Most women’s nipples protrude (stick out) about 5–10 mm. They can become about 10 mm longer and 2–3 mm wider during sexual arousal. Some women have nipples that are flat but become erect during sexual arousal or when breastfeeding. Nipples that are tucked into the breast, instead of being flat or sticking out, are called inverted nipples. Both nipples may be inverted, or just one.

Nipples that have always been inverted. If your nipples have been inverted for as long as you can remember, it is nothing to worry about. It is just the way you are, and a lot of women are the same. A survey of 3000 women attending an antenatal clinic found that 10% had inverted nipples.

A nipple that suddenly becomes inverted can be a sign a cancer or lump is present, so you should see your doctor straight away.

Breastfeeding should not be too much of a problem if your nipples become erect in the cold or when sexually aroused. It will be harder for the baby to draw the nipple into the back of its mouth, so breastfeeding may require patience, but eventually the baby’s sucking will draw the nipple out. You will be able to help by applying an ice cube wrapped in a flannel to the nipple beforehand or by stroking the areola (the pink area round the nipple).

If stimulation does not make the nipple protrude, breastfeeding may be more difficult. During the last 6–8 weeks of pregnancy, you may be able to encourage the nipples to stick out by wearing breast shields under your bra. These are small devices that press gently on the breast around the nipple. They are quite comfortable. They are worn for 1 or 2 hours at first, and the time is gradually increased. Your midwife will be able to advise you.
There is an instrument called a niplette that can help draw the inverted nipple out; it consists of a transparent nipple mould, a sealing flange that is attached to a valve and a syringe port.

Ways of making your nipples protrude. Even if you do not intend to breastfeed you may wish to have protruding nipples. Teenagers often have flat nipples and, in some women (especially if their periods did not start until late), they remain flat until the early 20s. So if you are young, there is a possibility that they may gradually start to protrude. Otherwise, you could try stroking the areola with warm hands for a few minutes each day to bring the nipple out. You could also try wearing breast shields. Do not wear them for too long at first, otherwise the breasts may become sore, and do not continue wearing them for more than 6 weeks.

If these measures do not work and your nipples are distressing you, it is possible to have a small operation to make the nipples protrude. This involves a small incision on each side of the nipple, and the cutting of some ducts and tissue. The drawback is that some women cannot breastfeed after this operation, and the operation is very expensive (and not available on the National Health Service).


First published on:
Reviewed and edited by: Dr Victoria Harmer
Last updated: October 2020

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