Difference Between Maternity And Nursing Bra

Published by 
Jess Miller
Last updated: 
February 11, 2024

Let’s face facts: pregnancy is weird and wonderful enough without having to navigate all the complicated clothes that come with it! You needed to know the difference between maternity and a nursing bra when I was pregnant with my first child - if you’re in the same boat, you might be interested to learn what I found out!

So, what is the difference between a maternity and a nursing bra? A nursing bra has clips on the front of each cup that allows you to drop the top of the bra so you can easily nurse. A maternity bra, however, is a vague label that most often used to describe nursing bras and bras that are sturdy and comfortable enough to handle rapid breast growth and increased sensitivity during pregnancy.

Keep reading for a more detailed explanation, plus what to look for in each type of bra!

​Difference Between Maternity And Nursing Bra:    What is a Maternity Bra?

When you’re pregnant, your breasts can become ultra-sensitive, your rib cage expands to make room for your growing baby, you may put on additional weight through your arms and chest, and your breasts themselves become larger and heavier.

All of this means that your current undergarments are probably no longer comfortable. Experts recommend getting professional fitted for a new bra every six to eight weeks during pregnancy, but the truth is you should upgrade as soon as you start to feel uncomfortable.

Do you need to use a nursing or a maternity bra? No. Often, “maternity” is a label used to charge extra--you can sometimes save money by shopping for regular bras (I’ll explain more about what to look for in a moment). If there’s a chance you might breastfeed, however, it might be wise to start using nursing bras even when you’re pregnant.

You likely won’t notice the clasps at the top of each cup, but you will appreciate how supportive and comfortable they are. Plus, you’ll save money in the long run because you won’t have to buy so many nursing bras after your baby arrives. When you’re trying to figure out what is the difference between a maternity and a nursing bra, this is probably the most important thing you can learn!

​Difference Between Maternity And Nursing Bra:    What is a Nursing Bra?

As nursing bra, as I’ve already mentioned, is one designed to meet the needs of nursing moms. Typically, that means they are ultra supportive and designed with stretchy materials that accommodate rapidly growing (and shrinking breasts). This is what makes them so well suited for use during pregnancy.

And, if you think “supportive” and “stretchy” means ugly and frumpy, I have good news for you! Ten years ago, it was difficult to find nursing bras and maternity bras. Most were huge, unattractive, and difficult to find. In the last ten decades, however, companies like Boob Design, Belabumbum, and Cake Maternity have stepped into the void, creating bras that are beautiful and feel amazing. The Belabumbum Serena bra, for example, is pretty and defines with resorting to uncomfortable underwires.

​What to Look for in a Maternity Bra or a Nursing Bra

Abdoment of a pregnant woman

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By now you’ve probably figured out that you need almost all of the same things in a maternity bra that you need in a nursing bra. It’s true! Other than those small front clasps, a good maternity bra is a good nursing bra and vice versa. This bra from well-known nursing bra maker Bravado! is a great example of just that.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Supportive fit. You can tell a bra will be supportive by the fabric (it will be soft but strong), the straps (racer backs and t-straps feel the best for most women; whatever you get the straps should be thick and adjustable), and the clasp in the back. A clasp with lots of layers and lots of sizes will be the most supportive.
  • Correct fit. Make sure the band lays flat against your body and is horizontal--the straps shouldn’t be pulling the back up. You should be able to get two figures under the band comfortable. Same with the straps and the cups--and those shouldn’t be gaping or overflowing. Finally, the center between the cups should lay flush against your skin.
  • Breathable fabric. Now is not the time for expensive laces or pretty but nonfunctional designs. Look for washable, breathable fabrics that won’t leave you hot and sweaty.

These days, maternity and nursing bras are also segmented by purpose. Here’s what you can expect to find:

  • Everyday bras with and without underwire. I recommend ditching the underwire while you’re pregnant (who needs that kind of discomfort?) unless you’re positive a nonunderwire can’t support you. I also recommend waiting to use an underwire nursing bra till you’re already an established breastfeeder--there’s a chance underwire can make it difficult for you to nurse or even lead to infection or nursing problems.
  • Sleep bras. These are ultra soft and delightful. You might not need them, but many women find they start leaking towards the end of pregnancy and in the first few months of breastfeeding and need to wear something they can slip pads into. Also, size increases and extra tenderness towards the end of pregnancy may mean you appreciate the extra support.
  • Maternity and nursing sports bras. These aren’t suitable for all-day wear since they compress the breasts (this isn’t good if you’re nursing), but if you want to stay active, you might find you need extra supportive sports bras.
  • You can also find specialty maternity and nursing bras, such as pumping bras that allow you to pump hands free and strapless bras.

How to Determine Nursing Bra Sizes While Pregnant

Pregnant woman holding a stuffed toy

Image by pixabay

There’s no way to know for sure what your “final” nursing bra size will be ahead of time, but that’s why most experts recommend using nursing bras at the end of pregnancy. They have a lot of give in them. By about the second month of nursing, your size will have leveled out, and you can go back in for another professional fitting. That’s usually pretty impractical when you’re fresh out of the hospital with a newborn, however, but taking a good guess usually does the trick for most of us.  

Here’s how to check your size at home, whether you’re looking for a maternity or a nursing bra:

  • Wear a nonpadded bra that doesn’t compress your breasts to measure yourself.
  • Using a tape measure, measure directly under your bust. Keep the tape measure horizontal around your torso (use a mirror) and hold it firmly. This is your band size.
  • Now, measure horizontally around your bust at the fullest point, usually over the nipples.

Once you have your measurements, you subtract the band size from the bust size. The difference determines your cup size. An inch, for example, tells you your cup size is an A. If there’s a two-inch difference, your cup size is B. Three inches is a C, four inches is a D, and so on.

You can take a final fitting at about eight months pregnant and use those measurements to plan for your first nursing bras, immediately after birth.

​What is a Maternity Bra Size Calculator?

If you can’t get a professional bra fitting and you don’t want to figure out the calculations yourself, there are online maternity bra size calculators (like this one) that allow you to input your measurements. You press a button, and it does the calculations for you to determine your band and cup size.

​When Should I Start Wearing a Maternity Bra?

If you’re wondering what is the difference between a maternity and a nursing bra, chances are you’re also wondering when you should start wearing a maternity bra. The answer varies and depends on the person and the pregnancy, but you’ll likely find that your current bras are getting uncomfortable by the end of the first trimester.

​When Should You Buy Nursing Bras?

Pregnant woman holding a baby's shoes

Image by Pixabay

Buying a nursing bra before you’ve given birth is a bit of a gamble, but it’s a necessary gamble if you plan on nursing, because you won’t have time after the baby comes to go out and purchase new bras. Here’s what you can expect from your breasts right before giving and after:

  • Your breasts will likely grow significantly during your last month of pregnancy. They might even start leaking and will likely become (or continue to be) very tender.
  • You won’t see much difference in your breasts in the first couple of days after birth, but once your milk arrives, your breasts will become engorged and likely larger than you’ve ever seen them. This is why a nursing bra with a lot of stretch and give is so important!
  • The engorgement stage lasts for a week or two, depending on how long it takes your body to regulate your milk supply. Over the next few months, you’ll likely drop a size or two as you continue to nurse and your body regulates its supply better.  

As you can see, you might need multiple different sizes during your nursing journey, so learning how to tell the difference between a maternity and a nursing bra and learning how to measure yourself will be invaluable!

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