All About Nursing Bras

Becky Flora, BSed, IBCLC

Determining Bra Size
Most bra manufacturers have specific instructions for how to measure when fitting their bras. For this reason it’s important to measure according to the manufacturer’s instruction. Generally, band size (number) is determined by measuring around the body either directly under the arms or under the breasts and straight around the body holding the tape so that it is straight across the back. Whether or not you measure under the arms or under the breasts can vary the measurement greatly, so be sure to know how your bra’s maker suggests measuring. Generally, an odd number band measurement is rounded up to the next even number; for example a 37 inch band measurement would be rounded up to a 38. Cup size (letter) is usually determined by measuring around the fullest part of the bust, while wearing a good-fitting bra, and around the body holding the tape so that it is straight across the back. The difference between the band measurement and the cup measurement in inches determines the cup size. For example, a 3 inch difference between the band measurement and the bust measurement would indicate a C cup size, a 4 inch difference would indicate a D, etc.

It’s best to measure for your nursing bras sometime during the last month of your pregnancy. Choose a bra that fits well and comfortably but that allows for some extra room in the cup. This will accommodate continuing breast enlargement during the last few weeks of pregnancy as well as the early days/weeks postpartum when the breasts swell with milk. Purchase only one or two bras at this time because most likely your size will change after birth. Around the end of the second week, your breasts will not be swollen anymore and milk production will have begun to regulate. At this time, re-evaluate your size and purchase as many bras as you think you will need to always have a clean one on hand.

Ensuring a Good Fit
A bra that fits well does not pinch or bind the breasts in any way. There is good coverage in the front and on the sides so that cleavage does not spill out in either area. The band sits straight across the back and does not ride up the back. The strap sits comfortably on the shoulder, not digging into the skin or slipping off the shoulder with movement. A bra that’s fit is too small can put you at risk for less-than-optimal milk flow and plugged ducts/breast infections. A bra that’s fit is too large will not provide enough support and may cause discomfort either in the breasts themselves, in the back, or both. The breast tissue should be lifted and supported if the bra fits well.

Softcup or Underwire
Many mothers have been told that underwire bras should not be worn while nursing. This is optimal but not always feasible for all mothers. Some mothers have worn underwire bras before becoming pregnant and feel comfortable in nothing less. Others, especially larger-busted moms, may require the extra support and lift that an underwire provides in order to achieve a good fit.

Underwire bras require good fitting even more so than softcup bras. An underwire bra that is too small will dig into, pinch, and bind the breast tissue, making plugged ducts and breast infections more likely. Mothers should never sleep in an underwire bra as it is more likely that the wires will compress the breast tissue with lying down for prolonged periods of time. If plugged ducts and/or breast infections are recurrent, the size of the underwire bra should be re-evaluated or it should be replaced with a softcup bra until weaning occurs. Generally, however, an underwire bra can be worn during the daytime as long as it fits well and the mother is not experiencing repeat episodes of plugged ducts or breast infection.

Characteristics to Look for in a Quality Nursing Bra
A band that has at least 3 stations in the back with at least 3 hooks at each station. Having this added size adjustment ensures a better and more comfortable fit as the body changes as well as better overall support.

A cup that is adjustable with hooks or which has fabric that allows for stretch. This provides for changing breast fullness and the need for any appliances that must be worn in the bra; ie. breast shells.

Cotton – preferably 100% – lining in the cup. This allows for maximum airflow to the nipples and breast, essential for optimal breast and nipple health.

Non-elastic straps. This ensures optimal support for the breasts and helps prevent sagging.

If the bra does not have traditional nursing flaps that unsnap or unhook, the cup should easily slide over or lift up for breastfeeding access without unnecessarily mashing or binding the breast tissue.

Other Features You May Want In Your Bra
Some moms desire a bra that has a cup that can be released with one hand or which can simply be pulled over to the side or lifted up for easy access. Moms who pump a lot may want to consider a bra that allows for hands-free pumping. Larger breasted mothers may want to look for a bra that has special padding in the shoulder to further prevent digging of the strap into the shoulder. Some bra nursing flaps snap or hook in the center rather than at the top. You may find one style desirable over the other. When wearing closer-fitting clothing, you may prefer a bra that does not have a seam. This may also be the case if a seam is irritating to your tender nipples. There are sleep bras now available which provide less support than traditional nursing bras but still provide for easy access and a place to insert a nursing pad if needed. Finally, all moms should have at least one bra that’s pretty! Being a nursing mother doesn’t mean you have to forget the feminine side of you!

Caring for Your Nursing Bra
Ideally, all fine lingerie should be hand washed. But if washing your bras in an automatic washer is more convenient, consider using a garment bag to protect your bras. This is especially important when laundering underwire bras.

Fine lingerie is best line dryed but most can be dryed in an clothes dryer on low heat. Check your bra’s laundering instructions just to be sure.

For optimal breast and nipple health, change your nursing bra when the cup area becomes damp to avoid moisture remaining up against this area.

Becky is a board certified, registered lactation consultant (IBCLC, RLC) in practice with Breastfeeding Essentials in Kingsport, TN. She is the mother of 4 children ranging in ages from 7-13 whom she all breastfed proudly!