Surely you've seen for yourself the difference between innie and outie belly buttons. If you've never heard about inverted nipples, similar principles apply. Inverted nipples are turned inside out to varying degrees of severity.
What inverted nipples look like.
Inverted nipples come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. How do you know if you have them? First, a cursory Google image search will reveal helpful side-by-side comparisons of what they look like. Inverted nipples appear to have a slit across the peak of the nipple when they're not erect, or are flat when "warm," or are visibly concave. The surrounding areola looks completely normal, and inverted nipples often protract when stimulated, making it hard to tell. Because most inverted nipples do protract when stimulated, it's possible to have inverted nipples and not even know it. It's also possible for one nipple to be inverted or not the other.
One way to tell is to do the "pinch test." Putting your index finger and your thumb around your areola, pinch about an inch behind your nipple. If it stays out, you're normal. If it flattens or retracts, you probably have some degree of nipple inversion. Welcome to the club!
The biggest issue most people have with inverted nipples is the misconception that they're unusual, rare, or undesirable. In reality, an estimated 9 to 10% of women are born with them, making them a relatively common occurrence. That's far more common than people with naturally red hair, who make up only 2% of the population. Interestingly, inverted nipples may even be temporary for some people.
That said, nipples can also become retracted over time due to weight loss or, in rarer cases, a disease affecting the breast tissue like breast cancer. If you suspect your nipples have changed from normal to inverted though, you should get it checked out.
"If you ever notice something change with your breasts in general, it is always better to seek medical attention. Inverted nipples can be associated with infection, abscess formation, breast cancer, and trauma," ob-gyn Shannon Clark, M.D., says.
If you've always had innies though, don't fret—they're simply a variation on the mainstream, posing little to no health risks.
Can you breastfeed with inverted nipples?
Most women with inverted nipples can breastfeed, though it can sometimes cause difficulty for the baby to latch onto it if the nipple is not erect enough. Stimulating the breast can often help an inverted nipple to protrude and become erect enough to allow for easier breastfeeding, and devices like breast or nipple shields can also help. Alternatively, a breast pump can help improve the flow of milk.
If you plan on becoming pregnant or are currently breastfeeding with inverted nipples and having trouble, talk to your doctor.
How to "fix" inverted nipples.
Inverted nipples do not require treatment. They're not known to cause any health issues, difficulty with breastfeeding, or any less sensitivity in comparison to non-inverted nipples. The only reason to seek out treatment is for aesthetic reasons. Below are a few options.
Piercing for inverted nipples.
Nipple piercings are sometimes used to make inverted nipples protract into the more common shape. If your nipple cannot retract because the jewelry is physically blocking it, there's a chance it will look erect most of the time. That said, while it may work for some, there's no guarantee.
Breastfeeding or other stimulation.
Breastfeeding, foreplay nipple sucking, and other vacuum stimulation like a breast pump can stimulate the nipple to come out, though it's usually temporary.
One thing to note is that a 1992 study found that a self-manipulation called the Hoffman Method and using breast shells—plastic discs worn inside your bra to prep nipples for breastfeeding—may actually hinder your ability to breastfeed.
Plastic surgery can turn an inverted nipple into the more common protracted shape. However, there's a risk of interfering with milk ducts and surrounding tissue. There's also a significant recurrence rate for inverted nipples; one observational study quoted 12.6%. When procedures cost thousands of dollars and require downtime, a high recurrence rate isn't something to overlook.
It's worth noting that none of these methods are guaranteed to permanently change inverted nipples, and even if they do, there's a solid chance the nipple inverts later on. Whatever you choose to do with your own body, note that inverted nipples are perfectly normal, functional, and beautiful.
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Lindsay Kellner is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based out of Brooklyn, NY. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology at New York University and earned a 200-hour yoga certification from Sky Ting. She is the co-author of “The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self Care,” along with mbg’s Sustainability Editor, Emma Loewe.