Not all women wear bras and a special breastfeeding or nursing bra is not essential for a breastfeeding mother. This article answers ten frequently asked questions about nursing bras.
#1 Do I need a nursing bra?
Some women prefer to wear a nursing bra for breast support and/or to keep breast pads in place if they tend to leak milk in the early weeks, but it is personal choice. While women with larger breasts are likely to feel more comfortable wearing a nursing bra, going without a bra altogether or even using a normal bra could be an option for some women.
Can I wear a normal bra?
If you are considering using a normal support bra for breastfeeding it is important to:
- Make sure the bra is loose and soft enough so that pulling down or lifting the cup to breastfeed does not put any pressure on your breasts because this could be a risk factor for blocked ducts or mastitis. See #4 below for more fitting tips.
- Make sure the bra has enough room for breast pads (see #2) if you wear them and check the cups will be large enough for when your breasts are at their fullest before a feed.
- Avoid underwires (#7) and chose cotton rich material where possible (see #5 below).
You could also consider converting a normal bra into a nursing bra with drop cups—search online for a number of ways to do this. It’s also possible to turn a nursing bra back to a regular bra (Bravado designs has a YouTube video).
Do I need a “pumping bra”?
Most breastfeeding mothers won’t need to pump let alone need a special bra for pumping. If you do find you are pumping frequently or exclusively however, you can buy bras that can hold the pump flanges in place so your hands are free to massage the breasts during pumping (hands-on-pumping) or for other tasks. You could also make your own pumping bra by adapting a cheap sports bra by making holes in the cups that are just big enough to bring the pump flanges through. Or some mothers use hair or ponytail elastics clipped to their existing bra to steady the flanges against the breast 1.
#2 What are breast pads and do I need them?
A breast pad is a circular pad of absorbent material that is worn inside the bra over the nipples to absorb any leaked breast milk. Some mothers leak breast milk between breastfeeds for example if their breasts are full, or if they hear their baby cry and have a let-down (milk ejection reflex). And some mothers leak a little milk from the opposite breast while they are breastfeeding, especially in the early weeks. If you need them, breast pads can be washable (better for the environment) or disposable. It is important to change damp or soggy breast pads frequently to avoid sore nipples. Authors Wambach and Riordan recommend choosing a breast pad that is comfortable and doesn’t leave a residue that could be swallowed by your baby. They also offer tips to prevent leaking:
Direct pressure for a few seconds on a leaking breast, such as by crossed arms, is usually sufficient to temporarily inhibit leaking during milk ejection. Feeding the baby on cue and around the clock helps prevent leaking.
#3 When should I buy a breastfeeding bra?
During pregnancy breasts generally get bigger as they prepare for breastfeeding and some women may need one or more new bras during this time. Nursing bras that are bought during the early months of pregnancy may not still fit when you are first breastfeeding, however they will probably fit at some point in your breastfeeding relationship and will usually be more comfortable than a regular bra.
Fit from 28 weeks
Most nursing bras fitted in the last trimester of pregnancy (from 28 weeks gestation) will also fit during breastfeeding but some mothers may find they need a bigger cup size for the first few months after birth. Lauwers and Swisher explain:
The last trimester of pregnancy is generally the earliest time for selecting a nursing bra. Some women wait until after delivery, when full milk production occurs.
How many nursing bras do I need?
Two or three nursing bras allow for washing and wearing. Start with the minimum number you can manage incase your size changes after your baby is born when your milk comes in. You can add more bras as needed when your milk supply settles down and when you’re happy your chosen bra is a good style and fit.
#4 How can I check if a bra is a good fit
Many bra departments of large stores will offer a bra fitting service to help you find the ideal fit. If you are fitting yourself, a well fitted bra will:
- Support the breasts without cutting into breast tissue and without breasts “spilling” out of the top of the cup—any pressure on the breasts can increase the risk of mastitis or blocked ducts
- Have side seams that are well behind the breast under the arm pit
- Have bra straps that support the breasts without digging into the shoulders
- Have an adjustable band across your back that sits horizontally and is not riding up your back
- Be sufficiently “flexible” to allow for breasts changing size as they fill and empty with milk and with room for breast pads.
Finding your bra size and cup size
Bra companies measure bra size (US: band width) and cup size in a variety of different ways. And as all bra styles differ, a good fitter will likely find the right fit for you without a measuring tape, just by trial and error. If buying online, check the measuring or fitting information for the company you are interested in buying from, many have videos to help you.
#5 Is cotton best for nursing bras?
Some mothers can be sensitive to synthetic fibres in pregnancy or while breastfeeding which could cause skin irritation or promote sweating. Authors Lauwers and Swisher recommend cotton rich bras (cotton or a cotton-polyester blend)2 and Ask Dr Sears explains the importance of fabrics being “breathable” i.e. allowing air flow so that any moisture is released quickly.
Cups should be made of a breathable fabric. This is usually 100 percent cotton, although some of the newer synthetics also allow the skin to breathe. Other synthetics trap moisture next to the nipples and encourage bacterial growth and soreness. Don’t buy a bra with a plastic lining.
#6 What is the best style of nursing bra?
A purpose made nursing bra generally has drop down cups which can be unhooked for easy access to the breasts for breastfeeding. A drop cup can usually be hooked back in position with one hand which can be important when you are holding your baby at the same time. Bras with small front openings meant for pumps are unlikely to expose enough skin for your baby to get a deep latch. The Australian Breastfeeding Association has the following tips:
When trying on different styles, remember to open and close the bra cup. Most bras open for feeding and some are easier to manage than others. Look for bras where the whole cup folds away, as opposed to rigid ‘trapdoor’ styles which can also put pressure on a full breast while feeding. Centre front and shoulder clasp styles are available.
#7 Can a nursing bra be underwired?
Underwired bras are probably best avoided especially in the early months of breastfeeding as they could press on milk-making tissue, prevent sufficient drainage of milk and increase the risk of blocked ducts and mastitis 3 4. Milk making tissue extends under the arm pit and back to your rib cage 5.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association advises that certain makes of underwired nursing bra cause less problems:
there are now nursing bras available that have a flexible low-gauge wire support, designed to flex and change position with your changing shape. These are less likely to cause problems.
#8 Do I need a sleep bra?
Wearing a breastfeeding or nursing bra at night is personal choice. If a sleep bra is used for light support at night and to keep breast pads in place, it should fit very loosely so as not to cut into any breast tissue and ideally be made of cotton. 67.
#9 Will a nursing bra stop my breasts changing shape or sagging?
A nursing bra won’t stop your breasts changing shape. Wearing a supportive bra may reduce stretching of tissues that could contribute to sagging 8 however it is pregnancy hormones that are the main factor affecting breast shape regardless of the intention to breastfeed or the bra you wear 9 10. Even if you always wear a supportive bra—pregnancy, skin ageing, smoking, being over weight or losing weight quickly and even genetics are also likely to affect breast shape.
Will breastfeeding make my breasts sag?
Many authors, including Val Finnigan author of Saggy Boobs and Other Breastfeeding Myths say breastfeeding isn’t the cause of a change in breast shape:
Myth: Breastfeeding makes your boobs saggy; it ruins the shape of your breasts.
Fact: This is simply not true. When a woman becomes pregnant, the hormones involved in sustaining her pregnancy cause permanent changes within her breasts. Even if the pregnancy does not continue, her breasts will never be the same as they were before pregnancy. So it isn’t breastfeeding that alters breast shape, size and look – it is pregnancy.
However, if a mother’s breasts swell substantially during breastfeeding, a large size difference could cause stretch marks and/or a change in shape after breastfeeding ends, unless the mother has particularly elastic skin—just as some post-pregnancy tummies change too.
#10 Where can I get a good nursing bra?
Many good baby stores, bra departments in larger stores and online boutiques sell breastfeeding bras.
I need a large cup, where can I find a larger bra?
Retailers for larger sized bras in UK include: Bravado Designs, Bravissimo, Ample Bosom, and Bras4mums. For breastfeeding tips with larger breasts see Breastfeeding with Large Breasts.