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Nipple Piercing: Is It Compatible with Breastfeeding?

Jahaan Martin
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 3, June-July 1999, pp. 64-65

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton, Roman Centurions and some Victorian society women have a striking connection with many mothers of today. The tie that binds them is body piercing: each has pierced a navel or a nipple.

Body piercing has enjoyed a resurgence over the past 20 years. People young and old are piercing their eyebrows, noses, navels, lips, tongues, genitals, hands and nipples. Leaders working with breastfeeding women are seeing more mothers with pierced nipples. Phone log entries reflect this trend as calls from women curious about the effect of nipple piercing on breastfeeding continue to increase.

Is there breastfeeding after nipple piercing? The BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK asserts that there is no evidence to show nipple piercing has any effect on a woman's ability to breastfeed. Self-proclaimed "Hip Mama" Arid Gore agrees. In her book, The Hip Mama Survival Guide, Gore offers suggestions for pierced breastfeeding mothers. "Remove nipple rings and seek advice from a reputable organization like La Leche League for help and support with breastfeeding."

Mita Saldana, a professional body piercer with the Chicago-based studio, Body Basics, says she's pierced many nipples and has never had a complaint about problems with breastfeeding. Many of Saldana's clients are also friends. This affords her a unique vantage point from which to observe these women from the moment of a piercing, through the healing process, to life with a pierced nipple. One of Saldana's clients, a piercer herself, had her nipples pierced and went on to breastfeed. "She had no problems." said Saldana. Most nipples are pierced horizontally though some clients prefer a vertical piercing. Horizontal piercing seems better suited for breastfeeding according to Elisabeth Speller, an Australian lactation consultant.

Breastfeeding has been around since the dawn of time: body modification also has a long history. Some of the body piercing dates back to 1400 BC. Throughout history women and men have pierced their nipples for religious or spiritual reasons, beautification, decoration, protection, social rank or status. Today, according to many sources, nipple piercing seems to have two primary functions, beautification and sexual stimulation. "The piercing of the nipple is sensual, attractive and often encourages the nipple to become larger, more pronounced and more sensitive," according to Gauntlet, Inc. a professional piercing service with studios in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, USA.

Tom Rael, a professional piercer and tattoo artist with Addictive Ink in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA says different piercings serve different functions. "Usually those that are visible are for decoration, shock value, or to make a personal statement. Those that are not visible, such as genital and nipple piercing, are generally for sexual gratification.”

Nothing in life, nipple piercing included, is without risk. A piercer from a southwestern USA tattoo parlor who wishes to remain nameless says. "No one will pierce a pregnant woman. What she feels the baby feels. It's just not a good time." An apprentice piercer of two years declares, "It's a trauma to get pierced and no one wants to traumatize the fetus or the mother." Other professional piercers agree. They will not pierce a pregnant woman and recommend against piercing while breastfeeding. Mita Saldana goes a step further and recommends piercing at least a year before becoming pregnant. The average healing time for nipples is three to six months. For some people healing may take longer. Saldana feels that a year before pregnancy gives a woman's body ample opportunity to heal.

Very little information exists in the scientific literature on nipple piercing. However, some information is available about body piercing in general and the same risks apply. A researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing says, "The primary care provider plays a central role in educating young girls and adolescents about healthy breast practices such as avoidance of piercing and tattooing." According to other research, tetanus and hepatitis are possible risks of body piercing. Possible transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is also cause for concern. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Nurse-Midwives have taken no stance on the compatibility of nipple piercing and breastfeeding.

Perhaps the singular most common and preventable malady of piercing is infection. Those who consider being pierced should screen their practitioners carefully. They should inquire about safety and hygiene practices. In the USA, most professional piercers register with the local department of health. This is a minimal safety standard that usually means practitioners have undergone classes in prevention of cross contamination and are up-to-date on state immunization requirements. Suggest that a mother check with her local health department for regulations and laws specific to her area.

Rejection of a piercing is another possible outcome. A professional piercer uses his or her skills to trick the body into accepting a foreign object it naturally wants to reject. The Body Art Book states "proper piercing depth, width and diameter and using the appropriate tools, jewelry and procedures can minimize the chances of rejection." Stress, poor nutrition, inadequate hygiene and premature manipulation of the piercing site are other potential causes. A rejection never seems to heal properly. The site may be red, swollen or itchy, even ooze or bleed. It is best to remove jewelry and allow a rejection to heal completely. Re-piercing is an option but may be problematic. "Frequent re-piercings can cause damage to the nipple which could preclude breastfeeding," says lactation consultant Elisabeth Speller.

Metal allergies or inappropriate jewelry selection can cause piercing rejection or infection. Earrings are unsuitable for piercings on other parts of the body. Specially made bar bells or rings are common nipple jewelry. The correct gauge (diameter) and metal type are critical. Many people are allergic to nickel, which is commonly used in jewelry manufacturing. Titanium, nickel-free gold, platinum, niobium or surgical stainless steel are the metals of choice for body piercing jewelry.

Choking is a potential hazard for the baby whose mother does not remove nipple jewelry before breastfeeding. As the baby sucks, the jewelry could become loose and lodge in the throat. The baby's gums and tongue as well as the soft and hard palate could be injured by the jewelry.

Several lactation consultants interviewed for this article said that breastfeeding problems were often observed in women who did not remove nipple jewelry before nursing. These difficulties included poor latch, babies frequently coming on and off the breast, slurping, gagging and milk leaking from the baby's mouth. Once the nipple jewelry was removed the problems stopped. In contrast, Elisabeth Speller tells of a nurse who had her nipples pierced and breastfed while wearing nipple rings.

Gauntlet, Inc. recommends not removing nipple jewelry for at least six to ten months after piercing. It can be difficult, if near impossible, for an individual to remove the jewelry initially, so they suggest contacting a piercer for assistance. Most piercers make themselves available after a piercing to answer questions or allay concerns. In case of uncertainty or in a true emergency, encourage a woman to contact her physician immediately.

There is no evidence to suggest that a woman's pierced nipples will have any effect on her ability to breastfeed. Leaders can feel comfortable offering breastfeeding information and support to any woman struggling to balance her desire to be pierced with her desire to give her baby the best start in life.

References

Body Basics: Precision Tattooing and Body Piercing, www.bodybasics.com (February 1999)

Gauntlet, Inc. www.gauntlet.com (February 1999)

Gore, A. The Hip Mama Survival Guide. New York, New York: Hyperion, 1998;27, 76-78.

Lawrence, R.A. Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, 4th edition. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby, 1994; 44-48, 528-31.

Miller, J.C. The Body Art Book. New York, New York: Berkley Books, 1997; 3-27,72-75.

Mohrbacher, N. and Stock, J. BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK, revised edition. Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 1997; 382.

Reybold, L. Everything You Need to Know About The Dangers of Tattooing and Body Piercing. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1996; 21-47.

Sloand, E. "Pediatric and Adolescent Breast Health. ” Lippincott's Primary Care Practice. Mar-Apr 1998; 2(2): 170-5.

Speller, E. "Pierced Nipples and Breastfeeding, ” ALCA Galaxy April 1998; Vol.9, No. 1:12-13.

Wilkinson, B. Coping With The Dangers of Tattooing, Body Piercing, and Branding. New York, New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1998: 24-38.

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