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Do I need a nipple shield?

Breastfeeding is often a “labor-of-love”. It can feel complicated, particularly when things are not going exactly as planned. There are so many tools and gadgets on the market for new parents that it can be difficult to be certain if we are making the right choices for ourselves and for our little ones.

In this article, we will focus on one of these commonly used and often misunderstood tools: Nipple shields.

Hmmmm... Do I need a nipple shield?

What is a Nipple Shield?

Nipple shields used to be something given only under the guidance of a Lactation Consultant but as with many products, social media and marketing have made them a go-to item for nursing parents.

A nipple shield is a silicone device worn over the nipple and areola while a baby feeds. It is typically flexible with small holes at the tip to allow milk to flow from the breast into the baby.

Nipple shields come in different shapes and sizes. Some are shaped like a cone being narrower toward the nipple and wider at the base of the nipple. Others are more bulbous, these cherry-shaped shields fill the baby’s mouth making contact with the palate. And some are tiered, similar to a wedding cake.

The base of the shield can be a full symmetrical diameter, or it can have a cutout. The shields with the cut-out are called contact nipple shields. This is because the baby’s nose makes contact with the skin of the breast as opposed to the shield. Nipple shields come in different sizes ranging from 16mm to 28mm.

They all serve the same general purpose – getting a baby to feed at the breast, but the way they function can vary.

What are the benefits of nipple shields?

The basic function of the nipple shield is to facilitate the baby’s suck/swallow mechanism. And it does this by providing more stimulation compared to feeding from the bare breast. You can immediately start to see how this might be helpful in so many scenarios

For example, a nipple shield can be a great tool to help premature babies get more milk as they have to use less negative pressure. Premature babies have less energy and with the nipple shield, the baby needs less energy and coordination when feeding.

Nipple shields are also very helpful if the baby’s mouth is very small – they help the baby get their mouth onto the breast and helps them hold onto the breast as well.

On the other hand if a parent has a forceful letdown (the letdown is the initial flow of milk when breastfeeding), a nipple shield can help tame the flow and allow the baby to suck without becoming overwhelmed and overfed.

Nipple shields are also a great tool for helping transition a baby who has been solely bottle fed onto the breast. A nipple shield can also help with sore nipples from a painful latch – although, you should know that it does not fix the root cause of the sore nipple. If you’re looking to resolve a painful latch, here are 13 tips for getting a perfect latch

Nipple shields can provide some relief for sore nipples

Breastfeeding is no fun at all, when your nipples are sore! In these cases, Nipple shields can be extremely useful. First, they provide a barrier to prevent friction from a poor latch which would otherwise cause pain and damage to the nipple. The nipple shield may also assist in opening the baby’s mouth wider so that the nipple is not being compressed and causing mama pain.

Remember, the nipple shield is not a remedy for a sore nipple by itself. Still, nipple pain is one of the top reasons why moms give up on breastfeeding. So in another post, we discuss options for fast relief for sore nipples while breastfeeding

You want to focus on both you and baby having a satisfying experience. So. While the nipple shield will likely help protect you while you recover from sore nipples, it is important to always check on the milk transfer for the baby as well while using the nipple shield.

Nipple shields help in breastfeeding with Flat Or Inverted Nipples

Breastfeeding may be challenging in the early days when your breasts may be swollen with i.v. fluids. The swelling flattens your nipples, and makes it difficult for your baby to wrap their mouth around the nipple and the taut tissue of your areola.

You might then get a poor latch. If that happens, the baby does not get the milk flow he needs and the poor latch can lead to sore nipples. A nipple shield can be a great tool for preventing this by making your nipple longer

In the same way, a nipple shield can help when you have an inverted nipple. An inverted nipple An inverted nipple can be challenging to pull out and using a nipple shield allows for the baby to have something to latch onto and stimulate the nipple to evert.

Are there disadvantages to using nipple shields

Nipple shields are meant to be used as transitional tools. So, many people may use them once or twice to coax a baby to the breast, although others do choose to use them long-term.

The first issue with nipple shields is that they are easy to misplace. Nipple shields are small, flexible and clear – in some cases, you could be staring right at one and not notice!

If you and your baby are dependent on nipple shields you always have to have one handy for feedings. So it is important to have a small stockpile of extra nipple shields. One trick to avoid losing them is to use a permanent marker and draw an ‘X’ or other symbol on the outer section of the nipple shield so it stands out and is easier to find.

Another reason you might think carefully about using a nipple shield is that it is very literally a barrier between you and your baby. One of the advantages of breastfeeding is the exchange of saliva from a baby’s mouth to the breast. This sends a communication to the body to make antibodies to specific bacteria present in the baby and the general atmosphere of the environment.

When using a nipple shield there is some saliva exchange but it is minimal compared to direct breastfeeding. In general, the more skin to skin contact the better for you and for baby.

Although the nipple shield is there to help, you also want to make sure it is not stopping the breastmilk from flowing to the baby. It may appear that baby is getting enough if the milk is pooling inside the shield, but the baby may be just be pacifying on the nipple shield while the milk supply drips into the shield. This is why getting a proper fit is so important. Here’s a quick guide showing how to put on a nipple shield

How to put on a nipple shield – Breastfeeding Confidential

You may also wish to follow up with a lactation consultant. Remember, the most important thing is for baby to get the milk supply he needs.

How Long Can You Use a Nipple Shield?

It really depends on you and the baby. The average duration of nipple shield use is about three weeks. But that is just an average. Some people use them for a day or so, while others choose to use them for the duration of their breastfeeding relationship.

Once again, there is no strict right or wrong duration. The important thing is to make sure you get your breast milk flow to the baby. If using a nipple shield helps, go for it. And don’t be shy about speaking to a lactation consultant if you need more specific advise. 

Nipple shield pros and cons. Speak to a lactation consultant if you think you need a nipple shield

How Can I Wean Off the Nipple Shield?

Once breastfeeding with the shield is going well you can start the weaning process. Here are a few different strategies to wean off the shield:

  • You could offer the bare breast when the baby is sleepy
  • Offer the bare breast after the baby has finished one side and you offer the other breast
  • Try distracting the baby with movement. This can be achieved by nursing while wearing the baby or by swaying, walking, bouncing on a yoga ball, or rocking in a chair.

Weaning may be swift, or it may be a long process. There is often some push and pull. The baby may nurse on the bare breast some of the time but need to rely on the shield at other times as the weaning process occurs. This is fine!

Not everyone will need a nipple shield. But when the circumstances are right, nipple shields can be great tools to help achieve your breastfeeding goals. Just be sure to focus on using them the right way to make sure your baby gets the breast milk he needs.

So, if you’re experiencing any of the issues we mentioned and think a nipple shield could help, speak to your lactation consultant. They can help you determine whether or not a nipple shield is right for you and guide you through the process of using one safely and effectively. If used correctly, nipple shields can provide relief from common breastfeeding problems and help mothers continue to breastfeed successfully.