We’ve put together a buyer’s guide to maternity bras, with expert advice from the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), breastfeeding support organisation La Leche League, and Tracey-Jane Hughes, founder of BraLady, a network of independent bra fitters across the UK.
What is a maternity bra?
A maternity bra is a more supportive and comfortable version of a regular bra, specially designed to support your breasts as they grow during pregnancy. Some of the features that add comfort are wider straps, a soft, cotton lining, and extra hooks and eyes on the band.
Is there a difference between maternity and nursing bras?
Not really. Maternity bras are typically for use during pregnancy while nursing bras are specifically designed for feeding, but most are designed to be worn during pregnancy and for breastfeeding.
To ensure you choose the right bra for the job, it's best to get measured professionally at various stages throughout your pregnancy. This is due to your changing shape and increasing bust size. Most retailers stocking maternity or nursing bras offer this service.
What are the different types of maternity bra?
The market is huge, so whatever your preference you’ll surely find a bra to suit you.
Maternity and nursing bras with no wires under the cups.
These are bras with wires under the cups. Some people choose not to wear underwired bras during pregnancy or while feeding. Read more below.
These are like the crop top styles you'll likely have started out in when you were young. These don’t always have much support but are great if you want a bra that isn't too restrictive.
They're also really useful as sleep bras as they don’t have the hooks at the back. You just pull them on over your head.
Where the straps form an hour-glass shape on your back rather than going straight down from shoulder to back strap. Lots of sports bras use this style.
5. Maternity sleep bra
Designed to be less restrictive than regular maternity bras, and easier to feed in during the night.
You don’t have to wear a sleep bra but many women find them more comfy, especially when breastfeeding.
6. Maternity sports bra
Sports bras offer extra support while exercising but maternity-specific models also allow you to feed in them, too. Especially useful if you’re going straight from work to a pre- or postnatal exercise class.
These maternity bras usually have a T-back design and closely-constructed straps, which will give you plenty of support. They're typically non-wired and offer extra flexibility to make movement easier.
7. Camisole or vest bra
A maternity camisole or vest bra is, quite simply, a vest top with a built-in bra hidden inside. The straps have drop-cup clasps just like any ordinary maternity bra.
As a result, they offer discreet nursing for quick breastfeeding access, but they could end up sagging at the front when pulled down too much for breastfeeding. They do, however, function well as maternity sleep bras.
Then there are other differences, such as the type of support in nursing cups. Some drop down and have a sling support at the side of the breast, while others have an A-frame under the drop cups (a triangle shape that gives more support but leaves less of the breast free).
Some maternity bras have wide straps, others are much thinner. Some cups cover the whole breast, while others have more of a balcony style.
Stretchy maternity bras are excellent for the postnatal days when your breasts swell up bigger than your head.
Do I have to wear a maternity bra during pregnancy?
Maternity bras are designed with pregnancy in mind, so are often made using materials that offer more give and additional support in the right places.
However, if you aren’t intending to breastfeed or definitely won’t need your pregnancy bra to function as a breastfeeding one, you can just wear a ordinary bra.
It’s always a good idea to get a proper fitting as the fitter will be able to guide you towards the most suitable bras for your shape and needs.
When should I start wearing a maternity bra?
Rae Vacher Lowe of La Leche League says, “There is no universal right time to buy a maternity bra, but when you notice your breasts starting to grow it’s time to get fitted.”
You may notice a big change at around the 10-to-14-week mark. During pregnancy your breasts will grow and may start to feel more tender, so buying a wireless, stretchy maternity bra will help you to feel more comfortable.
Many women look at buying a combination of both maternity and nursing bras. Some opt to switch to nursing bras in the middle of the third trimester so they can start getting used to them.
How many maternity bras do you need?
Four should definitely do it. Don’t buy too many at the start of pregnancy because you’ll need to be re-measured before you start breastfeeding.
If you breastfeed for longer than a few months, you may well need to be measured again at that stage.
Are underwired bras safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding?
Yes, but with care. The NCT advise that underwiring is safe as long as it doesn't dig into the skin. There are lots of underwired bras on the market designed specifically for pregnancy and breastfeeding, and many use flexible wire that helps the bra to fit properly.
Soft or non-wired bras have more give so will accommodate fluctuating breast size better, however some women may prefer to stick with underwired bras – the most important thing is to ensure a good, comfortable fit.
BraLady recommends non-wired bras during the first 12 weeks of breastfeeding (and preferably for the first six months): “Underwired bras tend to have more structure to them, which can mean the cup doesn’t drop down fully when you’re feeding – this can sometimes lead to blocked ducts.”
During this period, as your body gets used to breastfeeding, your boob size and shape can fluctuate so wildly that you might find you’re more comfortable in a softer bra with stretchier material and less structure to it. Indeed, many women don’t bother putting a bra on at all for the first few days and weeks of breastfeeding.
How often should I get measured?
A good rule of thumb is three times. At the end of the first trimester, before the birth and when your baby is around three months old.
The good news is that the bras you buy at the end of the first trimester should see you through to the end of pregnancy. “Bras should really be replaced every six months regardless,” says Tracey-Jane. “But the size you are at the end of the first trimester shouldn’t change too much. Your boobs grow during the first 13 weeks and then it’s your ribs that grow most in the following two trimesters. Any good fitter will find you a bra that is adjustable around the rib cage. This means that a well fitted should see you through until the birth.”
If you’re breastfeeding, however, you’ll need bras with drop cups. Tracey-Jane suggests getting measured again at week 35 to 36 of pregnancy for post-birth bras.
“Your rib cage is at its biggest at about 35 weeks but your fitter will ensure they help you choose bras that will ‘fit down’ after the birth. The nursing bras you use as a new mum will get a total battering – you’ll be washing them loads and clipping and unclipping them a lot. So think about this as a bra for the first 12 weeks. By that stage your milk supply will settle down and you can get measured again for bras that, with a bit of luck, will see you through the rest of breastfeeding.”
How much does your bra size go up during pregnancy?
Your cup size will likely go up by one or two cups in the first trimester, and sometimes more later on. Your rib cage expands later in pregnancy and will often increase by two to four sizes.
What to look for in a maternity and nursing bra
With so many bras on the market, what should you be looking for? Much of it will depend on personal preference, which is where a good fitter comes in, but here are a few things you might also like to consider.
1. Good nursing clips
If your bra is for breastfeeding, nursing clips (the bits that undo the cups for feeding) tend to come as standard, although there are softer bras available that simply pull to one side – if opting for the latter, make sure the material has plenty of give and isn’t going to feel restrictive under your breast while you feed.
Make sure any clips are easy to access and can be undone with one hand when you feed your baby.
2. Room to grow
While you’ll typically have more than one bra fitting, look for a maternity bra that will grow with you, with at least three or four hook positions on the back. This will allow you to start on the tightest setting and let it out slowly as your rib cage expands.
3. A deep underband
BraLady, Tracey-Jane, recommends looking for a deeper underband than you might be used to. “Narrow bands tend to dig in more and, if the cup size is not quite right, there’s nowhere for the extra breast tissue to go.”
A wider band will help support you and enable you to breathe a bit more deeply.
4. Soft, non-irritating fabric
Tracey-Jane also recommends looking for softer and non-allergenic fabrics as lots of women develop skin irritation during pregnancy.
5. A bit of stretch at the top of the cup
A little bit of flexibility in the cup will allow for changes in the size and shape of your breasts when feeding.
Of course, choosing the best maternity bra is also about personal preference. As such:
6. Think about your wardrobe
“Ask yourself what sort of clothes you will be wearing and how the bra will work with those,” suggests Rae at La Leche League.
7. Consider how a bra will function for both work and home
Tracey-Jane says, “Some of the women I fit find that their nipples really stick out when they’re pregnant and, if you feel self-conscious about that at work, I suggest a moulded cup style bra. It’s something that might be important in the office, but not so much at home when you can opt for something a bit more relaxed.”
What are the best maternity bras for big boobs?
Look for a nice, wide band around the rib cage to give you extra support, and full cups to enclose the whole breast, support the tissue and stop any bounce – not what you need when your breasts are already sore.
If you’re on the larger side, you might be used to a balconette style so a full-cupped bra can feel a bit uncomfortable at first. The NCT also recommends bras with wide straps, which will help distribute the weight of your breasts and prevent back pain.
Do I need a maternity bra if I have really small boobs?
No, but it’s probably a good idea. You will likely find, even if you’re normally small-breasted, that they grow in pregnancy.
Women with small frames are often less likely to have been wearing a well-fitting bra to begin with, so now’s the time to treat yourself and your boobs.
If you don’t need a lot of support, there are lots of crop-top-style bras on the market that offer a bit of light support. And don’t forget, even if you don't usually wear a bra, you might want somewhere to store your breast pads while you're breastfeeding.
How to choose a bra for breastfeeding
Finding a bra you feel really comfortable in both physically and mentally is important, particularly if you’re new to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public can feel a bit daunting at first so having a nursing bra you feel confident in can help.
Fortunately, nursing bras have come a long way since the flesh-coloured, utilitarian numbers your mother will remember, so there’s something for everyone, and something that should fit with your wardrobe.
You might feel more comfortable if you continue to wear similar styles and colours that you're used to. If you wore colourful bras pre-kids, then stick with them. Ask yourself what sort of clothes you wear and whether you’ll wear similar things post-birth so that your bras sit well underneath.
A T-shirt style bra, which might come up high, will work if you largely wear round-necked tops. But if you wear V-necks a lot, look for good separation at the cups so you don’t end up with a monoboob on display.
What should you look for in a maternity and nursing bra fitting service?
Specialism is key, according to BraLady Tracey-Jane: “Ask if the company has fitters trained in fitting maternity and nursing bras and how experienced they are. It’s also about feeling totally comfortable with the person fitting you and being able to walk away if you feel you aren’t getting what you want. Trust your gut.”
La Leche League’s Rae agrees that experience and training make all the difference. A good bra fitter may use a tape measure but they will also look at how a bra fits on your body.
Women's breasts come in all manner of shapes and sizes, and specific makes and styles will fit certain women better. In the same way that your dress size will change across different manufacturers, so will bra sizes.
A good fitting service will recognise this and carry a wide range of styles to suit.
Should I wear a bra to bed while pregnant and breastfeeding?
You don’t need to wear a sleep bra at night, but you may find wearing one benefits you. Sleep bras tend to be even softer than daytime maternity bras to allow for plenty of movement, but they’re also useful good for just keeping everything together in bed.
They’re also handy once your milk starts to come in as you can pop a breast pad in the cups to catch any leakages. You might be surprised to find this happens many weeks before your baby even arrives.
Once you’re feeding round the clock, a sleep bra can give a bit of extra support, particularly during the early days of breastfeeding when your boobs get full between feeds.
Lots of women like the vest tops that have integrated support and clips to make breastfeeding easier. The NCT suggests trying budget-friendly, ordinary crop tops that you can just pull down to feed.
Do I need a maternity sports bra?
It probably depends on how much and for how long you’ll want to wear one. If you are a regular runner, for example, and intend to continue as far into pregnancy as you can, you may want to get a larger nursing bra to accommodate your expanding shape.
If, however, you’re only doing a bit of gentle pregnancy yoga a couple of times a week, then you should get away with a soft non-wired but supportive bra.
Equally, for post-birth, a nursing sports bra may be a boon, but consider whether you’ll actually need to feed your baby in it first.
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