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Maternity and Nursing Bras Q & A

by Adriane Stare February 03, 2016

Maternity and Nursing Bras Q & A

Let's talk boobs.

Are yours tender? Aching? Is your chest expanding at a rate that you would once classify as absurd? Don't worry, Mama!  We are here to help you out! Let's chat about the girls and figure out how to hoist them up and treat them right.

Nursing bras are made to work with you and for you. While the ones you like least will more often take up precious space in your overflowing drawer (yes, you can kiss all your old bras goodbye for the next year), but the good ones will quickly become your best friends. The bras will expand and contract with daily changes in your cup sizes. They gently support aching, heavy, engorged and sensitive boobs. They conveniently hold your nursing pads in place, so you don't leak through shirts (too quickly), or wake up in a puddle of milk every morning. You may even find some sexier styles that won't compromise your personal pre-lactating tastes. 

We have pretty much heard and seen it all when it comes to boobs. Here are our answers to some of our most frequently asked questions about maternity and nursing bras.

How big are my boobs really going to get?

If we could predict this, honey, we'd be bra-zillionaires! The reality is that it's really impossible to know. For every mama we see who goes up two cup sizes and a band size, we see another mama whose breasts and rib cage have barely grown at all. Use your sister or mom as a good gauge if you are curious, as we experience similar body changes during pregnancy as those of our relative's (but not always!). With that said, it is more common than not that in pregnancy you will go up at least one cup size and one band size. Getting a bra that will grow and expand with you will save you a buck in the long run, and hopefully make pregnancy a bit easier and more comfortable.

Boob Engorgement Different stages of the breast during pregnancy. Graphic by Cake Maternity.

What's the difference between a maternity and nursing bra?

Funny thing: In our experience, there's actually no such thing as a true "maternity" bra. A maternity bra that is not also a nursing bra is simply a bigger bra. You can go to your local bra shop and up your cup and band size as needed, but be warned that it may not be very comfortable for long, and you may simply grow out of it in the next couple months. Your milk ducts expand during pregnancy, which changes the shape of your boobs and can make traditional bras uncomfortable. Underwire will start to dig in to your armpits and rib cage, or worse, press down into the top of your baby bump as you reach your last months. Not fun!

A nursing bra typically comes with clips and hooks on the front for actual nursing, but they are also made for boobs that are preparing to make milk (which will happen whether you choose to breastfeed or not). Said bras are typically softer on the inside for sensitive nipples and made with more breathable materials. Like a pair of high-quality leggings, they are also designed to expand and contract without losing their shape. Some nursing bras may still come with underwire, but it's usually a flexible wire that is a wider shape to get around all of your new, fabulous breast tissue. Bras without underwire or "flexi-wire" will often use reinforced stitching under the cup or racerback designs as a way to offer support in alternative ways.

The great news about investing in nursing bras in the early months of pregnancy, is that even if you grow out of them while you're further along, you'll usually be able to fit back into them once you've given birth and your body and breasts begin to shrink back down again.

When should I get fitted for a nursing bra?

Are you pregnant? Now's a good time! Unless nothing has changed with your boobs, within the first trimester is not too early, believe it or not. If your cups overfloweth with breast, you're on the loosest hook setting or feel the bands digging, it’s time for a larger size. Red marks are NOT okay! Seriously, your bra should be easing the pain, not causing it. Instead of sizing up in your favorite bra, and then doing so again in a couple months, consider getting a nursing bra that will grow with you. Cake Maternity Croissant nursing bras, for example, offer SIX hook and eye settings on their bands and adjustable, wide straps. If you're not ready to forgo the support you are used to, this bra also has flexi-wire for support. Melinda G bras offer wider, more comfy straps and a seamed under-breast stitching that will give you some support.

How will I know if my bra fits?

Simple! How does it feel? When in doubt while purchasing a new bra during pregnancy (or in the immediate postpartum) without a professional fitting, size up in the cup. Only size up in the band from your pre-pregnancy size if you are feeling that the band is digging. While most maternity and nursing bras offer plenty of adjustment options, here are some fitting guidelines:

  • Straps and elastics should not be digging in or painful. That means it's too small.
  • The back of the bra should stay parallel to the ground and should inch upward in an arch shape. You shouldn’t feel the need to pull the band down. Go down a band size if any of this is happening to you.
  • If your boobs are spilling out of your cups in any way - creating a "muffin top" over the top of the cup, creeping under the bottom, or bulging out into your armpits - your bra cup size is too small. The whole breast should be within the cup. This means all the new tissue and milk ducts you are forming under your armpit. Cutting off milk ducts in your pits or along the top seam of a too-small bra cup can cause plugged milk ducts, which are no Mamas' friend! (For more info on plugged milk ducts, click here.)

What are my bra style and support options?

  • Flexi-wire: Underwire gives a bra a lot of structure, which during engorgement (first four weeks of postpartum) can feel like a sadistic game of "put the boobs in the vice." However, if you have larger boobs (sizes DD-K) underwire may actually feel good and necessary. If that is the case, we recommend Cake's flexi-wire bras which are more comfortable than a typical underwire bra. The flexi-wire makes the cup wider on the bottom, which means more of the breast tissue can be included in the cup and is, hence less likely to cause duct blockage.

    Cake Maternity Flexible Underwire Comparison Graphic by Cake Maternity

  • Molded: A molded cup bra will offer more coverage for those pesky nursing nips that seem to poke out and make themselves known under all your shirts. Molded cups tend to normalize cup sizes if you have one breast that is much larger than the other. As a note, most molded cups will have a thin piece of molded padding that is removable should you change your mind about wanting it at a later time.
  • Non-molded: Non-molded cups can be really nice during pregnancy on the days (or nights) when your boobs are so sensitive all you want is a little something to hold them up and alleviate any pressure. They tend to be more breathable than molded cups and are also often the choice for larger-breasted women who have no desire for any excess shaping created by a molded cup.
  • Seamless and stretchy: When your belly is about as big as it's gonna get, you just try cramming a piece of underwire or a scratchy band in between your boobs and your bump. No way, no how. Enter the brilliance that is a seamless bra. The soft stretchiness can easily slide between tight, sweaty crevices without irritation and also feels gentle and loving on your tender nips. The Fast Food Bra by Boob Design is easy to size (S-XL), and has four clip settings in the band as well as a band extender, so that your rib cage can expand and contract a size without you having to get a new bra. Genius! We love how Cake Maternity's Cotton Candy seamless racerback bra slides overhead but also has clips for adjustability in the band. This means it supports like a sports bra, but feels soft as a cotton candy cloud. Note that the Cotton Candy advertises molded cups, but it is all seamless, and has only slight contouring to add a bit more support and coverage. Perhaps one of the best parts about seamless bras are the prices. For about $50, you can snag a few of these and be sure you'll get good use out of them during both pregnancy and in the early nursing months. Heck, for $22 you can also grab a one-size, over-the-head Coobie Bra. These are actually comfy and quite supportive for women with up to about a 34C.

How many bras should I get?

We recommend starting with three - one to wear, one in the wash, and one in the drawer ready to go. Given that most mamas will have different bras for different occasions, you will typically acquire more than three, but this is a good place to start. You can't anticipate how you're comfort or feeding priorities will change after the baby comes, so getting yourself set up for right now just makes sense! You'll be in a much more informed position a few months after birth if you need to change styles or sizes. But no matter what, hand-wash your bras and hang dry them so they last as long as possible. 

How much pain will my boobs actually cause when my milk comes in?

A few mamas on the WWM team described their newly lactating breasts as...

"Hot, dripping, swollen craziness..."

"Rock hard porn star boobs..."

"It's like having two giant boulders sewn into your skin and nipples that can cut glass."

But seriously, during that first week of postpartum, many mamas actually won't want to wear a bra at all. Your boobs can reach a whole new level of heaviness (or "boulderness" if you will) as the milk starts to come in that you may have never imagined. The thought of anything pushing against them during this time can be off-putting. So the question during this time becomes, what is the most basic form of coverage and support I can have? Inevitably, friends and family will be coming over to coo at your new little babe or you'll have to make it out to your first pediatrician appointment, and going topless may not always be an option, depending on your state's laws. ;) 

Nursing tanks are an excellent choice when your milk starts to come in because they give you coverage, a basic amount of support, and are so simple to pull down for all-day, every-hour, nursing action. Many tanks on the market have a shelf on the inside with a small elastic under your rack for support, but these may irritate larger chested mamas, or cause the dreaded "uni-boob" effect by creating no spacing or separation. The Melinda G Cami Sutra features a hidden strap with hook and eye adjustments in the back so you feel like your boobs are being held in place and separated a bit, but you aren't totally restricted to the cups of a structured bra. They also have panels to keep breast pads and other comforting accessories in place. The Belly Bandit Mother Tucker Tank is similar, but also has three strategic zones of compression, which when worn consistently, may help remind your abdominal muscles to close back together. It may be too tight for immediate use, but once your tummy shrinks down a bit, this tank is dead sexy!

I don't sleep with bras on. Why would I start now?

Like many of us, you may let your ladies run free in the midnight hours. Totally understandable. But before you balk, remember what we said about hot, swollen rocks in your chest? Heavy boobs may be a reality for you in the near future, and moving around in bed (or in and out of bed frequently as you tend to your new squish), equals pain and discomfort. A bit of support goes a long way at night, especially if said support doubles as a nursing pad holder. If you're nursing your babe while lying down in your bed, milk gets everywhere. Take advantage of a stretchy, breathable, bra to hold some sort of cotton protection against the dreaded milk puddle!

To tempt you even further, a sleep bra will be the most comfy thing you own. An over-the-head organic cotton bra by Blue Canoe comes in regular and plus size, and is the only thing you'll want to wear the last 2 months of pregnancy and the first 2 months of nursing. And sometimes later on just because. The sizing for sleep bras typically runs from Sm to XL, which makes it easier for selection. Note: size down in the Jane Bra to get a tighter fitting band, but simply grab a plus size cup if you are a C/D cup or larger.

Oh Mama, You Will Get Through This and we are here for you when you need a little leg up. Or a boob up. Or a virtual hug. Seriously, keep your questions coming, we love to hear how it's going and what is working for you!

Adriane Stare
Adriane Stare

Adriane Stare is the owner and founder of Wild Was Mama. She is a BI Certified Babywearing Educator and the proud mother to two (adorable) little boys.


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