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New mom Meghan McCain asks, "Can nipples actually fall off?" and we have answers

It's a fair question that many newly-minted breastfeeding moms may wonder.
/ Source: TODAY

Just over a week into her new gig as mom to newborn daughter Liberty Sage, "The View" panelist Meghan McCain, 35, had a very important question for Twitter.

"I know there is a LOT going on in the world that is much more important but I'm in the throes of newborn land..." McCain tweeted, "but I just wanted to know if your nipples can actually fall off from breast feeding?"

It's a fair question. As those of us who have been that newly-minted mom trying to breastfeed know, there's truly nothing that can prepare you for learning how to feed a tiny, irrational human being with a body part that has never been used quite that way before.

Those first few weeks can be very painful, and sometimes there might be cracking or, yes, blood involved. And though you might think you will do nothing but whisper sweet nothings into your precious baby's tender ears, you might just find yourself whispering expletives instead. Ask me how I know.

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What McCain is apparently experiencing isn't necessarily inevitable, said lactation consultant Jennifer Day of Detroit, Michigan. She's the owner and founder of community birth and lactation support group Feed the Babes and has been working with families for over 10 years.

Day told TODAY Parents that while nipple pain and trauma is "certainly a common fear" for many mothers," it is usually preventable with a little guidance from an expert like a doctor, nurse, midwife, or lactation consultant.

"I had a client recently ask the exact same question," she said. "My response to her was, 'Your nipple is NOT going to fall off.'"

Nipple soreness and pain at the beginning of breastfeeding is normal, said Krystal Duhaney, a nurse and lactation consultant in Los Angeles, California. She noted that one study found 32% of new parents experience cracked nipples in the first month after giving birth, but that cracked and bleeding nipples are not exactly "normal" at any point.

"That is usually the sign of a shallow latch, which means your infant is latched onto your nipple instead of your breast tissue, or an ill-fitting flange while pumping," Duhaney explained. "If you do experience cracked or bleeding nipples, it’s important to determine the cause and correct it."

Duhaney recommended cleaning nipples after nursing with a saline wash, then using a moisturizing nipple balm and leaving the breasts exposed to fresh air if possible afterwards. If using breast pads, make sure to change them as soon as they grow damp.

For moms who do end up with nipple trauma, good news: In most cases, it is still safe for the baby to continue to breastfeed.

"It is not harmful to the baby," said Samantha Bernstein, a New Hampshire-based new mother and baby nurse and lactation consultant. "Even if there is a small amount of blood in the milk, that won’t harm a baby."

However, if there is a chance you might have an infection or a condition that can be transmitted by your blood, you should seek a doctor's help, said Duhaney. And if you experience any fever or chills, pus, swelling, a rash that spreads, or any other signs of infection, it’s "very important to notify your health care provider right away," she said.

Continuing to nurse even while determining and fixing issues is a good way to maintain milk supply, said Duhaney. "If nursing on the injured breast is too painful, it’s important to express milk via a pump or hand expression to prevent mastitis and to make sure your supply doesn’t decrease," she said.

Support is the most important tool a new mom can have when she is trying to make breastfeeding work — even it comes from strangers on Twitter. Especially since, as Bernstein said, many moms don't have family members they can ask for help or may never have seen someone breastfeed before they did it themselves. "I had never seen anyone breastfeed until I was in nursing school," she said.

This is especially important for Black mothers, said Day.

"The vast majority of mothers begin breastfeeding, but there's a severe disparity of those that actually reach their goals and even greater disparity of Black women that are not able to reach their individualized breastfeeding goals due to systemic racism and barriers that impact breastfeeding outcomes," she said.

All three lactation consultants recommended seeking the support of a fellow International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, which doesn't even have to require an office visit to help. "I have successfully talked many moms through problems over the phone or through texting," said Bernstein.

They also stressed that breastfeeding should not be a painful or bad experience.

"Breastfeeding shouldn’t include suffering. If mom is suffering, then something needs to change," said Bernstein. "Working on baby’s positioning can make a big difference for physical comfort. Moms should feel good about what they are doing and how they are doing it. Moms’ mental health is really important and it’s hard to feel good emotionally if we are in a lot of pain."

Bernstein said she would give the same advice to both moms and non-female genders who might be breast or chest-feeding. "This is an exhausting time and learning to parent is hard," she said. "Be kind to yourself and make that in-your-head voice the same voice you would use for a friend. Sometimes we are much harder on ourselves than we would be on other people."