[*Pardon the references to babies.]
Nursing bras look like regular bras, but the cups open or lower when you pull them aside, or unsnap, unzip, or unhook the closure. It’s convenient, but not essential, that you be able to open the cup for nursing quickly and simply with one hand. You might be holding your hungry baby with the other. If you can close it one-handed, too, that’s even better.
Whichever style you choose, proper fit is the key to comfort. Besides being uncomfortable, a bra that fits poorly may put pressure on your milk ducts, which can cause them to get plugged and lead to inflammation in the breast.
Many women buy the wrong-size nursing bra. A common mistake is to buy a larger band size but the same cup size you wear when you’re not pregnant. In fact, some women can stay with their original band size. The rib cage expands during pregnancy, but usually not enough to require a larger band size, although everyone is different. Some women may want to go up a band size for comfort. That’s fine as long as your bra has plenty of adjustment hooks in the back.
Most women will need a larger cup size during pregnancy. Wear what you find most comfortable and supportive–either a larger regular bra, a maternity bra, or a nursing bra that you buy early. Just as with nursing bras, an expert fitter can help you with maternity bras.
Depending on the manufacturer, cup sizes can range from A through D, then DD, DDD, E, F, G, H, and I. Another mistake, experts say, is that women may not invest in good-quality nursing bras since they don’t think they’ll be using them for long. Since this is a time when you most need extra support, it’s worth the investment to get something that will help you and keep you comfortable.
A professional fitting will ensure a comfortable fit and the correct size. Try on bras for size and feel, and practice with nursing pads in place. After you’ve bought one properly fitting bra, you can order more of the same style and size online or from a catalog. Many websites offer competitive deals.
Best for Breasts
Tempted to use your regular bra for nursing instead of a nursing bra? That’s one cost-saving measure you don’t want to make. Regular bras aren’t designed for nursing and may not give you the extra support you need to be comfortable. And lifting your regular bra up over your breast to nurse can put a lot of pressure on breast tissue.
The best nursing bras are comfortable and offer good support but don’t bind breasts in any way that could interfere with milk flow. For optimum support, the band and the straps should be made of nonstretchy fabric. But cups should have some “give” to accommodate your changing breast size at different phases of nursing.
Look for bras that are 100 percent cotton or a blend of cotton and Lycra or other stretchy synthetic. Since the right bra size is important and can help reduce the risk of breast-feeding complications, such as clogged milk ducts, shop at a maternity store or boutique that has an experienced bra fitter.
Talk to the Experts
Every woman’s body changes at different rates during pregnancy and after childbirth, and experts don’t all agree on when you should get fitted for nursing bras.
Pat Marcus, who founded the online company Decent Exposures after she was unable to find a comfortable bra for her larger bust, said some clients go up two cup sizes after they give birth. But in general, she says, women will find that their breasts get bigger when they first become pregnant, then their rib cage size may increase (or not). Once the baby is born, their breasts will increase again when they are ready to nurse, and then possibly decrease after a few weeks.
Marcus, who nursed her four children, tells clients to get at least one good supportive nursing bra late in their pregnancy but before they give birth, since they may not feel like going out to shop once they are home with the baby, and because their breasts might leak. “You should get one that fits your rib cage now and is a cup size bigger than what you think you need,” she says.
Jan Barger, a Chicago-area lactation consultant and registered nurse who breast-fed her three children, recommends not buying more than one nursing bra before your baby arrives because your size could be bigger once your baby is born and your milk comes in.
Barger says women should focus on getting used to nursing. To establish breast-feeding in the beginning, she says, it’s actually best if you don’t have much in the way. You’ll want your baby to figure out how to properly latch on by himself, which is critical. Meanwhile, you’ll be figuring out the most comfortable way to hold him. “For first time moms, in the first few weeks, you practically need to get naked,” she adds.
But since nursing bras are important, especially to avoid leaks and protect your nipples if they become sore during feedings as they adjust to the process, Barger recommends getting something inexpensive and easy to use at first. “Get some very comfortable sports bras for the first week or so, slightly larger than you’re wearing now, that you can pull down easily,” she says. Other experts suggest getting something similar to a sports bra, such as a “bralet,” which looks like a sports bra but has less support built into it, or a nursing “sleep bra.” You can nurse with any of these by simply pulling them; they don’t have hooks, snaps, or Velcro to worry about.
Once you get the hang of nursing and you’re more comfortable, your size will be easier to determine. That’s a great time to get professionally fitted for a nursing bra, Barger says, adding, “go out and get two or three good nursing bras.”
Your goal should be to find a nursing bra that gives you good support and feels comfortable. With a little experimenting and patience, your nursing bra will become something you don’t think about that often, just like your regular bra.
You can also discuss your choices with a lactation consultant. To find a one in your area, contact the hospital or birth center where you’ll deliver, or go to the International Lactation Consultant Association. Nursing mothers can also get support and advice from La Leche League International, a group that encourages breast-feeding through mother-to-mother support and meet-ups across the country.
Just like regular bras, you’ll find a wide range of styles and prices for nursing bras. Whether you want an underwire design, a sports bra style, or a bra built into a camisole top, you can find it in a nursing bra. One innovation is the breast-pumping bra, which lets you pump milk hands-free. We haven’t tested these or any other nursing bras.
Closure locations vary depending on the bra, and include flaps that attach at the top near the shoulder strap, flaps that open and close between the two cups, and no flaps at all, where the cups just pull down for quick access. Latches vary, too. Squeeze or push-type latches are usually easy to operate with one hand compared with snaps or hooks. Here are some nursing bra types you may find available:
Sleep Nursing Bras
Most manufacturers have several nursing-bra lines, including models that are comfortable for sleeping or lounging in.
Soft-Cup Nursing Bras
You’ll also see traditional, seamless “soft cup” bras, that let you lower the cups from the hook closure near the shoulder strap.
Underwire Nursing Bras
Some women prefer an underwire style, that has clips to open the cups quickly.
Sports Nursing Bras
There are different kinds of sports nursing bras, usually wireless and made of spandex and nylon.
Nursing bras that are built into tank tops offer discreet nursing clips for quick breast-feeding access. “Some of my moms have had really cute cami-type tops that are made for nursing, and, especially in the summer, you don’t even notice that they are nursing tops,” says Jan Barger, a lactation consultant near Chicago.
Pumping bras can replace a nursing bra or in some cases be worn over one. They allow you to pump “hands free” with almost any brand of electric breast pump, either double or single. You can also try a pumping bustier.
In the world of nursing bras, support is queen. “This is when you are at your fullest,” says Rebecca Aughton, who owns a boutique near Detroit that offers a special “nursing salon.” Aughton says if you’re concerned about maintaining your figure after pregnancy and nursing, the best thing you can do is look for a really supportive nursing bra, whether or not it looks pretty or fashionable.
The best nursing bras fasten in the back but have flaps in the front for access. They also have strong side and under-cup support, and sometimes an extra-wide back for a fit that doesn’t feel tight and helps distribute the weight. Straps should be nonstretch but adjustable. Soft-cup styles usually feature a “no roll” band, which is a plus.
If your breasts are extra-ample, you might be a candidate for bras with extra-wide, padded shoulder straps and fuller cups. But be sure to try them on before you buy to see if they’re comfortable.
How you open and close the flaps on your nursing bra is important. The front flap on many nursing bras fastens at the top, near the shoulder strap. Other nursing-bra flaps open and close between the cups. Some don’t have a flap at all; the cups just pull down for quick access. Go with whichever type is easier for you to use with one hand without having to put your baby down. Squeeze or push-type latches are easy to operate with one hand compared with snaps, which usually take two hands to close. Practice in the dressing room at the store.
Near the end of your pregnancy and in the early weeks of nursing, your breasts may enlarge, sometimes significantly, and then return to a smaller size once breast-feeding is established. For greatest comfort, you’ll want a nursing bra with adjustable straps and multiple hook positions on the band so you can adjust it for comfort. Don’t be discouraged if the first bra you buy ends up not fitting; you may have to get fitted again once you start nursing, but the experts say it’s worth it.
Color and Style
While white is still common in nursing bras you can find pretty much any color you want now, including hot pink and prints. Some bras will look simple and utilitarian, while others might be lacy and fall more into the lingerie category.
Bebe au Lait
This Los Gatos, Calif.,-based brand develops products that pair “beautiful prints with luxurious fabrics to meet the needs of modern, active parents.” Established in 2004, Bebe au Lait has since grown into three brands: Hooter Hiders, Bebe au Lait, and most recently, Lille. Its products include burp cloths, hooded towels, luxury blankets, and nursing-cover sets, and are available through its website, specialty retailers, and national retail chains such as Babies “R” Us and Nordstrom.
Based in Toronto, this company started out with a leopard-print bra and two breast-feeding moms, about 20 years ago. Today, the company’s products include nursing bras and nursing tanks. Available at specialty shops and the company’s website.
For more than 15 years, this Seattle-based company has been fitting women of virtually every size and shape, from 30AAA to 60J, and every size in between. Its expanded product line includes nursing bras, front closure bras, clothing, and baby accessories, and even men’s undergarments.
Begun by its parent company, Eveden, this European company produces lingerie, including nursing bras, for the fuller-figured woman.
All of the company’s designing, sample sewing, and shipping take place in its headquarters in San Francisco, and nearly all of its garments are manufactured in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. The company has patented several innovative and fashionable designs, which include the Ok support waistband, and Hug line.
La Leche League
Q-T Intimates is the newest licensee to be aligned with La Leche League International. It has created innovative nursing bras, including one that adjusts to a woman’s ever-changing body size. Its easy-to-open cups are mindful of the busy mom on the go. A portion of all LLLI licensed products goes to La Leche League International to support its many programs and services worldwide.
Built on the premise that the fit of a bra “can truly change the life of a woman,” Le Mystère incorporates its “all about fit” approach to its designs. Products include smooth, T-shirt styles, lacy date-night styles, support-seamed options, nursing bras, and specialty/convertible bras.
Leading Lady is a nursing and full-figure intimate apparel company. For more than 70 years, Leading Lady has
manufactured nursing and full-figure bras for various brands and retailers across North America. Now, Leading Lady’s comprehensive line of nursing and full-figure intimates can be purchased directly online.
Founded in 1961 in Zug, Switzerland, by Olle Larsson, the company continues under the ownership of the Larsson family. Medela serves its customers through 15 subsidiaries distributing to more than 90 countries worldwide. Medela’s U.S. subsidiary, Medela Inc., has been serving the American market for nearly 30 years. Products include breast pumps and accessories, breast-feeding devices, intimate apparel, and cleaning and mom-care products. Its website includes information for the expectant and nursing mother, a discussion board, and an “Ask the LC (Lactation Consultant)” section.
When you’re a nursing, a properly fitting bra is more important than ever. You’ll want comfortable ones that provide the right support, ones that don’t bind, pinch, hike up in the back or front, or irritate breast tissue. As we’ve said, most women experience changes in breast size during pregnancy and lactation. That’s why Rebecca Aughton, who has 17 years experience in the industry, recommends that women shop for a nursing bra two weeks before their due date.
Certified Bra Fitting
At Aughton’s Bra-vo Intimates shop, which opened 10 years ago in Royal Oak, Michigan, there’s a special “nursing salon” staffed with certified maternity and nursing-bra fitters. Pregnant or not, most women don’t wear the right size bra, Aughton says, but it’s even more important to get fitted when you are pregnant and nursing since that’s when the bust is fullest and needs more support.
Aughton recommends getting fitted for a maternity bra during pregnancy when your regular bras no longer fit. Then, when her clients come in two weeks before their due date, Aughton and her staff fit them for a supportive nursing bra as well as a sleep bra for those early, postdelivery days. Customers often come back and get fitted once again after they’ve established a nursing routine.
“When your milk comes in you just feel huge, and then after week four or five, you settle into the nursing, and you may come down a little bit in size,” Aughton says, “so it is nice to come back in and get fitted again.”
In addition to boutiques, you can also find nursing bras at maternity shops and some department stores, both of which should have staff on hand that can help you. Macy’s, for example, carries the Le Mystere line, while Nordstrom carries Elomi nursing bras (from the United Kingdom company Eveden, which has all sizes but also specializes in D+ sized intimate apparel). The Elomi Soft Cup Nursing Bra (about $56) is made from a “moisture-wicking” microfiber and features a quick-release clasp.
And of course, once you know your correct size, you can hunt for nursing bras in catalogs or online.
You’ll want some “give” or stretchiness in the bra cup to accommodate not only changes in your breast size, but also normal changes during the course of the day once you begin to nurse (breasts will become firm with milk and softer after nursing). The band on your bra should be comfortable, but that part of the bra also needs to be firm for proper support. Buy a bra with multiple hook positions so you can adjust it if needed. Shoulder straps should also be firm–not stretchy–for additional support and stability.
“The band should be firm,” Aughton says. “The band should be a really strong fabric. You want it to feel firm, bordering on tight,” she continues. “Ninety percent of your support comes from that band; 10 from the strap.”
Shop at a maternity store or boutique and ask if there’s a certified bra fitter on staff. This service is usually free. Aughton says you should try on bras and practice opening and closing the clips with one hand.
If you don’t know of a certified bra fitter or lactation consultant, perhaps someone affiliated with the hospital where you plan to deliver can offer advice and a referral to a certified fitter. Or go to the International Lactation Consultant Association. Many hospitals and birthing centers have lactation consultants on staff, and you should take advantage of their expertise if you can.
Support is the most important thing, so don’t get hung up on having a seamless bra if it doesn’t give you the best fit. “Don’t sacrifice support for fashion,” Aughton says.
Getting the Right Fit
When you’re being fitted, you’ll be measured under your arms. The tape measure will also be wrapped around your torso at the fullest point of the bust. The difference between the two measurements is your cup size. Once you get your official size, you can find a style you like and feel comfortable in. Don’t be put off by the size the fitter recommends, which could be much different from what you normally wear. Keep an open mind and try bras on before you decide whether they’re right for you. Once you realize the difference in support, comfort, and appearance (a properly fitting bra will make you look much better!), you won’t be hung up on letters of the alphabet. You may not end up with the bra size you thought you’d wear, but the bra probably will fit well.
If you decide to buy a nursing bra online or from a catalog, double-check the retailer’s instructions for measuring, since brands might be sized differently. And make sure you can return it in case it doesn’t fit.
If you have a large chest, you might have to search longer for a bra that fits well. One problem, says Pat Marcus, owner of the Decent Exposures lingerie boutique, is that some women with large breasts might need a big cup but still have a small back. Many traditional nursing bras that you’ll find in stores, she says, only go as far as DD or DDD cups, but you can find a wider variety of styles at specialty retailers. Aughton, of Bra-vo Intimates, says her best-selling nursing bra is a G cup, and she also sells bras up to cup size L.
What to Buy
Buy two or more bras; Aughton recommends having three on hand at all times—one to wear, one in the laundry, and a clean one in their drawer.
Plan to buy a sleep/loungewear bra for the early days of nursing when you’ll want to wear your nursing bra and pads 24/7 for leakage control. “Not everybody leaks,” says Pat Marcus, but you’ll want to have nursing pads on hand in case.
Cracked or sore nipples can lead to mastitis, a breast infection caused by bacteria. Aughton recommends changing your nursing pads frequently. You can find disposable ones as well as re-useable ones you throw in the wash. According to La Leche League, sore nipples are usually the result of improperly positioning the baby, so if you run into latching problems, reach out to a lactation consultant or the organization.
It’s fine to wear an underwire nursing bra if that is what you like, but make sure it fits properly. “The underwire should sit against the body; it should be flat,” Aughton says. “If you can fit your finger in the front, between your breasts, it’s the wrong size.”
In addition to nursing bras, you’ll need disposable or washable cotton pads that you can tuck inside to absorb any leakage. The disposable types are usually made of super-absorbent material that wicks moisture away from the skin. They’re higher-tech than cotton nursing pads, but both types cost about the same. Both kinds prevent clothing stains and skin irritation, and are invisible to the outside world, so it’s just a matter of personal preference. You may also need special bra shells that can protect sore nipples from irritation or help draw out inverted nipples. You can find nursing pads and bra shells at drugstores, specialty maternity shops, and stores that sell baby products.
For instant privacy, many women use a baby blanket to cover their baby when nursing in public. But a nursing cover-up can be more secure because it won’t slip off as easily. Cover-ups have a strap that’s worn around the neck, which prevents them from shifting or allowing a baby to yank it off.
Whatever you choose, make sure there’s sufficient airflow for your baby once you’re covered up.
You can buy special nursing shirts, dresses, and sleep garments that have strategically placed slits and flaps for quick access. While they make breast-feeding convenient, they’re not essential. Many moms make do with large shirts, button-down blouses, and tank tops they can easily lift or lower.
Jan Barger, a lactation consultant, says the one piece of nursing clothing that might really come in handy is a nursing nightgown or pajamas. “It’s something nice to have, so it’s easier for you,” she says.
Some nursing shirts can advertise that you’re nursing because of their front flaps, which consist of two extra pieces of fabric. If you plan to nurse for a while and want to be able to do it in public, a nursing top can make it easier and more comfortable.
With more manufacturers in the nursing-wear marketplace, you can find plenty of chic garments.
The newest generation of nursing wear—clingy tank tops and other shirts—have a built-in nursing bra (usually a shelf-type bra as opposed to one with individual cups) so you don’t have to wear one underneath. They’re something to consider for a change of pace, but make sure they provide the support you’ll need. And keep in mind that, like other “nursing” shirts, they might be more expensive than conventional clothes.
Some clothes are designed to help you move from maternity into nursing, which means you can get more wear out of them. Because maternity and nursing clothes are flexible and accommodating, they can be very comfortable in the first weeks or months of your child’s life. But if you plan to breast-feed for a while, you might eventually reintroduce your pre-pregnancy clothes into the mix and end up breast-feeding in whatever you wear that day.