Breast shells: preserving your modesty

shellsWhen I suffered substantial nipple damage in the early weeks of breastfeeding, the ‘moist wound healing’ route didn’t prove effective (see nipple solutions 1: doing nothing), so allowing a bit of air to circulate was the obvious alternative option. Walking around topless wasn’t always practical (although I have to admit it happened quite a bit – apologies to my neighbours) so wearing breast shells provided a workable solution. They seemed to help, psychologically at least, but as I used them on both breasts pretty much all the time, I have no idea whether they really had any effect on the healing process, or the pain I experienced when breastfeeding.

Is there any clinical evidence of their effectiveness? The short answer is not really, although that may be partly because there is very little research looking at the use of breast shells in this context. A couple of studies have reported on the effect of shells used in combination with lanolin, but they obviously don’t tell us anything about the utility of shells in keeping nipples dry12.

There is one small study, conducted some time ago, which evaluated the use of breast shells on their own as a means of alleviating nipple pain3. 20 women who had just started breastfeeding and were experiencing pain were asked to wear a single breast shell whenever they weren’t feeding (the other nipple was kept shell-free, to serve as a control). On the second and fifth days of using the shells the women were asked to rate the level of pain they were experiencing on a 5 point scale, from mild (1) to excruciating (5) during the first two minutes of a feed, and for the period between feeds. Although the mean pain score was higher for the nipple without the shell on day five, this difference was not statistically significant. The study did have an interesting anecdotal result, however. Despite the fact that the shells didn’t lessen pain, 80% of the women said they would consider using them again, so the majority of women felt that they offered some kind of help. The precise nature of the benefit isn’t described in detail, but it appears to be related to improved general comfort and decreased friction with clothing.

Problems mentioned by some women (although it is not reported how many) focused on concerns about the ‘hardness’ of the shell, and the pressure it exerted on breast tissue. The possibility of pressure on milk ducts is also mentioned by shell manufacturers, who advise against using breast shells for extended periods (although they also market the same action as a short term means of relieving engorgement). Whilst the possibility of negative consequences arising from pressure caused by shells can’t be dismissed, there don’t yet appear to have been any reported in the clinical literature, so the extent to which a problem actually exists isn’t clear.

The lack of research in general into either the benefits or drawbacks of breast shells makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions regarding their use. Whilst problems arising from pressure on breast tissue cannot be dismissed, as yet, these have not been widely reported. There isn’t any data showing they improve nipple pain, although there is anecdotal evidence that they ease discomfort.  You may find they take up too much room in your already overstretched bra, or you might find the way that they stop it rubbing against your nipples provides a little relief. If the latter is the case, breast shells do have one undeniable advantage: they allow you to minimize friction, without having to resort to indecent exposure…

  1. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1998 Nov;152(11):1077-82.
  2. J Perinat Educ. 2004 Winter;13(1):29-35.
  3. J Nurse Midwifery. 1988 Mar-Apr;33(2):74-7.

Nipple solutions 2: shells and shields

shell

Although I’ve criticized the health service for their, ‘breastfeeding is easy as long as you do it right’ line (a criticism that I stand by), the health visitors and midwives I have spoken to have generally been sympathetic. They have also been willing to deviate from the official advice when it’s obvious that it isn’t working.

Faced with my mutilated nipples, two midwives suggested nipple shields.  A shield is a silicon or rubber teat that you hold over the nipple to protect it during a feed. It is shaped like a large nipple, with holes in the end for the milk to come through. Apparently, they can affect milk supply, so do not have NHS approval, although I have since discovered that this recommendation may be rather out of date (see the nipple shields research post). I didn’t have any luck with shields (C looked at me as if I were mad – she was going to put one of those in her mouth?!) but I have spoken to many women who found them useful.

Breast shells, on the other hand, did prove to be a hit. In contrast to shields, you use shells in between feeds, to protect sore nipples or draw flat ones out (they apply a small amount of suction). They consist of a silicon disk with a hole in the middle for your nipple, topped off with a half a clear plastic tennis ball that acts as a protective bubble around your nipple and stops the fabric of your clothes coming into contact with it. The plastic bit also has holes in, to allow air to circulate. The instructions said to always make sure these were facing upwards, an instruction that I initially failed to heed. What difference would the direction of the holes make? I discovered the answer to this when I noticed a substantial wet patch on my t-shirt. A significant amount of milk can collect in them if you have them on for any period of time, and this milk will naturally leak out of any holes it finds. If you can motivate yourself to sterilize the shells regularly, you can store this milk for later use, but it wasn’t really a priority for me at that point. In the end, I put a breast pad in each shell to soak up any rogue milk (making sure the holes pointed upwards, of course.) Although this will have hindered the air flow a little, the shells still proved very effective in preventing discomfort, and seemed to allow my nipples to heal more easily. I say ‘seemed’ because the effect may have been psychological – when using the shell, my nipple looked less mangled, and I thus assumed it was improving.

I should probably mention, however, that I didn’t exactly use the shells as specified on the box. The instructions state that you shouldn’t use them for more than a couple of hours at a time, as they can cause blocked ducts. I weighed up the potential for blocked ducts against the possibility of my nipples healing a bit faster, and decided the chance of the latter made it reasonable to risk the former. This meant, in practice, that I ended up using them all the time, including at night. Fortunately I didn’t suffer any blocked ducts, although I did end up stretching a rather expensive Elle McPherson nursing bra (and looking like Madonna during her pointy cone bra period unless I dressed very carefully).  To date, there has been very little clinical research investigating the effectiveness (or not) of breast shells (see breast shells: preserving your modesty), but they seemed to help me get through a difficult time. If you want to take the pressure off your nipples – and are willing to risk increasing it on your milk ducts – they may be worth a try.

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