Welcome to my "Ode to the Shelf Bra Camisole. I previously wrote about them in my "Inexpensive Winter Nursing Wear" article, but now that we are hitting some 80 degree plus days here in Southern California, I am utterly amazed at the versatility of this inexpensive little piece of clothing.
I have to start by saying that I wear these *all* the time. And I do mean all. I wear them in hot weather, in cold weather and as pajamas. I wear them under turtlenecks, long sleeve tops, short sleeve tops, other tank tops and on their own. They are comfortable and useful – definitely a nursing wear best-buy.
So let's review what I mean by a shelf-bra camisole (or "cami"). These are handy little tank tops, usually cotton with some spandex content (mine are 95% cotton, 5% spandex). They have a ring of fabric with an elastic bottom rim all the way around the inside top edge that functions as a bra. The straps can vary, although the most common is a thin, spaghetti-style.
So what makes them great nursing clothes?
First of all, they are so much easier than a regular nursing bra. Simply pull them down over the breast and voila, ready to nurse. When you are done, you can pull them back over the breast (at least with my size C nursing breasts) easily by the fabric or even gently by the strap (handy if baby falls asleep nursing).
They combine nicely with other shirts to provide discreet nursing wear. Simply pull up the shirt that is over them and then pull down the tank and you've got a very small amount of exposed breast, tummy, side or back.
In cooler weather this is especially great because you don't have to expose skin to the elements. With V-neck tops, they can add a little bit of style by peeking out of the V, and they can add a nice layered look at the bottom of your shirts that is in style now. With turtlenecks, they are great because you don't have to fuss with clips that are only accessible from the bottom since the neckline isn't available.
In the summer, they can be worn on their own if you aren't shy about pulling your breast out the top in public. You can also wear them with a light button down top, which provides some side shielding, or under another tank top that can be pulled up for that layered look.
I like them for pajamas because when the baby is in bed with me nursing in the side lying position, there isn't any extra pajama top fabric to get in the way or pose any kind of a suffocation risk, or any buttons she could choke on! I've never found it practical to pull up my shirt in bed, and button-downs make me nervous for the reasons I mentioned. And I do like wearing some support to bed, as I've read that this can minimize "sagginess" post-nursing. It takes some quick practice to make the breast accessible when you are half-asleep, and while it seems like the strap "cuts in" to the breast, I've personally not had any problems with plugged ducts.
Another added bonus of the camisole is that when nursing is through, they are still a useful post-nursing wardrobe item.
But not all shelf bra camisoles are created equal for the purpose of breastfeeding. What makes a good one? First of all, it *must* have adjustable straps. Not all camis do, so be sure to check. Usually the strap adjusters are cheap little plastic pieces, so be gentle with them. Also, on spaghetti-style straps, the stitching can tear out if you pull to hard on the strap, so you may want to pull them through each part individually rather than try to tug on the plastic adjuster trying to get it to slide. It also needs to be stretchy enough to pull down over the breast -- on some, the shelf bra portion is shorter or tighter than on others.
As far as sizing, I like to go with smaller rather than larger if you are between sizes. If it's too small, then you won't be able to pull it over your breast. But if it's too large, your breasts will sit too low inside your shirts, especially in turtlenecks, and give you more of a "little old lady" look than you probably want! I like to go smaller for future use too, since my breasts did get smaller (not all the way, but some) when I finished nursing my first daughter, so I'm anticipating the same change this time around. But even with a larger size, you may be able to play with the strap adjustment to find the compromise between style and function.
I bought mine from Gap Outlet for about $10 a piece, or sometimes less. They seem to be carrying them year-round (I recently saw new ones released for the season-change and my husband is giving me the "you aren't seriously going to buy *more* of these vibe!). If you don't have a Gap Outlet near you and aren't finding any that work locally, I did find some on Amazon (linked below) that seem to fit my requirements.
One caveat -- I'm also not sure how well shelf-bra cami's will work for larger-breasted women – I'd love some feedback on this so that I can recommend this, or not, for that situation with confidence.
If you are nursing, I'd greatly encourage you to try out a shelf-bra cami as soon as possible, and see if they can be as useful for you as they have been for me!