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Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

Pregnancy and breastfeeding can bring about some big changes in your life — and to your breasts. Not only can your breasts change in size, shape, and sensitivity, but you may also feel very differently about them when they are called to duty as your baby’s primary food source.

Since becoming a parent changes so much, it may come as no surprise that your post-breastfeeding breasts may barely resemble your pre-pregnancy ones. That said, not all changes are dramatic, and some people may only notice a slight difference in the appearance of their breasts.

You may find your breasts (and nipples) are larger, smaller, different sizes, softer, more pronounced, or a range of other descriptions after you’re done breastfeeding.

The short answer is “yes,” but these changes begin happening long before your milk comes in. Pregnancy itself causes changes, which may continue through breastfeeding and beyond.

During pregnancy, changing levels of estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin cause physiological changes to the breast tissue. Milk ducts expand and blood flow increases. This may increase your cup size and make the veins in your breasts appear more prominent.

Along with the loosening of joints, your Cooper’s ligaments — the ligaments that support your breast tissue — loosen and stretch to accommodate the growth of your breasts. You may also see stretch marks on your skin due to breast growth.

Additionally, your nipples may go through some visible changes. They may darken considerably, the bumps known as Montgomery’s tubercules might get bigger, and your areola may grow larger. These changes are part of your body’s way of preparing for breastfeeding, making the nipples more visible and ready for feeding your newborn.

All of these changes will happen during the course of your pregnancy and don’t hinge on whether or not you actually breastfeed.

But breastfeeding does have a definite and often permanent effect on breast tissues, explains Sherry A. Ross, MD, OB-GYN, and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

“Breasts increase two to three times in size during lactation,” says Ross. Hormonal changes, primarily caused by prolactin, make the breasts engorged with milk production. And if you already had breast stretch marks and prominent veins caused by pregnancy, Ross says they may intensify during breastfeeding changes.

The increase in estrogen and mammary development that happens throughout pregnancy continues in the postpartum period. And if you breastfeed, Deedra Franke, RN, BSN, IBCLC, a certified lactation consultant at Mercy Medical Center says the mammary ducts are filled with milk, which again, gives the appearance of fuller breasts.

When you finish weaning from breastfeeding, your milk ducts are no longer filling with milk. This may lead to a smaller volume of breast tissue. Sometimes your skin will tighten to suit your new breast size, but sometimes there isn’t enough elasticity for it to do so.

Your body’s ability to adjust to these demands on your breasts depends on many factors. These include:

  • age
  • genetics
  • weight gain (and loss)
  • number of pregnancies
  • original breast size
  • whether you’re a smoker

Of course, even normal life, without pregnancy and breastfeeding, can lead to breast changes.

As you reach menopause, Franke says estrogen decreases, causing a reduction of fat in your breasts and a decrease in mammary ducts size. “Without estrogen, mammary glands shrink, making the breast size smaller and less full, whether or not a woman breastfeeds,” she says.

“Basically, breastfeeding does not ‘make’ a women’s breasts get smaller; it is a natural process related to the general decrease in estrogen as all women age,” adds Franke.

While you may not be able to completely reverse the effects of pregnancy and aging, there are some steps you can take to care for your breasts.

Wear a supportive bra

Shopping for any type of clothing after giving birth is probably the last thing on your mind, but finding a properly fitted and supportive bra is a game changer for your breasts. No matter what your breast size, proper support is key, points out Ross.

If you don’t wear a special breastfeeding bra, she says, the delicate and sensitive breast tissue goes unsupported for extended periods of time, which can cause breasts to sag.

Her advice? Get properly fitted for a bra that provides the much-needed support to breast tissue during typical daily activities. The right bra will help prevent pain and “sagging” while breastfeeding and beyond.

Choosing a bra that gives you a little lift will go a long way in shaping your post-nursing breasts — especially under clothing. Consider a shape-fitting bra that has cups made to fit the top of your breasts, but also provides the support and boost you desire for comfort and appearance.

Before you invest in a whole new lingerie wardrobe though, you may want to wait 3 to 6 months after breastfeeding to allow your body to adjust and for your breasts to settle into their new shape. You can then stock your drawers with all the fancy bras you want to flatter and support your new shape.

Take care of your skin

Franke says some women may experience skin dryness on breasts and other parts of the body. To help minimize dryness while breastfeeding and beyond, she recommends using an appropriate skin care lotion for your skin type. This is especially important as you age since your skin becomes drier and thinner.

Don’t neglect your nipples

Take steps to treat nipple sensitivity, blistering, bleeding, and cracking. A few things that might help are:

  • lanolin
  • breast milk (just rub some on after each feed)
  • coconut or olive oil
  • calendula-based creams

If the above don’t work, you may want to follow up with your doctor for something stronger. Ross suggests All Purpose Cream (APC), a prescription cream that includes a topical steroid.

Avoid smoking

In addition to the other health risks, smoking has an effect on the elasticity of your skin. Talk to your medical practitioner about a smoking cessation program.

Go easy on yourself

No two breasts are the same, even if they’re a pair. All women have a degree of unevenness between their breasts. As your breasts enlarge during pregnancy, the differences can be more pronounced, as one breast may have more milk ducts or production capabilities.

After breastfeeding, your breasts may be larger or smaller than they were before pregnancy. They may look different and feel different than they once did. Give yourself time to adjust to these changes.

See a doctor for any lumps or pain

If you are experiencing any lumps or pain in your breasts, it’s important that you reach out to your healthcare practitioner. Some women will experience mastitis, which is an infection that can happen as a result of a plugged milk duct or broken skin on the nipples.

Additionally, if your nipples burn or feel sore, you could have thrush, which is a mild yeast infection. More often though, nipple pain can be a sign of a bacterial infection on the skin or the result of your baby having a poor latch.

Continue with breast self-exams and let your provider know if you feel any new bumps or notice an increase in size in any existing ones.

What about surgical procedures?

Due to changes in their shape, some people opt for surgical changes to their breasts after breastfeeding. This is a very personal choice and isn’t right for everyone. Before considering any cosmetic surgery, it’s important to consider the impact of such procedures.

If you’re planning on another pregnancy, you may want to hold off until you are finished having children before considering surgery. Certain surgical procedures to the breast can make it virtually impossible to breastfeed in the future. Additionally, future pregnancies will result in changes to the breast tissue, even after surgery.

As with any major medical procedure, make sure to talk to your doctor about the pros and cons and any complications that could arise.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding can cause your breasts to undergo significant changes. The good news is a lot of those changes are temporary. What’s more, there are steps you can take to minimize the wear and tear your breasts will experience.

If you have concerns about the appearance of your breasts or any lumps and pain you might be noticing, talk to your care provider.