Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Julia Smith, North London, UK
Photos source: United States Breastfeeding Committee
I hated my breasts and peculiar looking inverted nipples as they developed and I matured into a young woman.
One day, in the changing room at the swimming pool, my mother commented that her older sister had had flat nipples, “just like yours” and it was “nothing to worry about.” Until that moment, I hadn’t been much concerned. Needless to say, after that remark, I fretted for years to come!
During my time at college, in my late teens, I plucked up courage to mention my concern about my apparently weird nipples at a health check. I was reassured that my breasts were quite healthy. On the same occasion, I also learned that my inverted nipples might present a challenge if I decided to breastfeed my babies. To be honest, I found that information reassuring, too. At the time, I thought it would provide a useful excuse to liberate me from such an irksome duty. After all, I had no intention of breastfeeding any possible future babies.
Fast forward a decade, and two of my close friends both had babies around the time I got married. One didn’t even consider breastfeeding but the other did, and observing the differences in their parenting styles was a bit of an eye-opener for me.
When, some months later, I was expecting a baby of my own, I asked my friend with the nursling if I could accompany her to the local La Leche League meeting she had told me so much about. I wanted to find out in advance some more about the challenges I might confront if (and it was a big if) I decided to give breastfeeding a try. I am glad I went.
When I shared my fear that breastfeeding was unlikely a possibility for me, I soon learned that, on the contrary, there was every chance that I could have a successful nursing relationship, even though my nipples did appear to be considerably inverted.
Mothers in the circle shared their stories of how they overcame various different challenges and went on to breastfeed their babies, and a couple of them had nipples that sounded quite like mine: one woman described hers as “flat” and the other’s as even more deeply retracted than mine.
The mother with flat nipples had had severe engorgement in the first few days following her baby’s birth and had had a bad three weeks of soreness. She had failed during that time to help her baby manage a good latch. But with support and adjustments to positioning, the use of an electric breast pump before feeds to help draw her nipple out, and a short stint of using nipple shields, she had at last sorted out her initial problems. After the miserable early weeks, she was now leaving it to her baby to draw her nipple out, simply by attaching him well at her breast.
The second mother had tried more techniques to make her nipples protrude. During pregnancy she had attempted “The Hoffman Technique.” The following explanation of how to do this appears on the llli website:
Place a thumb on each side of the base of the nipple—directly at the base of the nipple, not at the edge of the areola. Push in firmly against your breast tissue while at the same time pulling your thumbs away from each other. This will stretch out the nipple and loosen the tightness at the base of the nipple, which will make it move up and outward. Repeat this exercise twice a day, working up to five times a day, moving the thumbs around the base of the nipple.
If you experience pain then this technique should be avoided.
She had also used a device that uses suction to help her nipple protrude: a syringe with a soft, flexible tip made of silicone.
She had found these helped to a limited extent, but that breast shells had not, and that what helped her the most was manual stimulation. She was still struggling with maintaining a good latch throughout feeds and I didn’t see her at the next meeting, so I don’t know how things fared for her.
I understand there is still debate among the experts and no agreement about whether any treatment for inverted nipples is helpful. No controlled studies have shown any particular treatment to be effective.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy and childbirth cause many mothers’ nipples to protrude naturally without any intervention.
I was still less than confident about my chances, but felt I had tapped in to a valuable resource: a network of mothers whose combined experiences were pretty encouraging, and most of whom seemed to be enjoying breastfeeding. Even if, at some of the meetings in the following months, I witnessed tears, frustration, and exhaustion, my overall impression was that I’d found a group of women that wouldn’t let me down when the going got tough.
And, actually, things didn’t turn out to be anywhere near as tricky as I’d been led to expect.
I had a gentle birth with no medical interventions and suffered only slightly engorged breasts on days two and three.
My baby daughter latched on well from the start, while I was semi-reclined, and we spent the first couple of weeks mostly lying down! After the work involved in giving birth, this was the rest and quiet nesting time we needed, snuggling together, while the world carried on without us.
I think now that my breasts are absolutely brilliant! I have an entirely new respect for my body.
I want to share my experience so other mothers who are worried because their nipples, too, go into their breasts rather than sticking out of them, can be confident that this need not rule out breastfeeding. I feel having picked up this useful information as a sort of practical research, that I need to pass it on to anyone it might help.
Find your local LLL group, go along to a meeting, read the information, chat to other mothers, and give it a go. Good luck!