Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Katrina Soper, Newport, Gwent, UK
Photo: Suzie Blake
How strange it was that a little piece of silicone could be both my best friend and the one thing I detested about our breastfeeding relationship
I am really enjoying breastfeeding my gorgeous daughter. Even after her arrival by emergency cesarean section, breastfeeding was easy, natural, and a relief following the stressful day of her arrival. When I feed her I often think back to my first attempts at breastfeeding when our son was born, and how strange it was that a little piece of silicone could be both my best friend and the one thing I detested about our breastfeeding relationship.
I had planned a home birth for Jacob. However, as is so often the case with first-time mums, I doubted my body’s ability to give birth safely at home and ended up with a messy and traumatic hospital birth. Jacob fed vigorously from the beginning and I thought we’d be fine. Yet that changed completely when we got home and I found, with increasing panic, that he couldn’t latch on but would continually bob his head around in a frenzy. Each feeding was becoming a marathon of try, try, and try again, with our tears a continual feature of our shared existence. The final straw for me was the day when he lost his voice from crying so much and we spent four hours trying to get him to latch on. My husband, Pete, was supportive but desperate to get him something to eat, while I was desperate to feed him but also desperate not to give him a bottle. I wanted something to be salvaged from our carefully thought-out birth plan and that something was breastfeeding!
Eventually we hit upon the idea of using a nipple shield. Pete went out to buy some. I had read about them in a book, and what I read worried me because there was a warning not to use the shields for too long, but no mention of why. It was once thought that the use of a nipple shield affected a mother’s milk supply, but nowadays modern silicone nipple shields do not seem to cause a decrease in milk supply. Using a nipple shield was like magic. Jacob fed fantastically well with the shield in place and we were on safe ground at last. Within a week he’d gained a pound and we were all happier.
I still felt confused every time I unscrewed our watertight plastic tub containing boiled water and a sterilized nipple shield floating in its depths. Why did I need to use this thing? I had a stark reminder of how much I did need to use it when we went to the forest to choose our first-ever Christmas tree as a family—an event Pete and I had discussed often during the months leading up to Jacob’s birth. We took our time choosing the perfect tree, then, as Jacob became fretful, I realized with horror that the nipple shields were still at home. I’ll always remember that hideous half-hour drive home. Pete was sweating and anxious, worried about Jacob, me, and the Christmas tree that he’d flung on to the car roof and tied on in a frantic rush to get us back to our sofa and shields combination.
Well, I carried on using the shields and Jacob continued to thrive. The shields were messy and kept coming off mid-feed. After a while the washing and sterilizing would make them cloudy and slimy and I felt unsure about using them. I had repeated blocked ducts. But I felt so proud that my little scrap of a baby had become such a pleasingly plump and happy chap—all on just my milk!
Nipple shields: friend or foe?
One day, when Jacob was six months old, we turned a corner. What an ecstatic moment it was for me when Jacob, who was lying on the bed with me nursing, pulled himself up to a sitting position, frowned long and hard at the shield clinging to my breast, and peeled it off. He then leaned over, opened his mouth, and latched on to my breast as if he’d never used a shield. I was breathless with amazement! He did it—all by himself.
It took a few days for me actually to accept that we didn’t need to lug a jar of boiled water and shields everywhere we went. We continued to breastfeed for a long time afterward. I’ve since had three beautiful daughters and their feeding histories have been much less unusual. Why did we need the shields? I’ll never be entirely sure.
I’d never heard of La Leche League meetings back then and I had no face-to-face help. However, looking at photos of us in the early days I can see now, with my more experienced eye, that I was positioning Jacob too far over to the side (perhaps in a sort of bottle-feeding position) and that bringing him closer to the center of my body may have sorted out the problem of his inability to latch on very easily. What a shame I hadn’t discovered LLL then! But we managed and I suppose that was good enough. Nipple shields kept us breastfeeding when I was at my lowest point and so, in spite of the irritation and dismay I felt at needing them, I am eternally grateful that someone did invent them!
Katrina wrote this story in 2009 and has since become an IBCLC and a grandmother.