Lots of us have challenges finding a bra that actually fits.

I wrote last week about how much fun I had fitting bras in Kenya – it was amazing to see how much getting a bra means to the girls we meet in Kenya. Our fittings were done over top of our t-shirts and we had to move quickly. But it’s often a bit more complicated than a short fitting can manage.

On Wednesdays this month we’ve been talking about lingerie. We started out talking about choosing comfortable lingerie, then we moved on to finding panties that fit your body type. Last week was bras for different body types or different purposes, and today I want to turn to specific challenges when finding a bra that fits. And I hope you all took my challenge to purge your lingerie drawer, too! 

So let’s turn to unique bra fitting challenges. (Again, I’ll be linking to Amazon for some products, so some of these may be affiliate links). 

How on earth do bra sizes work?

In the US and Canada (and elsewhere I believe, but you can correct me if I’m wrong), bra sizes are a combination of a number (band size) and a letter (cup size). The number in a woman’s bra size is the size of her ribcage, just below her breasts, in inches rounded to the nearest even number. This number is also called the band size. If the measurement is an odd number that you had to round, recognize that you can use either of the two band sizes closest to your measurement (a circumference of 31 could wear a 30 or a 32 band, for example).

The letter, or cup size, is a measurement of the difference between the circumference of a woman’s chest around her breasts and the circumference of a woman’s ribcage. The difference becomes the cup size. A difference of <1″ is AA, 1″ is A, 2″ is B, 3″ is C, 4″ is D, 5″ is DD, 6″ is DDD or F, and 7″ is G.

Figuring out your bra size at home with a soft measuring tape is really easy and if you’re having trouble getting it by yourself, feel free to get your husband to help. I’m sure he’ll be more than willing.

What is my bra sister size?

When you’re trying on bras in a store, sometimes it can be nice to try two similar sizes to see which one works best. But here’s the odd thing – if you’re normally a 34B, the closest sizes to you are NOT 34A and 34B. Instead, to figure out your “sister sizes,” as they are sometimes called, just move up one measurement and down the other – up a cup size and down a band size, etc. A 34B, then, is actually closest to a 32C and a 36A. Especially when trying a new brand, it can be nice to try on bras of your sister sizes to see which one fits the most comfortably on.

How does the shape of my breasts affect bra sizing?

We got a really helpful comment last week from a woman about how breasts being either top or bottom heavy can affect sizing that I wanted to be sure to shape.

Use your hands to lift/shape your breasts into the position they would be if you were wearing a really great bra. Now, is the majority of the breast tissue above or below your nipple? Because you will need a different style depending on which it is. She comments that based on what’s available for sale, it seems the majority of women are ‘bottom heavy’. So if you’re ‘top heavy’, even if you get the correct ~size~, chances are, it’s always going to just not-really-fit. Plunge is NOT going to work, balconette probably isn’t either, and nor is anything with a seam across the top of the cup, like for a lace/ribbon trim, etc. Darts in the cup, however, are your new best friends!! And a bra-fitter who actually knows what they are talking about (rather than following a script — you can often tell these in the shop), few and far between as they may be, should be able to get you a bra that fits the top half of your breasts, even if the bottom part of the cup is still too big, because darts can be taken in easily. Pray about finding a good one before you go into the shop. (I’m serious. And in fact, given how complicated bras and fitting can be, I’d recommend doing this whoever you are!) Also, top-heavy ladies, you’re the ones out of everyone who least need a push-up bra, but you might find that the support in a push up bra is ironically actually where you most need it!

Why update my bra?

One major reason to invest in new undergarments is if your bras are causing you pain or if they are making you uncomfortable. Additionally, bras also wear out and will need to be replaced after time. I really recommend handwashing bras to keep them from wearing out, or, if you’re pressed for time, at least hanging them to dry. Dryers make bras wear out much faster! If you are going to put them in the washing machine, use a mesh bag like these ones

Understandably, gaining or losing weight will cause your bra size to change. You may also find that the way that you carry weight changes as you age.

Many women find that their band size increases after pregnancy, since baby pushed on their ribcage while growing like a weed, so you may find that after you’ve weaned your baby you need to update your bra collection.

Problem #1: What if my band size is really small?

If you have a really small band size, it can be hard to find a bra that fits. A reader who we’ll call Cici emailed us last week with some amazing advice, here’s what she had to say:

In clothing, I’m a US 00P or 0P, and my bra size is a 28E. Small band sizes with cup sizes above an A or B are really hard to cope with! Everyone seems to assume that if you wear a 28 band, or an XS shirt or bralette, then you’re also flat-chested – but that’s often not the case! In fact, since statistically so many women are wearing the wrong bra size, there are often a lot more women who should wear a 28 or 30 band with a cup size of C or larger. To the eye, my chest doesn’t look very large – it’s just large relative to my frame and to the size of my ribcage. This is actually much more common than most women think!

Yet most bra companies don’t cater to this AT ALL. You’ll find absolutely nothing that fits us at Victoria’s Secret or Target or Soma or anywhere normal. I will never be able to pop into Target with my friends and buy a cute bra for $30 and a matching panty. (Yes; I’m a little bitter about that.)

Here are my tips:

  • First, ALL small band/large cup size bras will cost way more than bargain standard-sized bras. I pay $70-80 (USD) for most of mine. There’s no way around this – go for quality and fit in your bras, even if you only have 2 or 3 of them.
  • Try specialty bra/lingerie shops. We have one locally – they measure you carefully, and stock a lot of unusual sizes. This way you can try them on.
  • Nordstroms and other high-end stores also may carry a wider range of sizes, although they still mostly only go down to a 30 band size.
  • Tailoring! Most of my bras are a 30DD with the backband tailored to make it 2″ smaller. This opens up a lot more options, because then I can buy 28DDD/E’s or 30DD’s. A 30 band size could tailor down a 32. A specialty lingerie shop will usually tailor them for you in-house; or you can take ones you bought online or elsewhere to a regular tailor.
  • Be aware of international sizing. Many good brands for small band, large cup sizes are not made in the US/Canada. Look up a chart for international size conversions if you’re buying online, or work with a trusted fit specialist.
  • Good brands for small bands include: Panache, Chantelle, Natori (especially good at matching bra & panty sets and lace), Freya, Wacoal (they do actually make a few pretty ones!), Cosabella (for bralettes – try their curvy line!), and The BraLab* (small company with convertible/modular and strapless bras that can fit a range of sizes).
  • Once you have a good idea what size fits you best, get comfortable buying online – just check return policies in case something doesn’t work out for you!

We are so grateful for this amazing advice and we hope that many readers will find her pointers helpful, too!

Band tighteners are also available on amazon, if you’d like to avoid the tailor. 

If you’re good at sewing yourself, you can also do it yourself! Commenter Jane Eyre recommended just folding the band over itself near the armpit and sewing it down, and then left this tutorial on how to shorten the band size. The pictures are amazing! It really does work. 

Problem #3: What if I have a bigger bust?

If you’re heavy chested, ensure that you’re getting a bra with enough coverage so that you don’t feel like you’re spilling over or are going to pop out of your bra. Also make sure that the straps are wide, to give you more support. It’s important to make sure that your bra fits you well, so check your measurements to make sure you have a good fit to prevent back pain. And in that case, a full coverage bra is often your best choice. We had a lot of people leave tips for small chested women in the comments last week, but if anyone has any specific tips for large-chested women, leave them in the comments here!

Can I get sports bras if I’m bigger chested?

A number of women recommended these sports bras, which are available up to a 58 band size. Others swore by the Zyia brand. So there are some out there, but make sure that they are full coverage, with very thick elastic and good support. 

What if my favorite bra is just a little too tight in the band?

There’s an app for that. 

Okay, not quite, but there IS a really nice little product you can pick up for not much money – a bra extender. If you’re a little larger busted, or you’ve grown recently and your favorite bras don’t fit, you can extend them! Just choose the number of hooks you need and voila, instant extra band size.

Problem #3: What if I’m pregnant or nursing?

Your cup size is going to change significantly during pregnancy and breastfeeding. And because one of the first signs of pregnancy is tender breasts, it’s really tempting to go out and buy a bunch of new bras right away. I’d absolutely recommend finding a soft sports bra that will work for you until the tenderness wears off, but try to wait until you’re in your 3rd trimester or so to start thinking about getting a few nursing bras.

Also, most women leak while nursing at least a bit, so picking up some inserts to keep your bras nice is really critical (as is getting some good lotion to use if they get chapped by baby). That way you’ll be comfortable in your bras.

One reader also recommended trying a nursing cami with bra insert for coverage while nursing. We love the cami she suggested

Another commenter with a hard to fit size had a really fabulous suggestion about tailoring in nursing bras – I never would have thought of this!

I was a 34DDD before breastfeeding, and I looked everywhere for nursing bras that would both fit and provide enough support to avoid straining my back as I adjusted to being a 36F. Maternity stores didn’t have anything that worked for me. The lingerie stores in my area didn’t have nursing options in my size. My mom, a seamstress, suggested we find some well-made bras that fit (and we found them on clearance!), and then she converted them to nursing bras for me. This ended up being a much more economical solution! A few of my friends found out what we had done and ended up bringing my mom piles of bras because they were tired of flimsy bra options at a time when their breasts were heavier and more cumbersome than ever!

So if you’re struggling with nursing bras, consider reaching out to a seamstress or tailor for a bespoke option!

And then someone else gave us this link: A complete tutorial to convert a regular bra into a nursing bra.

Another reader pointed out the importance of getting a good fit while nursing – mastitis and clogged ducts.

I’m nursing right now ( 36 DD) and I feel like a good fitting bra is especially important during breastfeeding to help prevent problems. After my twins were born, I used several cheaper brand bras, and I got clogged milk ducts all the time. I’m sure part of it was the poor fitting bras because when I finally got a good fit it helped. This time with my daughter, I haven’t had near the problem with the clogged ducts, and I’ve been using nice bras since the beginning. I’ve have good luck with bravado bras. They’re more expensive, but I feel like with both bras and shoes, you get what you pay for.

Thank you so much to all of the readers who let us know their tips for making bras work for YOU! And I was blown away by how many of you said that you sewed your own, or that you hired tailors to fix small things, and it made all the difference. As a knitter, I customize things all the time, but I’ve never thought of customizing a bra. So that was my big takeaway. Find something you love, but it’s not quite right? Then fix it! I love it. 

There you have it! My best tips–and many, many of yours (thank you!)–to troubleshoot bra fitting. Do you have any other advice? Let me know in the comments!

Check out other posts in our lingerie series: 

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