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Breastfeeding Essentials: What You Actually Need

Anna is a mother from Scotland who is passionate about providing accurate information about breastfeeding and parenting.

What You Need to Breastfeed

You don’t need to buy anything to breastfeed; you just need breasts and a baby.

However, there is some stuff that will make life more comfortable. This is what I recommend you make sure you have in advance:

  • nursing bras
  • clothing you can breastfeed in
  • breast pads
  • muslin cloths/other cloths to mop up spills
  • snacks and drinks to keep you going while feeding
  • entertainment
  • pillows and cushions
  • information and support

What You Don’t Need

Despite what some others will suggest you buy, you probably don’t need the following things—at least not at the start:

  • a breast pump
  • nipple shields
  • bottles
  • back up formula
  • special nursing clothes
  • a nursing cover up
  • a special armchair or rocking chair to breastfeed in
  • special feeding pillows

I’ve explained my reasons below.

What You Need

Nursing Bras

Invest in a couple of comfortable nursing bras before giving birth. Nursing bras are different from normal bras as you can unclip and pull down one side to feed. Don’t spend too much on bras before giving birth as your breasts may change shape and not settle down until about 6 weeks postpartum, when your milk supply is more regulated. Personally I bought several more sporty less bras in the size “medium” in advance, and I waited before investing in properly fitted ones.

Clothing You Can Breastfeed in

You need clothes with easy access to the breasts—think loose-fitting vest tops, with baggy jumpers or t-shirts you can lift up, or shirts or blouses with buttons you can undo at the top. If you already have clothes like this from pre-pregnancy days, you are sorted, provided you haven't changed shape too much. If not, you will need to rethink your wardrobe!

Breast Pads

Not all women leak milk; however, if you do, having pads handy is helpful. (From my test, toilet paper as an alternative impromptu breastmilk soaker-upper does not really work). You can either get disposable breast pads you throw away after each use or washable ones, which are small circles of cotton. My suggestion is to buy a small pack of disposable ones before giving birth to have on hand (and give to a friend if you don’t need them in the end). However, if you find you leak a lot of milk, invest a few extra pounds in washable ones.

Muslin Cloths

I didn’t understand why people kept recommending buying loads of muslin cloths before I had a baby, but I do now. These multipurpose cloths can be used to

  • mop up baby burps, sick and other spills
  • provide extra protection for mattresses/prams etc. so you save on washing frequency as you can just wash the muslin, not other sheets
  • catch leaking milk from your breast (I often use this in the house when one breast leaks while my baby feeds on the other rather than breastpads)
  • cover up if you want privacy while feeding in public
  • shade your baby from the sun
  • function as lightweight blankets
  • function as impromptu changing mats

I recommend getting at least 10 in advance, preferably in a few different sizes. Its likely you will soon want more, especially if your baby is of the kind that burps up a lot of milk (most do). I now have about 40 or 50 or so (I have lost count)!

Snacks and Drinks

Expect the first couple of weeks of breastfeeding to be very intense. You will not have time or energy to do much else apart from feeding, nappy changing and napping if you are lucky. It helps if you have a water bottle and other drinks with you at all times, as it's common to feel dehydrated in the first few days. I recommend little cartons of juice, the sort you buy for kids' packed lunches.

As well as drinks, have a supply of healthy food which you can eat with only one hand free. Energy bars are a good option. We bought a lot of oat-based protein bars. I also made sure I ate plenty of fruit like apples and grapes as it is recommended to eat plenty of fibre to avoid constipation. Proper meals are difficult with a baby attached to you, so avoid meals you have to cut up, or get your partner to cut everything into small pieces for you, or even feed you with a fork if necessary. Hands-free breastfeeding is possible, but it takes some practice and is often at an awkward angle for eating!


Most breastfeeding mothers I know swear by their subscription to Netflix or a similar service in the first weeks. It's a good time to get through some television series. Other options are mindless games on your phone or reading books. For reading, I recommend a Kindle or e-reader as it is much easier to read with one hand than a physical book, and you can read in the dark.

Pillows and Cushions

Make sure you have plenty of pillows and cushions that you can use to adjust and experiment with positions while breastfeeding. Pillows are useful for both back support and balancing the baby.

Information and Support

Breastfeeding is hard and a learning curve for both you and your baby, at least at the start. Make use of any support that is available to you. This includes support from midwives or other health professionals in the hospital, support from your peers and support from your family and friends.

Before you give birth, I recommend doing some research, either via books, classes, websites or support groups. At a minimum, make sure you are aware of where you can ask for help breastfeeding if needed after birth; for example, in the United Kingdom, there are various breastfeeding helplines. There may also be local breastfeeding support groups you can go to. This can be very helpful in helping you feel like you are not alone and getting ideas if you are having problems.

The other sort of support that is very helpful is that from family and friends. My partner did nearly all of the nappy changes for the first few weeks, as well as housework, and our parents brought round meals and went to the shops for us. Family and friends can help by doing housework, looking after other children and preparing or bringing round food. If your family and friends just want to come round to hold the baby and chat, do not feel afraid to tell them no, or tell them they can only stay for half an hour.

What You Don't Need

A Breast Pump

Many lists of breastfeeding essentials say you need to buy a breast pump. Unless you intend to express from the start or go back to work within a few weeks I recommend holding off buying an expensive breast pump at least until later. You might chose to express (or you have little choice due to going back to work soon after giving birth) but it is not essential for successful breastfeeding. In fact experts recommend it is best to establish breastfeeding for 4 to 6 weeks before pumping.

If you buy a pump for the early days, I recommend the HaaKaa breast pump. This is a small inexpensive silicon pump. While you are breastfeeding on one side you put the pump on the other breast and it can collect your milk. However, note that it can stimulate your supply, there are some women who ended up with problems with oversupply because they used this style of pump at every feed. Oversupply can cause breastfeeding problems.

Someone has recommended the HaaKaa or a non branded version of it in most breastfeeding support groups/mother and baby groups I have been to. One mum even reported that she expressed more from the HaaKaa than an electric pump.

My Haakaa pump with an ounce of breastmilk.

My Haakaa pump with an ounce of breastmilk.


You don’t need to give your breastfed baby a bottle, so you don’t need to buy bottles. The pack of bottles I bought are unopened and collecting dust. If you want to give your baby expressed milk, you can use a small spoon when they are young, or a cup when they are older, rather than a bottle.

Formula as a Backup

Having formula as a backup makes some women feel more comfortable as they know their baby won’t starve if they have problems breastfeeding. Although some breastfeeding advocates say having backup formula is a terrible idea as it means you are more likely to end up failing...I think it's best not to have. However it’s up to you what you want to do, but as we live in an age of 24 hour supermarkets and next day (or even same day) internet shopping, you will be able to pick up formula if needed (unless you live somewhere very remote). If you decide to buy formula as backup I recommend getting bottles that are already made up, rather than the powder and all associated expensive equipment. If you end up using formula, you can buy what you need at that point.

Nipple Shields

Nipple shields are silicone nipples that you can wear over your own nipple, which can help women who have problems with latching, for example if you have inverted nipples. Most women don't need nipple shields, it is best to only use them temporarily if recommended by a lactation consultant in the event you have a problem. This is something you only need to buy if it turns out you have an issue it might help with.

Special Nursing Clothes

Many retailers who sell maternity clothes also sell specific “nursing” outfits. You don’t need to buy specific nursing clothing. Most of the time I wear the baggy clothing described above. I am not saying don't buy any nursing clothes. I really like some of the ones I bought before I realised baggy clothes were fine. Some nursing clothes have very cleverly designed ways to access the breast.

Often nursing clothing doubles up as both maternity and nursing outfits, so it is worth buying while still pregnant so you get more use out of it. Also, check places like eBay, Gumtree or craigslist for secondhand nursing clothing. Since women only wear these clothes for a short time, good quality stuff should be available.

If you want breastfeeding fashion inspiration look up the Facebook group 'Can I Breastfeed in it'. This is full of ideas of clothes suitable for breastfeeding in, and also positivity about breastfeeding.

A Nursing Chair

Some women buy a special armchair or rocking chair to breastfeed in. By all means buy one if you want, but if you are tired and breastfeeding an armchair is one of the least safe places to fall asleep with a baby attached to you. I do nearly all my breastfeeding at home on my bed. For guidance on how to share a bed with your baby safely see How to Safely Co-sleep or Bedshare.

A Nursing Cover Up

In most parts of the world you are legally protected if you breastfeed in public, so you shouldn't need to cover up. If you do want some privacy out and about a decent sized muslin cloth should do the trick. Although in my experience no one pays much attention to you breastfeeding in public, and it is tricky to get a baby to latch when you can't see, so I don't bother with a cover.

Special Feeding Pillow

You can buy various pillows designed for feeding. I found lots of pillows and cushion different sizes more useful than the feeding pillows which I just find awkward. The "Boppy" pillow I was given is good for sitting baby on and tummy time though. However this may be an example of not one size fitting all as other mums swear by their pillows.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Anna Sherret


Liz Westwood from UK on May 26, 2019:

This is useful firsthand advice. This article is especially important at a time when resources and support are not as available as they were to first time mothers a generation ago.