Ultimate guide to nursing bras

We’ve tried to cover everything you might need to know to help you choose what bras would suit you, how they should fit and when it’s the best time to buy them.

In this article:

Please note that this article is not meant to replace the advice of your lead maternity carer about breastfeeding and breast health, talk to them about any pain or issues you may be experiencing.

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The stages of breastfeeding and what bras to wear

To understand what kind of bras you will need it’s important to first understand what changes your breasts will go through once you give birth.

When your milk comes in

At first your breasts will produce colostrum to feed your baby. It’s a very rich, thick liquid packed full of things your baby needs. You only produce a small amount of it, which perfectly suits your baby’s very tiny stomach. Over the next few days, the volume will increase (to match your baby’s growing tummy) and it will become thinner. This phase is what people refer generally to as ‘your milk coming in’. Your milk will actually keep changing to suit your baby’s needs as they continue to grow, but the most noticeable changes to you will likely be in that first week.

Your breast size can increase dramatically during this stage and also fluctuate in size throughout the day. You may experience breast engorgement, especially around day three. This can make your breasts become very large, hard to the touch and quite uncomfortable (you can read more about breast engorgement at KellyMom).

Some nipple tenderness is normal, they have to adjust to their new task but if it’s painful or persists it’s important to get help from a lactation consultant or your lead maternity carer as it can quickly become worse. Cracked nipples can also lead to an infection. For more about nipple pain you can check out this article on the La Leche League website.

The first few weeks

As your breasts adjust to producing milk you are at the highest risk of developing blocked milk ducts which can lead to mastitis. Make sure whatever bra or clothing you are wearing over your breasts isn’t too tight or restrictive. If your bra is cutting into your breast it can restrict the milk flow and cause a milk duct to become plugged. Badly fitting bras or clothing aren’t the only thing that can cause a blockage but wearing a bra that fits well can help reduce the risk. Avoid underwires and flexi-wires completely at this stage of nursing.

Warning signs

The main signs of a blocked duct are redness, hotness, inflammation and a lump (or lumps). Flu like symptoms are a sign of mastitis. You can read more on blocked milk ducts and mastitis on KellyMom.

Milk leakage is very common at this stage, you may only experience it in the beginning, for a few months or it may continue for the whole time you breastfeed.

Bra advice

  • The top priority for bras should be your breast health, make sure nothing is too tight and keep an eye out for any signs of a blocked milk duct or mastitis.
  • During this stage it’s best to wear bras that are really comfy and have some stretch in them (the next page covers what to look for in a standard nursing bra and after that we cover other types of bras and nursing camisoles that would be suitable).
  • Be prepared, make sure you have bought them before you give birth, you will be way too busy and tired in those first weeks to go shopping. About a month before you are due is a good time to get the bras you will need. Make sure there is some room in the cups for you to get bigger, they shouldn’t be baggy but need to have some space to expand. If the fabric is stretchy and they aren’t already tight this should give you the room you need.
  • It’s good to have something to sleep in, for comfort and to hold nursing pads in place.
  • Stay away from underwires or flexi-wires during this stage.

Breastfeeding is established

It normally takes around 6 weeks for your milk supply to regulate and the breastfeeding relationship to become fully established. At some point around this time breasts normally become a bit more of a stable size, although it may happen before this or take a bit longer. Once this happens it’s a good time to get more bras if you need them.

You can still experience breast engorgement, this usually occurs from a missed feed.

The first few weeks have the highest risk of blocked ducts and mastitis, but it is still possible to get it at any time while you are lactating. Keep an eye out for the signs and make sure your bras and clothing aren’t too tight.

Your breast size will change throughout the day, each breast will be fuller before a feed and then smaller after a feed. They work independently of each other so if your baby feeds from only one during a nursing session that one will be smaller while the other remains full until the next feed. How much milk is stored in the breasts varies between women, some will find these changes very noticeable and may cause difficulties with getting your bra to fit well. For others it doesn’t cause any problems at all. Some women may also find they feel fuller in the morning (after hopefully getting some sleep) and smaller by the evening.

Even when your breasts have settled down from the first few weeks they will still usually be noticeably larger than your pre-pregnancy breasts.

Bra advice

  • When you think your breasts have settled in size it is a good time to buy more bras if you need them.
  • If you want to wear an underwire or flexi-wire bra you could get fitted now. Make sure you read our section on underwire nursing bras, wearing a badly one could increase the risk of blocked ducts or mastitis.

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Continuing breastfeeding and weaning

If you continue breastfeeding for some time you will most likely experience changes in your breast size. Most commonly your breasts will get smaller, often weight loss will be a factor for this. As the amount of breast feedings you do decreases you may also find your breast size decreases. This can happen when either solids become the main food source for your baby, if you start mix-feeding with formula or from weaning.

Bra advice

  • If your bras aren’t fitting you anymore or giving you the support you need you may have to go shopping again.
  • If you have any nursing bras from when you were pregnant that you outgrew before giving birth try them on again to see if they fit now. This advice might be too late but it’s good if you can buy nursing bras when you are pregnant and first outgrow your normal bras. You will mostly likely outgrow those again before you give birth but if you keep them they might fit you again later on while you are nursing.

After breastfeeding

Many women worry that breastfeeding will cause their breasts to sag, but most experts agree this isn’t true. For women who notice more sagging after breastfeeding it’s generally attributed to the pregnancy itself rather than breastfeeding. Other contributing factors for sagging are weight gain and loss, having larger breasts, aging and a history of smoking. Another reason women sometimes feel as though they’re saggy is actually just perception. If you’re used to them feeling full because they’re producing milk they can feel quite empty and deflated when you stop. But that feeling should pass as you get used to them.

Most women find their breasts get smaller when they stop breastfeeding. For some women this is the same as their pre-pregnancy size but for many their breast size or weight will have changed, your breasts could be smaller or larger than before. If your pre-pregnancy bras still fit then that’s great, if not you will need to go shopping again.

Some women find it difficult to return to underwire bras after having worn soft cups ones through nursing. If this is the case just buy soft cup bras instead, there are plenty available that aren’t maternity or nursing bras.

It’s also quite common to experience some milk leakage once you have stopped breastfeeding, you may need to wear breast pads for a while until they have adjusted.

Bra advice

  • If your nursing bras still fit you can keep wearing them if you want to get more use out of them.
  • Try on your pre-pregnancy bras but don’t be surprised if they don’t fit you anymore, you may need to go shopping again.
  • You might prefer the feel of soft cup bras if you’ve been wearing them for some time.