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When it comes to nursing, there are some things that no one tells you.
The truth is, some stories of breastfeeding conveniently leave out the cold, hard truths. You know — clogged milk ducts, a baby that won’t latch, and cracked, numb nipples that show no signs of healing.
If you’ve dealt with any (or all) of these situations — particularly nipple pain — you might be ready to throw in the breastfeeding towel. But while the struggles are real, don’t give up just yet. Nipple shields might be the glue that keeps you and your baby attached, at least during those difficult early weeks.
With a few simple clicks of the mouse these days, you have access to countless products that carry claims of making caring for an infant easier. (You may even hear your own parents wonder aloud: Where was that product when we had a newborn at home?! We’re looking at you, Velcro swaddles.)
That being said, nipple shields have been around for hundreds of years in one form or another. Before you think metal chastity-belt style body armor, a modern nipple shield is typically a thin piece of silicone that goes over your nipple while breastfeeding. (See the vast selection online here.)
If you have pain while nursing, these shields can provide a much-needed barrier between your nipple and your baby’s mouth. And for a lot of mothers, this is key to long-haul breastfeeding. The shields are designed to mimic the shape of a natural nipple, making the experience easier.
Breastfeeding is often harder than many people make it out to be. Some babies can’t latch on easily, some mamas have sensitive nipples, and certain situations like flat nipples can make breastfeeding more difficult. For those in the trenches of these challenges, nipple shields may help.
Of course, wearing a nipple shield isn’t required to breastfeed. Some mamas and infants do just fine without them. But if you’re having a difficult time nursing, a nipple shield may ease some frustration, guilt, and anxiety.
If you have a preemie or baby with a tongue tie, you may be especially prone to struggles with latching. Using a nipple shield can make it easier for your baby to latch on. Think of a nipple shield as “breastfeeding training” for your baby. Once they’ve mastered the art of latching on and breastfeeding, you should be able to nurse without the shield.
Nipple shields also come in handy when your nipples are cracked, bleeding, or sore — yet you’re not ready to introduce your baby to a bottle. Since nipple shields provide a barrier between your breasts and their mouth, they take some of the pressure off of your nipples while nursing.
Nipple shields are also helpful if you have a flat nipples and your baby struggles to get milk. It’s typically easier for a baby to nurse when nipples are erect.
Of course, in life, for every good thing, there are often a few downsides. In the case of nipple shields, there’s always a chance that your baby will become attached — no pun intended — to the shield. This can happen if you start off breastfeeding with a shield and your baby gets used to the feel and texture.
Especially if you switch from a nipple shield to your bare breast later on, your baby might have difficulty or even refuse the breast all together. This can be heartbreaking, but remember that it’s not a reflection on you.
Also keep in mind that while some babies can breastfeed with no problem using a nipple shield, others have difficulty sucking or getting milk through it. And as a result, they might have to breastfeed more often or use a bottle as a supplement to satisfy hunger. (Again, this is not failure on your part — feeding your baby, whatever that looks like, is the goal.)
A baby’s inability to get milk could cause a gradual decline in your milk supply, meaning you might need to supplement with formula before you’re ready.
Using a nipple shield can also make breastfeeding in public more difficult for some people. You’ll need to put the nipple shield in place before your baby can latch on.
Like boobs themselves, nipple shields are not one size fits all. They’re available in different fits, and it’s important to choose a size that’s right for your nipples. This can reduce pain, friction, and ensure the best flow of milk.
Choosing the right shield is tricky because you’ll need to get one based on the size of your nipple and the size of your baby. To help you find the right one for you, consult a certified lactation counselor or your pediatrician for advice.
If it in for the long haul, you’ll need a variety of sizes as your child becomes older. So while newborns usually do well with a small nipple shield, you’ll likely need to increase to a medium or large size as they become older.
Q: Are there any long-term concerns with using a nipple shield for the entire time you’re breastfeeding?
A: Nipple shields are breastfeeding aids to help overcome certain early challenges during breastfeeding, such as flat or inverted nipples or difficulties with latch. Nipple shields are typically meant for temporary use. Once breastfeeding is successful, the nipple shield should gradually be discontinued.
Limited research suggests that those using nipple shields have reduced supply compared to non-users. But other studies seem to indicate there’s no difference between users and non-users.
Persistent difficulties with latch may suggest tongue-tie or other issues that require further care. Speak with your pediatrician and a lactation consultant to develop an individualized strategy that is best for you and your baby.
— Carolyn Kay, MD
Using a nipple shield is pretty simple, and the key is getting the shield into position before latching on your baby.
You don’t want to just attach a dry shield to your breast. The shield adheres to the breast better when it’s wet. So run it under warm water before using. Next, place the shield on your breast, making sure that your nipple and areola fit inside the raised portion of the shield.
While holding the shield in place, bring your baby’s mouth toward your breast so that they’re able to latch on.
Even if you prefer using a nipple shield at first, these aren’t designed to be a permanent solution. They’re really designed as a temporary fix for painful nipples or latching problems. Once your baby gets the hang of latching on — or your nipples heal — try feeding without the shield.
When using a nipple shield, it can be hard to gauge the amount of milk your baby receives. Some babies become fussy while using a shield, which could indicate that they’re not getting enough milk.
So while nipple shields have their benefits, they can also decrease milk transfer. Weigh your baby regularly while using a shield to make sure they’re not losing weight.
Also watch for any decreases in wet and dirty diapers. A decrease in either area could indicate that they’re not getting enough milk. You might have to alternate with bottle feedings.
Don’t neglect regular cleanings just because your baby is the only one using the nipple shield. Much like bottles, it’s important to clean the shield after each use with hot, soapy water.
In a perfect world, a baby wouldn’t get attached to a nipple shield, and they’d latch onto the bare breast after a few days. But this doesn’t always happen. So you may have to wean your baby off the shield more intentionally.
It’s easier for your little one to transfer back to a bare breast if they’re not consistently using a shield. So if you’re using the nipple shield, only do so a few days at a time, and try not to use it for every feeding.
Also, before using a nipple shield, see if your baby will latch without it. You can also outsmart your baby with a “bait and switch” trick. Start off their feedings using the nipple shield, and at some point during the feeding, quickly remove it.
Breastfeeding can be tricky — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Whether you’re dealing with sore nipples, latching problems, or flat nipples, a nipple shield can remove some of the stress and make nursing easier. But these aren’t meant to be a permanent solution.
If your baby is unable to nurse without a shield, have a conversation with your doctor or a lactation counselor for advice on how to make breastfeeding easier.