A nipple shield is a thin flexible silicone cover that a breastfeeding mother puts over her nipple before breastfeeding.
It looks like a hat with a brim and a crown.
Some nipple shields are designed with a cut-out section around the brim, where the baby’s nose goes.
Nipple shields have been around for a long time.
In recent times, there has been some controversy amongst lactation professionals over their use.
This can be quite confusing for mothers.
Most of the controversy about the use of nipple shields has been about whether they help mothers with breastfeeding, or whether they cause problems.
The problems mentioned are that they might reduce milk supply, or make it more difficult for babies to get the milk from their mothers’ breasts.
A breastfeeding mother might use a nipple shield for a variety of reasons, such as when:
- A baby has difficulty attaching to her mother’s breasts (e.g. if she’s premature; or because of nipple variations)
- The mother has sore nipples
- A bottle-fed baby is switched to the breast
Nipple Shield Use – Does It Help Or Hinder?
Can nipple shields help breastfeeding or not? Here are 3 things you should know.
#1: Modern Nipple Shields Are Different from Older Types
The nipple shields used these days are much better than the older styles. Nipple shields used to be made of latex and rubber, whereas today they are made from thin, flexible silicon. Because of this newer material, lactation professionals are much less concerned about mothers using nipple shields, and the potential risk of lowering supply or affecting how well a baby gets the milk.
If you use a nipple shield, breastfeeding can take a bit longer, as the flow of milk is slowed to some degree. Taking care to position and attach your baby well, even with a nipple shield in place, is really important. Make sure you also monitor the reliable signs that your baby is getting enough breastmilk.
#2: More Research Is Needed
There has been little research done on nipple shields, and most of it has been in case studies with a small number of subjects, and based on the older style nipple shields.
For example, in 1980, in a study of 34 mothers, rubber nipple shields were compared with latex nipple shields, and the results showed that both types reduced the amount of milk babies got from their mothers’ breasts.
A study in 2009, where mothers were using the newer, thin silicon nipple shields, reported no difference in weight gain between babies who fed with a nipple shield compared with those whose mothers had stopped using them. However, since 41% of babies received formula supplementation by 2 weeks, the study could not conclude that nipple shields do not interfere with how well babies get milk from their mothers’ breasts.
A study in 2000 assessed how well premature babies could get milk from their mothers’ breasts, with or without a nipple shield in place. It was found that the premature babies could get the milk much better when feeding with nipple shields.
Overall, more research is needed – in particular, good quality clinical trials, to assess the specific effects of nipple shields on how well babies can get milk from their mothers’ breasts, and on milk supply. This type of study will allow researchers to reach stronger conclusions about whether nipple shields help or hinder breastfeeding.
#3: Some Mothers Find Nipple Shields Helpful
Despite the controversy that exists about the use of nipple shields, there is no denying that some mothers find them helpful. Studies about mothers’ perceptions of nipple shield use mostly demonstrate that mothers have positive feelings towards them.
If a mother believes breastfeeding works best using nipple shields, if she is happier using them, and her baby is thriving, or if she feels she could not continue to breastfeed without them, it’s probably better to continue to use them.
As in many breastfeeding issues, there’s no ‘one size fits all’. While it’s important that nipple shields are not seen as the solution for all breastfeeding problems, it’s equally important not to write them off completely. When it comes to the use of a nipple shield, the individual situation of every mother and baby needs to be considered.