As a companion to my articles on "Breastfeeding with Nipple Shields" and "Weaning from Nipple Shields" (linked in the related links at the end of this article), I wanted to share my own personal experience with this nursing aid. There is often so much stress and insecurity associated with nipple shields, seeing as how if you are using them, you are doing so to overcome some roadblock.
In my case, I was sent to a local lactation consultant at 5 days, because despite my best effort my daughter was not gaining weight, nor really beginning to have sufficient urine or bowel output. I hadnt really even realized we had a problem I was sore, but I thought the baby was nursing. We'd had a *lot* of trouble and lousy support at the hospital, but I thought I'd basically figured it out.
The LC told me that that first visit that I had flat nipples, and that was likely why the baby was having trouble latching properly and removing adequate milk. They had told me I had flat nipples at the hospital, but they just gave me some bra inserts (breast shells, not to be confused with nipple shields) saying they would help pull the nipples out. They didn't.
I saw the LC several times over the next week or two as we built up my milk which never quite came in due to the poor nursing, and fed pumped milk by bottle to get the baby out of danger. The shield was around, and we did get some nursing with it in the LC's office, but it was inconsistent and I never quite managed to make it work most of the time at home. At a subsequent visit, she offered me a smaller size, but that didn't seem to help either. I tried them now and then, but it never really "took."
Then one day at about 2-3 weeks old, she latched right on there on the bigger shield and went to town! After that, she nursed consistently well on that shield for a few weeks. I was SO relieved. Given that I already had supply issues though, the shield did have a depressive effect on my milk supply, so even though the baby was no longer needing expressed milk after feedings, I still needed to pump to fully empty the breasts and maintain supply. I took a break from this while on vacation to visit family with the baby for 2 weeks, and severely crashed my milk supply, which then had to be rebuilt again, and stalled the baby's weight gain again. This is why it can be extremely important to be under professional supervision when using a shield (see my Breastfeeding with Nipple Shields article for more information on this).
Be the time she hit 3 months old, we seemed to have things down. The baby was getting stronger and emptying the breast even through the shields. I got better at assessing this, and when she didn't, I pumped. It was such a relief to have things basically working and the baby gaining. I enjoyed this for about a month, and then wondered what now?
In the breastfeeding support group at my LC's office, she told me that I could either go on like that for good, or simply try to wean the baby from the shields (see my article on Weaning from Nipple Shields for more information). Finally, when 4 months old, I put her to breast and she was finally big enough and experienced enough to overcome the flat nipples and latch and nurse properly! Celebration!!! A couple weeks later when I was sure I had a nice, cathartic shredding of the shield into the garbage can
I share my story to illustrate mainly that a nipple shield can be a lifesaver in the breastfeeding process. However, its use can come with complications and can be emotionally and physically draining. But most importantly it can work. For me, it was the start of 18 months of beautiful nursing (and thanks to those 18 months, more pulled out nipples for baby #2, nursing 19 months and counting!). Those weeks at the start seemed interminable when they were happening, but later were so very worth the effort, dedication and, yes, pain involved. After a few months of successful, easy, active nursing you can barely remember the trauma, as difficult as it may seem to believe (kind of like the feeling a few weeks after being done with braces!).
I would not use a nipple shield as a first resort, but with the supervision of a breastfeeding consultant, if available, I would certainly go this route before giving up. If you know you have flat or inverted nipples, personally, I'd go out to the store pre-birth and have one handy, and arrange to have breastfeeding support. Your baby may latch right on but if not, early intervention is the key to success.
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