A woman's nipples have their own natural mechanisms to keep them healthy. Essentially, there is NOTHING a pregnant woman needs to do to prepare her nipples for breastfeeding and it is now acknowledged that the only way a woman can prevent sore nipples after the birth is to ensure that her baby is correctly latched on the breast for each feed.
The darkened skin around the nipples (or 'areola') is covered with about 18 small glands (called 'Montgomery tubercles'). These are little raised lumps on the skin (about 3mm in diameter) that sometimes have small hairs growing out of them. The Montgomery's tubercles continually produce small amounts of natural oils and lubricating fluids that keep the skin of the nipple supple and moist. It is usually recommended that women DO NOT wash their nipples vigorously with soapy products during pregnancy (or at any other time) because this can remove the natural oils. Plain water is generally adequate for cleansing.
In the past, women were often advised by their caregivers to do various things to 'prepare' their nipples for breastfeeding. However, NONE of these have ever been shown to have any proven benefits for breastfeeding or avoiding sore nipples. Some past practices, which are now outdated include:
- Attempting to 'toughen' the nipples by scrubbing them daily with a brush, rubbing them regularly or placing methylated spirits on them.
- Using any one of a variety of creams, ointments, lotions or potions.
- Using devices to 'pull out' the nipple, squeezing the areola to encourage the nipple to 'pop out' or wearing special plastic covers or shields inside a bra (and over the nipples) during pregnancy to encourage the nipple to 'poke out'. These were often recommended for women with flat or inverted nipples (where the nipple turns inwards). You can read more in myths and legends.