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How To Shop For Nursing Bras

How To Shop For Nursing Bras

If you’re expecting, you’ve probably already expanded your wardrobe to accommodate your growing belly. But you’ll soon discover that your ever-changing breasts will also need extra attention and support – throughout maternity, while nursing and even after weaning. Especially if you plan on breastfeeding, you’re going to want to purchase a few nursing bras that not only provide easy access for feeding your baby but also suit your lifestyle and fulfill your practical needs. Buying nursing bras online can be tricky, but we’ve made it easy for you to get the size, style and fit you need and want.

Not Your Mother’s Nursing Bras

Here’s the best news for anyone familiar with the nursing bras from previous generations: today’s selection of maternity and breastfeeding undergarments are not the industrialstrength, utilitarian, stiff (and boring) nursing bras of the past (i.e., they are most definitely not “your mother’s nursing bras”!) You can now find simple or fancy everyday nursing bras; adjustable nursing bras for daily wear; comfortable lounging or sleep bras for night nursing; sturdy sports bras for some extra support and compression; and even specially made bras that help make pumping hands-free a bit easier. Other nursing options include bralettes, camis and tank tops. Most brands offer plus sizes, as well. Whichever you choose, remember: the right fit is a must, quality is imperative and comfort is queen. And all that starts with figuring out what you’ll need at different phases of your pregnancy and early motherhood to find the best maternity bra for you. 

Maternity Bras vs. Nursing Bras – Is There a Difference?

Though the terms ‘nursing bras’ and ‘maternity bras’ are often used to mean the same thing, maternity bras are designed to accommodate your expanding body and comfortably support your more sensitive and growing breasts during pregnancy, while nursing or breastfeeding bras are a subcategory of maternity bras specifically designed for easier breastfeeding accessibility.

How do you choose the best nursing bra for your needs?

First, consider the same factors you already take into account when shopping for bras in general. Do you prefer the firmer support of an underwire, or the ease of a wire-free, seamless style? Do you like a pretty lace trim, vivid colors and decorative fabric patterns – or are you more into neutrals?

Some women will find they can use a few of their maternity bras during the nursing phase, depending on several factors. But if you’re going to be out in public, it’s challenging to nurse discreetly unless your bra is specifically designed for it. Consider some of these brands:

  • Angelina, Coobie & Dynabelly brands offer seamless, clip-down and pullover styles
  • BeliBea provides bras structured for full-cup nursing and hands-free pumping
  • Bravado a collection of super-comfy, semi-unstructured bras that take you from pregnancy to nursing
  • Motherhood Maternity carries all styles, including sports and bralette nursing bras
  • Naturana has semi-structured maternity and nursing bras
  • Rumina’s selection includes seamless nursing and pumping bras
  • Wacoal features wire-free and T-shirt style nursing bras
  • Third Love blends comfort with functionality

When To Buy Nursing Bras

As you go from stage to stage of your pregnancy, you will experience breast growth from weight fluctuation due to fluid retention, and your rib cage will likely also begin to expand. You may feel increased breast sensitivity as your milk ducts fill up and blood flow increases to the area. You may even contend with some skin discomfort or itchiness from stretching.

Soon after giving birth, you may experience leakage of colostrum (the highly nutritious “pre-milk” that comes in first, just before your regular milk supply does). And during nursing, it’s common for milk to leak (let’s face it: squirt) unexpectedly. To prepare for all these changes, assess what your needs might be during each phase of your pregnancy:

First trimester

You may need to wear your roomiest bras at this time or purchase a size or two up in anticipation.

Second trimester

Your breasts will begin to grow, but not drastically. This is a good time to purchase maternity bras as needed.

Third trimester

You may go up from one to four sizes by this phase and will need to accommodate more dramatic growth. Support is especially important in the last few months of your pregnancy. You might prefer a more flexible wire support or a wire-free style. And you’ll want to purchase nursing bras at this time, if you haven’t already – to be prepared for breastfeeding.

Postpartum (aka the “Fourth trimester”) and nursing

As your milk comes in and ebbs and flows – and your breasts often feel heavier – you’ll need to wear your nursing bras almost exclusively. You’ll want a variety of styles on hand and probably a few of each, since you’ll be doing a lot of laundry during the first few months postpartum. Seamless, wire-free and T-shirt style nursing bras are especially comforting. You may want to tuck nursing pads inside your bras to catch any leakage or to smooth over your (now more prominent) nipples.

Weaning, post-weaning or if not nursing

Your breasts will slowly reduce in size at this point and may even become smaller than they were pre-pregnancy or change shape. You can wear the bras you wore during your second and first trimester, and even possibly those you owned previously, although you may find some weight gain could affect your band size. You may need to have another fitting to purchase new sizes.

    How Nursing Bras Function

    Nursing bras are designed to allow you to discreetly feed your baby anywhere, without the need for removing your bra and shirt altogether. They usually feature cups that can be clipped or folded down or pulled to the side for easy, one-handed access. When choosing the best nursing bras for you, you’ll want to consider these additional features and factors: 

    • Lift-away layered straps with snap clasps, to allow for convenient nursing
    • Panels you can fold down or pull to the side
    • Drop-down panels or specifically designated openings for pumping access
    • Stretch, to accommodate engorgement
    • Fabric smoothness, coolness and breathability
    • Lightly lined, softly padded or removeable molded cups, for comfort and to manage leaks (you can also purchase disposable or reusable/washable nursing pads that fit inside most bras)
    • Specially designed cups for hands-free “wearable” pumping
    • Adjustable straps, for customizable fit
    • Thicker straps, to lessen pressure on your shoulders
    • More hook and loop closures, for added support

    Types of Nursing Bras

    White surplus nursing bra

    Everyday Nursing Bras

    These are the bras you’ll want a few of and probably wear the most. Unlike styles of previous generations, nursing bras now come in a variety of typical bra styles:

    • Structured underwire for full support (with metal, flexible plastic or sturdy fabric underwires)
    • Wire-free, yet structured, with hook and loop clasps
    • T-shirt bras with smooth, often slightly molded and contoured cups for a sleek look under, well, t-shirts
    • Seamless or Comfort Bra one-piece pullovers – these bras have become popular as they’re quite stretchy, yet offer substantial support and comfort without the need for a wire or closures
    Sleep surplus nursing bra

    Sleep Nursing Bras

    Sleep nursing bras (also known as ‘surplice’ bras) are made for easier night nursing, and are usually made of soft, stretchy, breathable blends and are wire-free. Many are made without hook and loop closures.

    Sleep bras are highly recommended throughout your pregnancy because besides being comfortable, they can provide much-appreciated additional support throughout the night, whether you’re sleeping or nursing. You may find yourself wearing these even during the day.

    Opting for a nursing bra with some stretch is a smart way to ensure that you’re giving yourself support in the short-term, but also planning for the months ahead.

    Sleep nursing bras are typically sized S-4X and are made with fabric that has Spandex in it, providing room to stretch and grow, as your size fluctuates. They can also help keep nursing pads in place while you sleep, so you don’t leak onto your bedsheets.

    Black lace nursing bra

    “Sexy” Maternity Bras

    You might find that a flattering, alluring bra or two will mean you don’t have to give up your style and personality after pregnancy – and may even help spark your libido.

    Nursing sports bra

    Nursing Sports Bras

    There are sports bras available that are designed for both nursing and exercise (since plenty of moms stay quite active during and after pregnancy). These of course offer extra support, but also lend some compression which can be welcome, especially during weaning. Some styles incorporate Velcro cup closures and also accommodate hands-free pumping equipment.

    Pumping bra

    Hands-Free Pumping Bras

    Designed for women to multitask while pumping, these bras have super stretchy cups with openings to accommodate and hold pumping parts in place so you can pump while checking email, folding laundry and more. Some double as nursing bras with cup panels that clip down, but most are made for the specific task of pumping quickly and efficiently.

    Strapless Nursing Bras

    Strapless nursing bras are available to accommodate strapless clothing styles, or for those who find them to be more comfortable. They may not provide as much support but can still hold nursing pads to prevent leakage and provide coverage.

    Best Materials for Nursing Bras

    Ideally, you’ll want to look for breathable fabric blends that offer some stretch, because your breasts may fluctuate up to four cup sizes (!) and grow even larger postpartum, especially if you have an oversupply of milk or become engorged during nursing. Or, you might prefer more sturdy materials for extra support. You may notice changes from day to day. Which would feel best to you?

    • Bamboo (rayon or viscose)
    • Cotton
    • Elastane (lightweight/stretchable)
    • Lycra
    • Nylon
    • Polyester
    • Spandex
    • Tencel (from eucalyptus!)

    Getting the Right Fit

    Wearing a well-fitting nursing bra is important for comfort, posture and to prevent back and neck strains. You don’t always need a professional to help you discover your true bra size or to achieve the right fit, but if you can set up a fitting, we highly recommend it. You can usually get one for free at your local lingerie shop or department store — and it can be life-changing to learn what your actual bra size is!

    But, if you’re like the majority of busy women, you’re probably shopping online for nursing bras, so we’re here to help you understand how your needs may change before, during and after pregnancy. Refer to this step-by-step guide to learn how to measure yourself properly for nursing bras and use the size chart as a shopping guide.

    Nursing Bra Sizing Chart and Guide

    Nursing bras are available in the same sizes as regular bras and seamless versions are available in sizes XS to 4XL. Be sure to check each manufacturer’s size guide to find your best match.

    Your rib cage – and therefore your bra band size – may expand during pregnancy, and your body shape, including your breasts, may shift, thanks to hormones, weight changes and active mammary glands. To learn what size you’ll need for nursing bras, measure yourself during your last few weeks of pregnancy, following these steps:

    Step 1. Find Your Bra Band Size

    Using a fabric measuring tape, measure your ribcage, right below the breasts.

    • Round up to the nearest whole number (e.g., 35.5″ = 36″)
    • Then check the chart below for your band size (e.g., a ribcage of 36″ = band size 38)
    • Note: The rib cage measurements don’t exactly correlate to the band sizes, as you can see.
    Rib Cage Band Size
    26-27″ 30
    28-29″ 32
    30-31″ 34
    32-33″ 36
    34-37″ 38
    38-41″ 40
    42-43″ 42
    44-45″ 44
    46-47″ 46
    48-49″ 48

     

    Step 2.  Measure for Cup Size

    Using the measuring tape, measure around the fullest part of your breasts. Round up to the nearest whole number (e.g., 41.5″ = 42″).

    Step 3. Determine Your Cup Size

    Cup size is determined by subtracting your band size from your bust measurement (e.g., 42″-38” = 4″; 4 = D). Every inch difference equals one cup size:

    Cup Minus Band Difference Cup Size
    0″ A
    1″ AA
    2″ B
    3″ C
    4″ D
    5″ DD, E
    6″ DDD, F
    7″ DDDD, G
    8″ H
    9″ I
    10″ J
    11″ K

     

    Step 4. Determine Your Bra Size

    Your bra size is your band and cup size together. Per the examples given above, that would be a 38D.

     

    Seamless/Pullover Bra Sizing Chart

    Bra Size Shirt Size Bust
    XS 00-2 30-32
    S 4-6 32-34
    M 8-10 35-37
    L 12-14 37-39
    XL 14-16 40-42
    XXL 18-20 43-46
    1X 14W-16W 45-49
    2X 18W-20W 47-50
    3X 22W-24W 51-53
    4X 26W-28W 53-55

     

    Note that bra sizes do vary by manufacturer so when in doubt, use their specific measuring and sizing guidelines.

      General Nursing Bra Fit Tips

      Once your bras arrive, check to make sure they fit using these tips:

      • A larger band width might require a smaller cup
      • Your breasts should be fully supported inside the bra and should not be spilling out the top or sides
      • There should not be too much excess room in the cups (but some is ok)
      • The bra band should fit snugly and firmly
      • Both straps should feel secure and not indent or dig into your shoulders
      • Practice releasing the front panels or moving material out of the way for nursing, to see which styles work best for you

      How Many Nursing Bras Will You Need?  

      For everyday bras, it’s best to have a few bras available, since you will likely leak and your baby may even spit up on them. At minimum, you’ll want three for daytime and three for nighttime.

      • One to wear
      • One in the wash
      • One in the drawer

      Even if you have two in the wash, you’ll still have one available.  

      You’ll probably also want a few sleep bras for the same reasons.

      For sports bras, we recommend at least two, or more if you’re especially active.

      How To Wash Nursing Bras

      It’s important to be hygienic when nursing, besides keeping your baby healthy, you don’t want to get an infection, become engorged or suffer from clogged milk ducts (a painful condition called mastitis). And while it’s convenient to machine wash and dry undergarments, to preserve them it’s best to handwash and line- or drip-dry (air dry). Check the labels before you make a final purchase. At the very least, use a zipped mesh laundry bag when washing your maternity or nursing bras, and don’t use harsh detergents that could irritate your or your baby’s skin or dry the bras at too high a heat or for too long (as doing so will wear garments out faster).
      Oh La Lari Nursing Cami Grey

      Nursing Camis and Tanks

      Nursing camis (camisoles) and tank tops offer a more relaxed, casual option to wear for effortless feeding times. They are usually longer that typical camis and some have side ruching, to expand over your bump. Some have more enhanced support for larger breasts with a built-in bra, while others are designed exclusively for ease of access.

      Most use an easy-to-fasten clip or hook and extra strap or a snap and closure feature to let a panel down, while others are stretchy and easy to maneuver for access. Most have adjustable straps, so you can wear them at all stages. There are even pumping camis, with openings so you can pump without having to remove your top.

      Enjoy trimester-spanning comfort with these bump-friendly tanks featuring soft stretch-enhanced cotton for nursing convenience. Camis and tank tops work well as layering base pieces any time of year. You will probably want four or five on hand. Some brands to look for include:

      • Luvmabelly 
      • Myra Europe 
      • Nanette Lepore 
      • Pip & Vine 
      • Planet Motherhood 
      • Times 2
      Purple nursing wrap

      A nursing wrap keeps baby warm and helps maintain privacy in public

      Black Zip Nursing Hoodie

      A lightweight pullover hoodie features zip openings with convenient access for nursing

      Other Maternity and Nursing Accessories To Consider

      While supporting your breasts throughout pregnancy and postpartum is vital, you may also want to consider getting other undergarments and helpful accessories to accommodate the changes your body goes through (and the challenges of nursing), such as:

      • Bra extenders to allow for breast fluctuation and/or weight gain
      • Absorbent nursing pads disposable or reusable, for random milk leaks (these can also offer camouflage for protruding nipples 
      • Nursing cover-ups or wraps for breastfeeding privately when out in public or shielding your baby – and yourself – from cold weather, bright sunlight or harsh lighting 
      • Multifunction nursing scarves that double as covers 
      • Nipple balm to ease chafing and irritation (you’ll know when you need it!) 
      • Nipple guards for smoother latching and to relieve pain 
      • Clip-on nursing side reminders or wrist bands to help remember which breast to offer at the next feeding 
      • A watch or your cellphone to track time 
      • Roomier underwear (that’s life, mama!) 
      • Maternity belts/postpartum belly support bands (elastic and/or wrap-around) for abdominal and back support 
      • T-shirt/pant extenders designed to extend the look of a T-shirt to cover bellies and maternity pants 
      • Shapewear in a variety of sizes to lend support throughout your motherhood journey 
      • Comfy sleepwear in fabrics that help regulate your body temperature 
      • Cold packs for body aches and pain relief or for reducing milk flow if not nursing or during weaning 
      • Scrunchies w/zippers to conveniently hold tissues, balm, and other items you might need at hand 
      • Ergonomic pillows to support your baby while nursing
      • Footstools to help you relieve stress on your legs and back 
      • Reachers to help grab out-of-reach items while you’re stuck in one position during nursing 
      • Baskets or fanny packs to hold helpful items you use during nursing 
      • Mesh bags and gentle laundry detergent, for machine or hand-washing 
      • A sense of humor and a willingness to ask for help 

       

      Motherhood is a journey, especially when you are also preparing for breastfeeding. But if you’re ready and armed with the tools and tips you need for success you’ll have more confidence and feel more relaxed so you can enjoy the special bonding time with your baby.

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      About The Author

      Natasha McClain

      Natasha McClain, a marketing copywriter and editor for Zulily, has written for a wide variety of industries and has been published by Kitchenware News, Washington Travel & Life, Dining Out Magazine, Bastyr, Blue Nile, McCauley Sound and New York Press. She's originally an East coaster now living in Seattle.

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