Nursing AND Hands-Free Pumping Bra Tutorial

Note: I’m planning to make another bra like this in a few weeks. If you have questions or if anything is unclear in this post, ask away, and I’ll try to get better pictures this next go-around.

As part of my mission to make pumping less miserable for baby #2, I’ve been working on a more pumping-friendly wardrobe, starting with my undergarments. While it’s possible (though pricey) to find nicer nursing bras that are actually supportive, comfortable, and look good under clothing, finding a bra that also works well for pumping is nearly impossible.

Instead, you typically have to find a way to strap on a straight jacket (called a pumping bra) that lays flat against the skin to allow it to hold the pump flanges in place, and getting said straight jacket on generally requires wearing clothing that either allows for both boobs to be fully exposed at once OR fully or partially disrobing in your office to get that contraption in place. Sound desirable to you? No? Me neither! DIY options generally include some MacGyvered assembly of hair ties that anchor your pump to your regular nursing bra (this works if you sit super still and don’t shift around at all while pumping – ummmm…. no) or cutting holes in a sports bra to hold your pump in place (unless you’re willing to wear said sports bras to work all day every day for years of your life, this option isn’t really any better than the straight jacket because you’ll still have to get it on and off, which will require undressing).

Now, if you’re reading this in anticipation of having a baby or because you’re looking for gift ideas for someone having a baby, you might be wondering why you would ever need a bra that works for BOTH pumping and nursing, as it would be easier to make a bra that works just for pumping. Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

  1. You nurse baby at daycare dropoff before leaving for work, then you pump at work.
  2. You nurse baby immediately upon arriving at daycare, after work (where you pump).
  3. You’re trying to build supply, so you nurse on one side and pump on the other.
  4. You’re on a road trip and pump and bottle feed with baby in the car seat but then stop to nurse baby just a few hours later without the option to change.
  5. You sneak in an extra pumping session during the day to build a freezer stash, but you nurse the rest of the day.

I’m sure there are many other reasons that this bra is such a great idea!

Now, on to my invention! This bra has two main layers – the outer layer functions like a typical nursing bra that opens to reveal the pumping access layer. The pumping layer is a cross front style, like many nursing bras. When you want to nurse, simply unclasp the outer layer and slide the pumping layer out of the way. When you want to pump, just unclasp the top layer to expose the pumping access.

I’m also planning one where both layers are in the crossfront style, but the top layer slides over to reveal the pumping layer (which functions just like the pumping layer on this one). I’ll blog that tutorial separately when I get the chance to make that bra.

Want to make your own?

Here’s what you need:

  1. Your favorite traditional style bra or sports bra pattern with a back closure (pullover style is also fine) and nursing clasps. If your favorite pattern has a front closure like mine, you’ll just need to make some modifications to switch it over to a back closure (described in a separate post here for the pattern I’m using). I’m using the Endurance Bra by Greenstyle Creations, which has soft foam cups but no underwire. If your pattern doesn’t include instructions for nursing clasps, that’s an easy modification as well (described briefly below with additional tutorial links). Although I haven’t fully worked out when to attach the nursing layer on a bra with underwire, I assume it would work best before you sew the channeling for the underwire, though it will add bulk to that area.
  2. Your favorite cross front style bra pattern, no clips/clasps/underwire. You really only need the front part of this pattern. We’ll be modifying this pattern a fair amount. I used the Brazi with cross front modification by Stitch Upon a Time as my starting point (which I had already modified pretty heavily for fit).
  3. Nursing clasps that match the width of your bra straps where they’ll be positioned. Usually they only come in a few width options, so you may need to widen or narrow your straps a smidge to make them work.
  4. The supplies required for your #1 pattern (potentially a back closure like hook and eye tape, loops and sliders for your straps, foam/ etc.) – if it’s a true sports bra style that pulls over your head, you won’t need additional supplies.
  5. [Optional but super helpful] Wonder Tape or some other form of temporary fabric adhesive you can sew through.

For the blue bra shown throughout this tutorial, I used supplex (a super breathable, moisture wicking performance fabric in a nylon/spandex blend) from Zenith & Quasar. You can use whatever fabric meets your pattern’s requirements for the exterior layer, but for the pumping layer, make sure to choose a stretch knit with really good recovery to hold the pump pieces in place.

This tutorial is broken into sections below. The first three are pattern alterations on paper. If your pattern #1 is already written to include nursing clasps, you can skip the first section. After that comes the instruction for cutting your fabric and assembling your pieces together.

Finally, you’ll want some patience and intermediate sewing experience. I recommend that you make each bra (the exterior one and the crossover one) individually before you jump into this project. You can make both with nursing access (the crossover one will be nursing friendly by nature, the other one would require adding clasps, but that’s good practice).

Section 1: Pattern #1 Modifications

Before we get started, modify your pattern #1 as needed to include nursing clasps and a back closure. If you’re already set with that, then skip this section, but if not, here are some tips/guides.

Altering the Endurance Bra to a back closure: I made a separate post outlining the steps of my pattern alterations. This part is not specific to a nursing or pumping bra. If you want to use the Endurance Bra as your exterior layer, start there! If you want to use a different front closure bra, you may still find that post helpful. If your bra pattern is pullover style or already has a back closure, you don’t need to worry about this part at all.

Adding nursing clasps: This is really just as simple as splitting your pattern where you want to add the nursing clasp. On some traditional style bras, you won’t even need to cut any pattern pieces – the nursing clasp will go where the strap was originally anchored to the front, sometimes replacing an O-ring there. If your pattern is more of a sports bra style bra, like the Endurance Bra I was using, you’ll want to split the top on the pattern. You actually don’t need to add seam allowance to this split, as the nursing clasp itself adds some height, and even if it’s off by a slight amount, you can adjust the strap to compensate.

Split strap to add nursing clasp

I will walk you through the steps of attaching the nursing clasp, but it may be helpful to have a general understanding of how to do it before we get started. To attach the nursing clasp, you’ll finish off the strap and the bra front completely (including elastic, FOE, binding, or whatever you’re using to finish the edges), then simply anchor the clasp front to the bra front and the clasp back (the part with the hook) to the strap. In typical nursing bras, the bottom of the clasp back usually has a piece of elastic or fabric attached to it, linking the clasp to the base of the bra so the strap doesn’t fall back while nursing. In the case of this bra, it will be anchored to the pumping layer instead.

Top layer is folded down in this picture, it’s just showing how the pumping layer attaches to the upper strap through the nursing clasp.

Here are a few useful references for how to use nursing clasps and how to convert regular bras into nursing bras in general. Looking them over before starting might help you follow the use of the nursing clasps if that’s confusing and help make sure you’re splitting your pattern in the correct place for optimal placement.

Section #2: Cross front (pattern #2) Modifications

We’re going to do one more set of alterations before we get started, and those are to the bottom layer (pattern #2).

First, you need to make sure it matches the outer layer with respect to curve along the bottom and the overall height/coverage. You want this layer to be fully covered (or almost fully covered) when the bra is worn. The cross front pieces will have 1/4″ elastic attached along the edges and will then be folded over and topstitched, so you’ll be losing about 3/8″ along the edges of these pieces compared to the total width on paper.

Your starting point should look something like this. Make sure to straighten out your straps if they curve into a racerback or crossback straps like the Brazi does. Unless your exterior pattern is also a stretchy sports bra, the base of your cross-front pattern will be a bit narrower than your exterior pattern. This is ok! You’ll be stretching this pumping layer, especially along the center front, when you attach it to the base.

Cross-front piece before alterations

These following steps assume your bra has a separate base from its cups, like the pattern I’m using. If yours is more of a traditional sports bra, well you’re in luck! You can basically just skip steps 1-2 and just match up the side seam to adjust the height of your pumping layer so it is hidden in step 3.

    1. First, line up the center front of your cross-front pattern with the center front of your bra base, and line up the stitching line of your cross-front pattern with the base of the cups (also at the stitching line). Make a mark where the bra base curves up to follow the cups.

      Mark to indicate where cups curve upward while cross-front remains straight
    2. Match the the side seam PLUS seam allowance to the side of your exterior bra pattern. Line up the bottom of your cross-front pattern with the base of the cups, matching the stitching lines, not the fabric edges that include seam allowance. Your center front will no longer be lined up at this point. This little extra (adding the width of the seam allowance, 1/2″ in this case) allows us not to stretch when attaching the pumping layer to the curve of the cup.Now, simply trace along the stitching line where the cups attach to the base of the exterior bra, following the curve up to the line you made in step 1. Add seam allowance (1/4″) below that stitching line.
    3. Now grab your actual cup piece from your exterior bra pattern. Mine (the Endurance Bra) has three pieces, but I only need the side one here. Line up the stitching line with the curve you just drew. Trace the side seam upward from this side point. Then, straighten the side seam position to be about 3/4″ tall (1/4″ seam allowance at the base, 3/8″ elastic and fold over allowance along the underarm seam, and about 1/8″ to spare to catch in the binding when you assemble all the pieces together).
    4. Cut off your strap to match the height where you cut your pattern to attach to the nursing clasp (which may be where the base of the bra matches the bra strap for a more traditional bra pattern). Place your nursing clasp at this marking, and trace the width of the base where your pumping layer will attach. Extend straight lines down from this opening – that’s the final width you want your pumping layer to be when you attach the nursing clasp. Also, mark the entire height of the center front, which makes it easier to line things up in step #5.Note: the top of the nursing clasp (where the strap attaches) is wider than the bottom. I did not take this into account on this blue bra in the tutorial! It means that the pumping layer shows a little bit (not a huge deal) and that I kinda had to squish it into place.

    5. Narrow the pattern along the bust so that it fits under the outer layer. This will depend on the patterns you’re using. If your outer pattern has multiple pieces that make up the cups, you may want to sew them together to see how they fit over the cross front piece. Mark the final edge first, then mark 3/8″ further out to allow for elastic attachment and folding over. Narrow the top (where the clasp is attached) slightly more (maybe 1/8″ narrower) to make sure the pumping layer fits. The photos with my fingers show the amount that was cut off from the neckline and armpit.

Next, you need to mark your pump placement. This is the biggest guessing game of this project.

If you’re making this bra for yourself, then hold it up (or better yet, put on a finished bra that you’ve made with your pattern) and mark the nipple point. On your first try, you may want to have the outer layer assembled and cross front basted together at the bottom in order to mark the bust apex/nipple point. If you’re making this bra for someone else, it’s a bit more of a guessing game. A great pattern will have this point marked, but mine did not. You may be able to use your outer layer (pattern #1) as a guide – for me, the point is about a half inch below where all three pattern pieces meet. You can also measure from the center front to the side and assume the nipple point will be somewhere around halfway between them and the same distance up from the bottom of the cup, but that may be off by a bit. Another good guide is the strap itself, which should be slightly outside that point.

Once you’ve marked the nipple point, draw a straight horizontal line 3″ wide through that point. This will be your cut line. Extend this line 1/2″ in each direction and draw a circle with a 2″ radius. This outline marks where you’ll attach your pump access overlap circle pieces (I call them pump flaps). Finally, fold your pattern piece along the center front line to make sure the bottom curve matches up. If it doesn’t, tweak the curve of the crossover part.

Here’s what you should have after you’re finished – the pumping layer is shown lined up with the bra base here, and it’s ok that the center fronts don’t match – that part will be stretched.

You only need to cut TWO of these cross front pieces from your fabric (it will be a single layer – the goal is not support or compression, just comfort and enough stability to hold the pump in place – your outer layer serves the purpose of the main bra).

Section #3: Draft the Pump Flaps (easy step)

Ok, last bit on paper, I promise! We just need to make the pump flaps. Draw two overlapping circles (like a mini Venn diagram) with a 3.5″ radius. Overlap them by 2.5″. Then connect them so you end up with an oval shape. You’ll be cutting four of these pieces (two for each side). I like to position the fabric grain going the long way, so the maximum stretch will be opposite the stretch on the cross front pieces, but I’ve done it the other way too, and it worked out fine.

Section 4: Cut and Prep Your Fabric

Now that your pattern is complete on paper, you need to cut and mark your fabric and foam, if applicable. Simply follow your patterns for this, keeping in mind any alterations you’ve made.

You’ll need to cut

  1. All recommended pieces for your outer layer, keeping in mind that if you split your strap (and it’s made out of fabric and/or foam), you’ll also be splitting your elastic/FOE/binding.
  2. Your two cross front pieces. Transfer the pump access markings to the fabric, and cut the 3″ slits on each piece.
  3. Four pump flap pieces (the ovals you drafted using the overlapping circles).

Section 5: Sew!

  1. Fold your pump flap pieces in half along the short edges. Use Wonder Tape, clips, and or basting to close the edges.
  2. Overlap your pump pieces by about 1″ along the straight edge. Zigzag or serge all the way around the circle to finish off the pump flaps. Note: if you don’t like the unfinished look of serged edges here, you could sew each of the four pieces right sides together, leaving an opening for turning them right side out, and then turn and topstitch for a more finished look.

    Fingers pointing to the folded edges, they’re hard to see on this fabric.
  3. [Optional but useful if you have fabric that will curl] Finish off the edges of your horizontal slits that you cut on the cross front pieces with a zigzag or serger. Be careful not to trim anything off the edge!

    Edge serged
  4. Topstitch the pump flaps in place with the opening running opposite the slit on the crossover pieces (as shown in the picture).

    Showing front of one side and back of the other
  5. [Optional] Finish the center front and side edges of your cross front layers with a zigzag or serger.

    Edges serged
  6. Attach 1/4″ elastic to the wrong side of your crossfront pieces just inside the edges along the center front and sides using a 3-step zigzag stitch. I’m using swim elastic here. You’ll want the elastic stretched pretty tight for this step. I usually measure about 80% of the total length, but I stretch less along the straight parts toward the straps than I do along the curves.

    Elastic attached
  7. Fold over the elastic edges and topstitch in place using a stretch stitch on your sewing machine. Options for a stretch stitch include a zigzag stitch, 3-step zigzag stitch, certain decorative stitches, or a twin needle using a straight stitch.

    Edges folded and topstitched, shown from front and back
  8. Baste the crossover pieces together at the bottom, matching up the center front.
  9. Attach the top of the crossover pieces to bottom of the nursing clasp base (the piece with the little hook) by simply folding over the back and stitching down.

    Bottom basted, clips attached
  10. Set aside the cross front layer now.
  11. Assemble your outer layer according to the pattern instructions up to the point where you attach your cups/upper part to the band/bra base. Don’t finish the edges of your outer layer yet (binding, FOE, whatever).
  12. Attach your crossover layer to the base or band of the bra along the cups if you have them. I find it easiest with the Endurance bra to first sew the cups into the base and then separately sew the crossfront layer into that seam. In the case of the Endurance bra modified for a back closure the way I did, the bottom of the crossfront pieces won’t follow the upward curve of the cups. That’s expected. You’ll sew that part straight across (see photos for details). Once it’s time to topstitch the straight part, sew your band in place so you can tell where that straight line should go. This is what you’re going for at the end of this step:

    Action shots of this step:

  13. At this point, your bra front is basically assembled.  You just need to finish the edges of your outer layer with your binding or FOE or whatever you’re using and attach the nursing clasp to the outer layer. I used binding here. Finish all the edges (including the upper part of the straps which may be a separate pattern piece you split off from the main pattern).
  14. Attach your nursing clasp. If you split your strap yourself to allow the attachment of the nursing clasp, you’ll be attaching the bottom part of your outer layer to the clasp front piece and the top part of your outer layer (should just be a strap) to the top of the clasp base (the crossover layer should already be attached to the bottom of the clasp base).
  15. Finish the back of the bra according to your pattern. On this one, I followed the adjustable strap instructions from the Greenstyle Endurance bra, but I made my own straps (still haven’t mastered that – they’re hard to adjust) and used two on each strap. The bottoms have the hook style that can switch from one loop to another, allowing me to mix up how I criss cross my straps (or not). I used hook and eye tape (rescued from an old bra that doesn’t fit) for my back closure. There are lots of other strap combos here, but my husband wasn’t patient enough to let me keep altering the strap position for more pictures.

Section 6: Wear and use

I assume you don’t need instructions for how to wear your bra, but in case you’re confused about how to nurse and/or pump in it, here are some photos to demonstrate.

To pump:

  1. Undo the clasp(s) to reveal the pumping layer
  2. Tuck your pump flange into the pump flaps, one side at a time
  3. Tuck the pump flange through the slit so that it is flush against the skin with no fabric underneath
  4. Make sure the bra is oriented to hold the pump flange in place, and enjoy hands-free pumping on one or both sides

To nurse:

  1. Undo the clasp to reveal the pumping layer
  2. Push the pumping layer over to the side, granting baby full access, just as you’d get in a regular cross-front style nursing bra

Enjoy your new bra, which you can wear all day and still look good while also allowing for pumping AND nursing access 🙂


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