Photo by @lilliesandleon, via Instagram (nursing bra by Cake Maternity)
Allison Grange didn’t think she’d need a nursing bra. “My mother couldn’t breastfeed, and I had some friends who couldn’t, so I assumed it would be difficult for me,” recalls the mom of one from Brockville, Ont. Just in case, she grabbed a couple of $5 nursing bras from a factory outlet. When she ended up successfully breastfeeding her daughter, Grange found herself stuck with bras that had little support, lost their shape quickly and had frustrating clasps. “I realized nursing bras were much more important than I thought.”
Not having the right support when your breasts need it most can make lactating an uncomfortable experience at best. At worst, says Attie Sandink, a lactation consultant in Burlington, Ont., an ill-fitting bra can cause a wide range of breastfeeding woes, from yeast infections and nipple blisters to plugged ducts and mastitis, a serious infection of the breast tissue. Here’s what you need to know.
A few days after birth, your breasts may become engorged and might leak (especially at night), and chances are you will want your girls supported at all times. “You’ll need at least a couple of sleepable, stretchy bras that don’t dig in anywhere and will accommodate pretty heavy breasts postpartum,” says Sarah LeMay, a mother of three and the founder of Evymama, a Toronto nursing and maternity boutique. Although sometimes called “sleep bras,” these are great for all-day wear because they don’t have underwires, which can put unwanted pressure on milk ducts if they don’t fit properly. Plus, they’re made from soft, breathable fibres that easily stretch with your breasts. Nursing tank tops with a soft built-in bra are another good option immediately post-birth. However, because the elastic band part around your ribs is typically thinner, they don’t offer as much support.
When you want more support or a more shapely fit, get yourself sized for a structured bra by a professional at a maternity boutique or department store. You can actually do this in advance, at around 36 weeks, as this is the approximate size you’ll be from six to eight weeks postpartum (when your breasts stop fluctuating drastically). Alternatively, wear a softer bra for the first two months so you don’t buy a bra that ends up being too big.
Your breasts should never bulge out of the cups, so if this is happening, buy a larger cup size. Get a bra that is comfortably snug on the loosest hook. (But make sure it’s not so tight that it leaves red marks. As a test, wear the bra for five minutes in the store.) That way, as your rib cage shrinks postpartum, you can tighten it up. If the band is riding up your back or the straps slip off your shoulders, you need a smaller band size. “The band needs to do 90 percent of the supporting,” says LeMay. “Anything too loose, and you’re putting too much pressure on your shoulders and your neck.”
Sleep bras can be purchased on almost any budget, but more structured nursing bras, characterized by wide straps, thick bands with extra hooks and panels that allow easy access to the nipple, can run anywhere from $50 to $100. LeMay suggests having three or four in total, of either type, but purchasing only a few at a time, leaving a few weeks between fittings to accommodate any boob changes.
Every time Grange thought about upgrading her bras, she countered it with, “I probably won’t need these much longer.” But then she ended up nursing for more than a year. “If I were to do it again, I would definitely put more effort into finding good-quality nursing bras.”
There’s no evidence that underwires aren’t OK. However, the general consensus among lactation consultants is to wait six weeks postpartum before wearing a bra with one, so your milk supply can find its rhythm. “If the bra is too tight, the underwires won’t allow for good blood or lymphatic circulation to and from the breast,” says Attie Sandink, a lactation consultant in Burlington, Ont. And that kind of pressure can lead to blockages, pain and infection.