After my daughter was born, I quickly realized that I had almost no nursing friendly clothing. When she was baptized at 6 weeks, I wore this dress with a nursing tank underneath and had someone unzip it partway (I also took out my hand stitches that held the surplice neckline together). Not the most glamorous thing to do in church, but better than a screaming hungry baby.
Over the past almost two years, I’ve put together a nursing friendly wardrobe using lots of different options. My main requirement is that it has top access – I almost always had a baby carrier of some sort on outside of the house when my daughter was nursing frequently, and anything that required pulling up was basically useless. I often also wore a nursing scarf (an infinity scarf that opens up to cover your chest and (if you want) the baby) to keep my chest warm, but a modesty panel is also an option there, and in the summer I didn’t really care about having anything up there.
So, here’s my list of nursing friendly options. Most of them don’t even require a special pattern!
1. Choose a specific style of shirt/dress that lends itself well to breastfeeding access: Cross-front options, like the The Stitch Upon a Time Brazi with a cross front modification (need to buy the original pattern and the modification pack) or the Patterns for Pirates Sunshine dress are very useful. You can just slide one side over to gain access. I haven’t tried the Sunshine yet (I’ll update when I do) but have a roundup of my Brazi dresses/bras/shirts here. Stretchy knit shirts with scoop necks also work well with no modifications because you can just pull them down, like the Patterns for Pirates Layer Me Up top. You may want to add clear elastic to the neckline to prevent it from overstretching. All of these pictures below are made with the Brazi pattern with one Patterns for Pirates LMU thrown in there (scoop neck). Most of the patterns I can think of that fit in this category require stretch knits.
2. Add a snap or buttondown placket to any top or dress without a center seam, or add a zipper. Melly Sews has excellent video tutorials for both a Henley placket and continuous placket. For lightweight fabrics that are not super stretchy, I prefer a continuous placket. For stretch knits with added spandex, I have trouble preventing stretching when doing a continuous placket, so I prefer a Henley placket. You can use any pattern for the shirt you want or even an existing store-bought shirt (a contrasting placket would look great with a store-bought tee). I used this approach for this dress, this dress, and several other dresses and shirts that I never blogged but have pictured below. I didn’t use a pattern for any of them, but they’re all pretty basic. Most use snaps, but one uses buttons. This approach works for both knit and woven fabrics. In my gallery below, there are 3 woven dresses, 2 knit dresses, and one knit top, and I have a 4th woven dress around here somewhere that I don’t have great pictures of (I’ll edit and add it when I get the chance).
3. Add a seam at the center front of any more structured dress or top, and add buttons, snaps, or a zipper to it. Again, use any pattern you like. I used this approach for this dress pictured below. An example of an existing pattern that already has an access point here is the Greenstyle Creations Endurance bra (designed with a front zipper), which could be modified by extending it to a shirt or a dress. This general approach works equally well for knit and woven fabrics.
4. Add side zipper (or snap) access to any shirt with set sleeves or raglan sleeves. I blogged how to do this here and shared my Christmas dress, which featured this style of nursing access here. In the photos below, the purple velvet dress and the blue tunic length top are based on my fitted tee pattern, and the raglan is one I made for a friend using the Patterns for Pirates Slim Fit Raglan pattern. It’s also pretty easy to do this with an added cowl neck/funnel collar/hoodie, but that’s a post for another day. I’ve only tried this approach with knit fabrics, but I imagine it could also work for woven fabrics as long as the opening goes low enough.
5. Add shoulder access, like I have drawn in this picture. This will work for any pattern that has a higher cut neckline and center front design features that don’t lend themselves to snaps or buttons down the front. This is on my list of patterns to draft. It would work equally well with knit and woven fabrics.
6. Add a zipper along another seam (such as a princess seam from shoulder to waist) or across the chest (a drawback to this approach is that only one side will be close to the zipper, accessing the other side will require unzipping all the way). You can also add zippers at the side seams of a dress that don’t come ALL the way to the base of the armsyce to allow for another style of side access, but it might not meet my requirement of being accessible from the top. I have not tried any of these three, but they sound like they should work, again using either knit or woven fabrics.
With ANY of these options, you can also add a “modesty panel” to any of the snap/zipper options. A modesty panel is included in my post for the side zipper access here, and the Patterns for Pirates blog has a good tutorial here.
This post focused on top-access options because that’s what I prefer, but there are many other options out there if it’s not your cup of tea. If I am going to gain access by pulling a shirt up instead of down, I prefer to do so by wearing a tank top underneath rather than use other points of entry. You can make any spaghetti strap tank top nursing friendly by cutting the straps at the back and looping the straps on the front to slide over the clasp of a nursing bra.
Finally, lots of the major PDF knit pattern designers make fairly well-drafted but very basic knit patterns. The great thing about them is that there are usually lots of options in a single pattern (like different necklines, sleeves, etc.). One of my favorites is Patterns of Pirates. There are nursing hacks for almost every pattern on the Patterns for Pirates blog, and there’s a very active P4P Facebook group where people can help each other out. A lot of their hacks involve sewing layers in a way that you lift a piece up, which I’m not a fan of, but that may work for you if you’re looking for additional nursing options (or you can use the patterns as a base for any of the modifications I listed above).
I have a Pinterest board where I collect nursing-friendly ideas that look appealing to me, so you can feel free to check that out too.