Nipple Shields: Using and Weaning

Ah, the challenges of breastfeeding. I had been told by everyone that breastfeeding was hard, but like anything else, didn’t really KNOW until I got there. Those early days with baby boy were rough. I had tiny nipples, he had a tiny mouth, we were both inexperienced, and we just couldn’t figure out the latch reliably. I literally pinched my boobs black and blue in the first week postpartum trying to squeeze them into the requisite shape to stuff into my baby’s mouth. After that, I worked with an awesome lactation consultant who helped me figure out how to pinch them more effectively (haha), and baby and I could get an efficient latch and feed some of the time. Then, I discovered nipple shields. 

Hallelujah! Using the nipple shield turned the frustration and anxiety of every feed into something almost pleasurable. When I used the shield, baby boy latched with ease and fed hungrily. My nipples weren’t pinched and painful and I could finally feel relatively comfortable feeding. It was sooo satisfying watching the little one chug away and be satisfied and milk-drunk afterwards. I could relax about feeds, even catch up on Facebook! I felt like superwoman. Nipple shields for sure saved our breastfeeding relationship and my sanity. 

Upon my lactation consultant’s advice, every so often I tried to feed him without the shield. Usually that caused so much pain that I would give up and stop. Once I let him feed for like 5 minutes without the shield and got a really painful nipple bleb for my trouble. I was like, forget this. The shields are working great for me so why change things up? The only downside that I could tell at the time was that they were rather hard to see (seriously, why do they have to be so transparent?) especially in the dark, and that it was just one more thing I had to keep clean and sterilize regularly.   

Then, 3 months rolled around and baby went on a nursing strike (or so I thought). The week before I was slated to go back to work, he started to refuse the breast more and more. It went from feeding alright all day on Friday, to a fussy feed Friday evening, to more and more fussy feeds on Saturday, refusing to feed at all on Sunday from the breast, and by Monday I could breastfeed him only while he was half asleep. I would start a feed on bottle, and then try to switcheroo onto the breast to see if he would take it. That trick worked on Saturday, and then Sunday stopped working and he would arch and scream and pull away like I was trying to kill him with my boob. He would feed okay in the middle of the night, and by Monday I was camping out in the nursery during his naps, trying to pick him up towards the end of his nap and sneak-nurse him in his sleep. I was completely exhausted. There were tears. I felt utterly rejected. Eight times a day I’d stress and panic about how the next feed was going to go. On top of that there was the looming panic of going back to work, when I wouldn’t have so much time to work on breastfeeding with him because he was going to get bottles all day long. I thought this was the end of our breastfeeding relationship. I felt like I was being dumped.   

I tried so many things to get through this crisis. I googled nursing strike and must have read every article out there. I bought a sling and tried to nurse him in it (fail). Our bathtub is not big enough for us both to fit and so I couldn’t nurse him in the bath like all the articles advise. I nursed him in his sleep, as I mentioned, but this was not a sustainable solution. I bought a different nipple shield that was more bottle shaped, figuring if he liked the bottle so much maybe he would like a more bottle-shaped nipple shield. Nope. I finally figured out that maybe my letdown was too slow for him. I tried manually pumping ahead of nursing to start a letdown for him, so milk would be ready to go. Nope, that didn’t work either. I tried a supplemental nursing system (also fail). I was at my wits’ end.   

Finally, I tried nursing him without the shield. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me earlier — maybe because of all my failed attempts in the preceding months. Voila! Suddenly he was nursing again, hungrily at my breast. His mouth was bigger as a 3 month old, and he could magically latch without problems. We had a few fits and starts trying to find a new feeding position that we both liked, but suddenly we were off to the races again! Not only that, but nursing time was drastically cut. I thought it was already pretty short (12-15 minutes a side with the shield) but now he was finishing in at most 10 minutes a side, sometimes even a little as 5 or 6 minutes a side. I started to feel nervous that this was such a short time it must be abnormal, but he was still gaining weight like a champ and seemed so much happier. Apparently without the shield, the milk transfer was at least twice as as efficient. I was amazed and delighted and relieved.   

My nipples took a beating though. I was back to using nipple creams all the time. Within a day he had given me nipple blebs on both sides which no amount of pumping or nursing would get rid of. I had semi-permanent painful nipple blebs that didn’t completely heal from both sides until he turned 6 months! But the fact that we turned around the nursing relationship made me so thankful anyways. Seriously, that week of the nursing strike felt like the longest week of my life. Now that he was nursing again I just nursed him through the pain, and tried to adjust his position as much as I could to prevent more friction from raising additional blebs.   

Since then, things have been more or less stable. He still gets fussy at the bedtime feed, partly because he’s tired and partly because my supply is lower at that time. I’ve learned to not take it so personally and now just follow the breastfeeding with a nearly full bottle of milk afterwards. It’s our new routine and everyone is happier at bedtime. Ditching the nipple shield made feeding seriously so much faster. It’s also a lot less messy, as I didn’t have the shield constantly falling off the nipple and dumping droplets of milk everywhere.   

When I was using the nipple shield, I worried if we would ever be able to wean off of it. It turns out, my baby weaned himself off of it cold turkey. He just one day decided he’d had enough of it. I just wish I had clued in sooner, as it would have saved me a week of frustration, tears, and pointless troubleshooting.