In the days following the birth of my first child, I knew to expect the unexpected, but hearing that I had “short nipples” really took me by surprise. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But apparently it is, and it was making it difficult for my baby to latch.
The lactation consultant in the hospital who pointed out this apparently critical flaw in my anatomy, told me that I might need to consider using a nipple shield. I wasn’t totally sure what that was, but I said I was happy to try it if she had one. She said she couldn’t give me one at that point, that I should keep working on the latch at home and then come back to get one in a few days if it wasn’t working.
“Once you start with a shield,” she told me, “it can be hard to stop.”
That terrified me on both fronts. I was supposed to go home and watch my child struggle and starve? And at the end of that ordeal I would be forced to get my child hooked on this mysterious apparatus?
Once I got home, I diligently worked on helping my baby latch. We did the hamburger grip, the football position — you name it, we tried it. I thought we were starting to get the hang of it. But after a particularly difficult night, full of attempted feeds without any burps to signal effective milk transfer, I broke down crying. I was exhausted, frustrated, and felt like a failure. Who knew my short nipples would throw a wrench in my plan of maternal self-sufficiency? The next day I called a lactation consultant who came to my home.
She came bearing a super sensitive scale, a plush toy shaped like a breast, and a variety of different sized nipple shields. I showed her how we were attempting to feed, and she confirmed with her scale that my baby was not taking in any measurable amount of fluid. She fitted me for a shield and explained how it worked. Suckling is a reflex induced by pressure on the roof of the baby’s mouth, and because my nipples were not long enough to stimulate her soft palate, she was not able to nurse effectively.
When my mother came over later, I told her about the shield. “Is that to make it hurt less?” she asked. I felt a pang of guilt. Her words and the implication behind them made it sound as though I was not willing to bear the discomfort for the sake of my baby. But when I explained it more to her, she eventually came around and even wondered if perhaps short nipples had been the cause of her nursing difficulties with me.
I had asked the LC how long we would need to use the shield. She told me some women only need it for a few weeks and others use it throughout. I was personally determined to get rid of it as soon as I could and tried to teach myself and my baby to do without. Sometimes it worked, and I felt a surge of maternal superiority, and sometimes it didn’t, and it ended with a frustrated baby and me, fumbling to affix the shield before we reached a total meltdown.
After several weeks of trying to drop the shield, I finally came to a compromise with myself. We would use it when we needed to and stop feeling guilty about needing the help. Now, I find we usually do one feed a day without it, when we’re both calm and have the patience, but we keep it on hand just in case. At this point, I am no longer focused on trying to phase it out, and have accepted that my baby and I need a little help to breastfeed.
The more moms I meet, the more I realize how our story is a common one. The nipple shield has been an integral ingredient in helping so many moms out there breastfeed their babies with ease. It makes me wonder why I had never really heard about it prior to my own struggle. I wish that in the literature and courses on breastfeeding, and even in casual conversation, we acknowledged how helpful a tool it can be. That way, we can all stop judging ourselves and come to love our nipples — with or without shields — not matter how short they might be.