My nipples have always been hands-off territory. I had to suffer through inept boys who wanted to go up-shirt all through college, and an awkward conversation always ensued as I batted their hands away. “Don’t touch my nipples,” I’d tell them. “They’re really sensitive, and not in a good way.” I wore thick bras to keep them from rubbing against my shirts. My lovers learned not to touch them. My nipples were a strict no-go zone. Then I got married, and I got pregnant, and it got worse. I couldn’t even deal with the shower. Thick bras were a must now, and toweling my breasts off after getting out of the tub even approached on annoying. I worried I'd hate breastfeeding because I hated my nipples being touched. I knew nipple sensitivity came with pregnancy, so I never talked to a doctor. And it didn't affect my relationship with my husband — I just told him hands-off, and he agreed.
Even with my concerns, though, I always knew I wanted to breastfeed. I knew breastfeeding could help you lose the baby weight. I knew breastfeeding mothers got more sleep, and that breastfed babies got important antibodies. I also knew how much breastfeeding affects kids later in life. Given all of that, I wanted to breastfeed, but I was terrified. Breastfeeding meant not only something touching my nipples, but someone constantly sucking on them. To be honest, I found the idea absolutely horrifying. It imagined it'd feel awful. My skin crawled just thinking about it. But because I wanted so desperately to breastfeed, I told myself it was what I had to do. I told myself I'd have to find some way to make it work.
So I asked the only other person I knew, my friend Mae, who had breastfed her kids what breastfeeding feels like. We were standing in her kitchen while her two girls played in the other room.
“It’s just — nursing,” she said. I explained again that because I hate having my nipples touched, I was worried that breastfeeding was going to feel weird and unbearable for me. But Mae promised it wouldn't bother me when the time came. "Trust me," she said.
So when my son finally popped out all at once in one big push, I didn’t have time to think about my nipples.
And honestly, I had to. I couldn’t do anything else but trust Mae's words. I didn’t bother asking my midwife about it because I figured she'd tell me the same thing as Mae. After all, I wanted to breastfeed no matter what. So I resolved that if it still bothered me after I had my son, I'd talk to my midwife about the problem then and hopefully we'd find out some way to make it better together.
My labor was long. It started at home, then progressed to the birth center. First, I was nauseated, much too nauseated to eat. Then, I was too nauseated to drink. I had back labor — labor that settles in the back and gives you no rest between contractions — and could only cope with it by walking. Six hours of that, and I was near-fainting and vomiting. My husband insisted I be transferred to the hospital. I was. And that's where my OB discovered I was severely dehydrated. An epidural finally let me rest. Then I pushed for three hours, and they were on the verge of giving me a c-section.
So when my son finally popped out all at once in one big push, I didn’t have time to think about my nipples. After a few minutes of adoring him and deciding he looked like my dad, I took my breast in my hand and brushed my nipple against his mouth. He opened up and took it in, and began sucking. And that was it. Breastfeeding, in that moment, didn’t feel like anything. It just felt like, well, breastfeeding. I was surprised, later, when I realized what had happened. I had breastfed, and it hadn't felt weird at all. Maybe because it was in a different context. Maybe because I was feeding a baby. But regardless, it didn't bother me. There was maybe a small tugging, but it wasn’t the awful, triggering feeling I’d always had when someone or something touched my nipples. They just suddenly weren’t as sensitive anymore.
I went on to breastfeed my son for three years, through an entire second pregnancy — and yes, about three weeks into my second pregnancy, my nipples got incredibly sensitive again. Breastfeeding suddenly felt weird. It also made me feel agitated, especially if I was lying down. From what I'd read, it sounded like other women had experienced this and it was common among women who'd breastfed during pregnancy, so I didn't bother to talk to a doctor. I powered through, breastfeeding about once a day, and eventually the feeling disappeared again when my second son was born. I tandem breastfed my sons, sometimes at the same time, until I got pregnant with my third son, when my oldest was 3 and 3 months months old. The same pattern followed: My nipples got sensitive again with my third pregnancy, though I let my now-middle son continue to breastfeed. Domperidone, taken for gastric emptying, kept my milk flowing copiously, which helped with the agitation. But I still had that same strange overstimulated feeling until my third son was born.
Once he was laid on my chest, breastfeeding came easy, and I didn't feel anything at all.
Despite my early worries, I was a smashing success at breastfeeding, but not only breastfeeding: I tandem breastfed twice, and even breastfed my best friend's baby, my godson. I’m glad my nipple sensitivity didn’t carry over post-childbirth, because I'll be the first to admit that breastfeeding during pregnancy wasn’t fun. But luckily, for the most part, Mae was right. Breastfeeding, for me, didn't feel like anything. And honestly, I was relieved.