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What exactly are nipple shields? Who should use them and when is it best to stay away from these devices that are meant to help facilitate breastfeeding?

What are nipple shields?

Nipple shields are flexible silicone (usually) teats that are placed over the nipple, with the purpose of facilitating easy breastfeeding. When a nipple shield is used, the baby sucks on the nipple shield rather than directly at the nipple. There are small holes in the nipple shield that allow breast milk to flow through. Doctors, midwives, nurses and lactation consultants may suggest the use of a nipple shield when a mother-baby pair encounters breastfeeding complications.

Common reasons to use a nipple shield are inverted nipples or sore breasts in the mother, and poor latch in the baby. Premature babies, who are not able to suck as strongly, may also be able to breastfeed more easily if nipple shields are used. Nipple shields have been around for a long time at least since the 17th century. Even medical professionals who are of the opinion that nipple shields are overused for breastfeeding problems today will agree that it is great that these devices are not made of lead any longer! Pewter and silver were popular materials for nipple shields as well, and latex and hard plastics were used for nipple shields in the more recent past.

Why use nipple shields?

Nipple shields should always be used in consultation with a medical professional, and should be seen as a temporary solution. New moms may find that nipple shields are often advised as a first-aid solution as soon as there is any sign that breastfeeding is not going the way it should. Lactation consultants and organizations such as La Leche League stress the importance of trying other ways to solve problems like sore nipples or a poor latch first. Prematurity in your baby is a great reason to use nipple shields preemies have genuine problems with latching and sucking very, very frequently (the earlier the preemie was born, the greater the problems!). Nipple shields can make the difference between breastfeeding and formula feeding in these cases. The same holds true for babies with birth defects or neurological problems. In these cases, new parents should find out as much as possible from their doctor and ask all the questions they can think of. Inverted nipples are another reason to use nipple shields. Using a shield may help thenipple pop outward, and in this case it should again seen as a temporary fix. Keep in mind that many moms who have inverted nipples can indeed breastfeed their babies successfully without the use of any kind of device.

Why stay away from nipple shields?

Although sucking on a nipple shield may initially be easier for a baby, its use also reduces the amount of milk that the baby can access because nursing isn't as effective. Long-term use of nipple shields for breastfeeding may, therefore, lead to a reduction in the quantity of milk, and the associated early stop to breastfeeding. Less effective nursing is also the reason why mothers who use nipple shields are more likely to suffer from mastitis or engorged breasts. If you have decided to temporarily use a nipple shield, seeing a lactation consultant for advice on how to wean your baby from the shields is the best option if you want to transition to nursing without a nipple shield.

If you use one, which type?

A clear silicone nipple shield is most frequently recommended by lactation consultants. There are various sub-types, which have slightly different shapes and smaller or larger holes. Ask your lactation consultant for a recommendation, because she understands your situation the best. Baby stores generally sell nipple shields, but they may well be available from your lactation consultant as well. If you get nipple shields from your lactation consultant, you may be able to try before you buy. Do you have experience with nipple shields? Join the discussion on our Trying To Conceive Forum right now, and help a mom in need answer her questions!

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