The Nipple Shield Protected My Breastfeeding Relationship

A question was posed recently on The Other Baby Book’s Facebook page by a mama seeking support in weaning her nursling from a nipple shield. The question and its ensuing responses thrust me back to my own nipple shield-wielding past, a time when I was similarly exasperated and longing to ditch that silicone nip for good.  My recollection of my early breastfeeding difficulties has slipped into a soft and distant focus–a luxury, I suppose, of someone who is still nursing strong and nearly effortlessly after nearly sixteen months.

In the beginning, breastfeeding kicked my ass. It kicked my nipples’ ass. It kicked my self-esteem’s ass. But, eventually, breastfeeding evolved from a serious ass-kicking to a seriously kick-ass experience. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the nipple shield’s past role in my current kick-ass breastfeeding relationship.

During my pregnancy I’d read abundant books and blogs dedicated to breastfeeding education and support. I attended a breastfeeding class. I regularly attended a local natural childbirth circle where a La Leche League leader was often present and where breastfeeding was celebrated. I had friends and coworkers who were lactation consultants, who were routinely sharing their enthusiasm and insight with me. I was pumped (no pun intended) about breastfeeding. I thought I was prepared. I thought I had breastfeeding in the bag.

I had a medication-free birthing, and my son, Arlo, was immediately placed on my chest and spent the first hour or so of his life there at my breast. He never left my room during our stay in the hospital. Lactation consultants worked with us regularly. I felt certain that everything that could be done to get our breastfeeding adventure off on the proper footing had been done.

Except I couldn’t get good latch from my baby. And together Arlo and I were a hot freakin’ mess, y’all.

I could share specific, sad memories with you. Like, say, our first night home from the hospital when my husband ran out to pick up some take-out for dinner, only to return to find me and Arlo in the nursery, both soaked in my tears and snot, both crying the exaggerated cries of the helpless and hungry. Or, you know, those nights when I would start crying as soon as Arlo began smacking his lips, because my nips were to’ up from the flo’ up. He would try to latch, and it was searingly painful. It was a toe-curling, cut-a-bitch kind of pain. Breastfeeding was not fun for either of us. I was so, so ready to throw in the burp cloth.

During this time I continued to follow up with the hospital’s lactation department as an outpatient, and I was given a nipple shield and shown how to use it. It opened up a whole new world for us. Feedings became more relaxed, and I began to feel more empowered. I was able to be in the moment with my baby as he nursed, instead of holding my breath, gritting my teeth and hoping for a mercifully quick nursing sesh. Those moments–the ones where my nursing son and I were lost in our cozy breastfeeding bubble, where we stared at each other like we were the only two people who existed, where I listened with pride to the glorious “kuh” sounds of his swallowing milk–they were boozy, and they hooked me hardcore on breastfeeding.

It took us just over 4 weeks to totally wean from the shield. It was an exercise of persistence and vigilance, and it wasn’t easy. I found it  difficult to find supportive words on the internet during the time I was trying to wean Arlo away from the shield. Everything I read discussed how bad nipple shields were, how they jacked with your milk supply, or how they promoted nipple confusion. The worst? When people would say that nipple shields were the devices of the weak, employed by those who can’t hack it. It was so thoroughly dispiriting, and felt a lot like getting kicked when I was down.

If I wasn’t deep-heartedly committed to hacking it, I would have never resorted to the shield. The nipple shield served its purpose for me and Arlo: it protected our breastfeeding relationship. It was a bridge to this gorgeously tender place that we now share more than a year later.

Rhianna typed this post from her bed, which she shares  with her hubby of 11 years and her toddler of almost 16 months. She once dozed off while nursing her son on an airplane and was thoroughly embarrassed when she awoke moments later to discover that her son had slipped from her boob, and it was just hanging in the breeze for everyone in row H to see.

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12 thoughts on “The Nipple Shield Protected My Breastfeeding Relationship”

  1. Wow! Lady, you are a breast-feeding warrior! Your story really appealed to me because I think many of us proactive mamas-to-be think we have nursing in the bag. In reality, it’s this total carnival ride of an experience in which we often do not have control of the outcome. But you made it work, and not only got past using the nipple shield, but have an awesome nursing relationship still today! And I have to say that I totally laughed like a crazy person when I read your bio at the bottom. 🙂

    1. Yep, I used to be the kind of person who thought she could learn everything she needed to know out of a book. And parenting compleeeetely cured me of that! Hah!

  2. Thanks, Dawn! I hope it inspires others to stick with it, too. It can really suck (har, har) at first, but it can also get way, way better. 🙂

  3. Thinking back to how I used to think about parenting and how I feel now, I could seriously kick my over selfrighteous ass off those high horses I was on. And the choice of verbs is quite explanatory : before, you just think, after you feel, and herein lies the difference.
    The best lesson I learned from this entire parenthood experience so far is that it does not matter what theories are out there, and what others think you should or shouldn’t do. You do whatever you have to do to make it work for you and your child and that makes it best for you. Regardless of how many horns others see on the devil that you are worshipping at the time.They are not you, and should they have any complaints, they can shove them where ever they think best. 🙂
    And yes, breastfeeding in the beginning it is hard, but the rewards after some time are so sweet. Enjoy your nursing toddler.

    1. Hey, Mina! I love this: “before, you just think; after, you feel.” Totally invaluable, that trusting of your feelings and mama instincts.

  4. I had a very similar experience! Not breastfeeding was never even a consideration for me. But, from the moment he was born, baby M decided that his prefered method of milk release was to use his tongue to mash my nipple up against his gums. Apparently it worked for him…but it didn’t work for me. After 2 difficult days in the hospital, the hospital LC gave me a nipple shield and I actually felt guilty using it. I used it as little as possible for the first week hope and had many instances of crying while feeding as a result. (My husband thought I looked insane, because I kept faking a smile as I cried because I didn’t want my son to think anything was wrong.

    After that first week, I bit the bullet and decided that BFing was more important than whether or not I used the shield. I started using it every time I fed and we fell into a routine. Yes it was awkward to have to put it on when feeding in public, but it helped reduce the pain and gave me time to heal. It also let baby M and I figure out what we were doing. We used the shield for about two months, before I started to wean my son off of it and, by the time he was three months old, the nipple shield days were a distant memory and we were a well-oiled nursing machine.

    Baby M is now almost 9 months old and we are going strong. He is still on breast milk full time (pumped milk during the day and tasting finger foods for fun) and neither of us has any desire to stop.

    I took the BFing classes, the natural parenting classes, etc. etc. and knew that establishing a good BFing routine might take some work. However, no one warned me that it could take 3 months! Now, I am sure to tell all of my pregnant friends to be patient and get ready for the long haul. As long as the baby is gaining weight, there is plenty of time to reach that BFing panacea that we all imaging. With patience and confidence, it will come with time.

  5. Such great insight, Summer! And such an accomplishment, really, kicking the nipple shield. It is haaaaard work! Well-oiled machine–so true of our experience now as well. Now, all these many months later, nursing feels like the easiest, most seamless thing I do as a mother. When we were struggling so intensely in the beginning, I remember thinking, “GAH! It was sooooo pointless for me to have read all those books, gone to the classes, and listened to every little BFing anecdote tossed my way!” But now, with the luxury of hindsight, I think those experiences gave me just enough power?motivation?determination? to push through all those teary times.

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