats in the milk flow out as your baby nurses instead of getting caught in clumps in your ducts.
Another theory is that it increases the stickiness of your milk by increasing the fatty acids, Dr. Jack Newman explains.
When should you use lecithin?
Use organic sunflower lecithin if you keep getting plugged milk ducts—but try these blocked duct treatments from kellymom first. They’re mostly focused on adjusting your positioning and the baby’s latch. If those don’t work, LLLI recommends supplementing with lecithin, along with eating fewer saturated fats and reducing your salt intake.
How to take sunflower lecithin
The recommended dosage is 3600-4800 milligrams. A softgel capsule is usually 1200 mg, so take 3 or 4 a day, spaced out throughout the day.
If two weeks pass and you haven’t had a new blocked duct, then you can drop one pill. Wait another two weeks and, if the coast is clear, drop another pill. Rinse & repeat for the last two—but if your ducts start clogging again, go back up and stick with one or two pills a day (even after the clogs are gone). This way, it provides long-term prevention.
When you need more than sunflower lecithin
If your plugged duct is getting infected, then you need more than lecithin. You may have mastitis, and you need a doctor and antibiotics.
Signs and side effects of an infected plugged duct:
- The lump is warm and red
- You have a fever
- You have chills
- You have body aches
- The lymph nodes in your armpit are swollen and painful
- You have a fast heart rate
Call your healthcare provider right away if you notice any of these signs. If you don’t act, the infection could turn into an abscess on the affected breast, which is excruciatingly painful and has to be lanced at your doctor’s office.
Other dietary supplements and treatments that help with clogged ducts
Lecithin supplements are incredibly helpful, but they aren't the only possible treatments. Try these ideas:
- Other lactation supplements
- An Epsom salt bath
- Rub olive oil on your boob
- Put a few drops of grapefruit seed extract (GSE) in the olive oil
- A hot water compress on the duct
- Gently scrape the clog with a very clean fingernail
- Manually express milk or use a breast pump
- Massage your breasts
- Consult an IBCLC lactation consultant
- Talk to your doctor; if the plugs keep turning into mastitis, she may prescribe long-term, low-dose antibiotics
Your ducts won’t be clogged forever
You don't have to turn to weaning because of persistent pain and annoyance. Sunflower lecithin is a huge help if you keep dealing with painful clogged ducts. You can reduce the clogs or even get rid of them permanently. This leaves you free to breastfeed painlessly and enjoy the experience!