Are you pregnant or hoping to be? Have you noticed changes in your breasts and wondered if this is normal?
For your breasts to prepare for breastfeeding, they go through many changes during your pregnancy. Breast changes can be one of the first indicators you’re pregnant and can clue you in to the excitement before you even take your first pregnancy test.
Before now, you likely hadn’t considered your breasts as much more than a part of your female anatomy, but they’re about to become a whole lot more functional. Here’s what you need to know about what happens, why it happens, and when to expect breast changes during pregnancy.
Why Do Breasts Change During Pregnancy?
When most people think of physical changes during pregnancy, they envision a woman’s expanding belly. But the reality is the whole body undergoes a radical transformation, and the breasts are no exception.
Breast changes during pregnancy occur for several reasons:
- Hormonal shifts: The two primary hormones in pregnancy are estrogen and progesterone. These hormones prepare the breasts for milk production and breastfeeding. Estrogen produces another hormone called prolactin, the hormone responsible for lactation. Progesterone also plays a part in increasing the number of milk-producing cells in the breasts. Hormones contribute to fat storage, water retention, and changes in sensitivity, all of which can affect your breasts. And not only “pregnancy hormones” are to blame. When you’re pregnant, even “regular” hormones like cortisol and insulin shift, resulting in significant bodily changes.
While it is true that cortisol and insulin change during pregnancy and tend to increase, this is usually estrogen driven. Estrogen increases cortisol levels by increasing the number of proteins that cortisol usually binds to, and thus the adrenal glands produce more cortisol. That increase in cortisol then drives insulin resistance, causing increased insulin levels.
- Weight gain: Because the breasts are primarily made up of fat, it makes sense that as you put on weight during pregnancy, some of that weight would go to your breasts. While you might try to limit the pounds you put on, thanks to increased body fat, the fact is that it’s normal. Although most women experience some increase in breast size, there is no rule of thumb about how much.
You can expect that up to seven pounds of the weight you put on during pregnancy is due to increased fat storage, and some of that will inevitably end up in your breasts.
- Expanding rib cage: As your baby grows, your rib cage expands to accommodate it. While this doesn’t technically enlarge your breasts, it can make them seem larger. It will also affect your bra size, as your previous band size will start to feel uncomfortable as your pregnancy progresses.
- Swelling: You know your fingers swell during pregnancy. But did you know your breasts do, too? Pregnancy hormones that specifically cause your breast tissue to swell due to expansion in the number of milk-producing glands and ducts can cause the breast tissue to become swollen and tender. Along with other factors that cause enlargement of the breast, it can make them increase by as much as two cup sizes.
- Milk production: Milk production will ramp up after your baby is born, but your body will start getting ready well before your little one arrives. These changes can result in increased breast volume, but some women also experience leakage. Whether you see it or not, your breasts are preparing to nourish a baby, which can affect how they look and feel.
What Are the Parts of the Breast?
Before going into the details about specific changes you may experience during pregnancy, it’s important to understand the parts of the breast.
Breasts don’t simply exist in the center of your chest. Breast tissue actually starts right below the collarbone and extends through the underarm and across the middle of the rib cage (1). Your breasts are composed of fatty and fibrous connective tissue, lobules, and ducts.
Within the breast are areas called lobes. These are each composed of a collection of lobules, the milk-producing glands. Milk is carried from the lobules to the nipples through ducts. Fat fills the spaces between lobes and ducts.
The darker area around the nipple is called the areola. On the areola, you may have noticed bumps. These are called Montgomery’s tubercles. These tubercles secrete oil to help lubricate the nipple during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and they also keep germs away from the area (2).
6 Breast Changes to Expect During Pregnancy
You can expect your breasts to change in a number of ways during pregnancy, including:
You can expect your breasts will increase in weight by as much as two pounds (3). Keep in mind that our bodies are different, and women experience various changes in the size and shape of their breasts.
Many women blame nursing for breasts that are not as full, firm, and perky as they once were. However, that myth has been scientifically debunked. Long-term breast changes happen because of pregnancy, not breastfeeding (4). This is due to the changes in size and the stretching of the skin and ligaments.
- The Bad News: Pregnancy will change your breasts over the long term.
- The Good News: You can breastfeed confidently, knowing nursing is not to blame for sagging breasts. You can follow exercises that will help increase breast firmness post-pregnancy.
Aside from appearing bigger, you may notice more specific changes in your breasts throughout pregnancy. You may notice the veins that run along the sides of your breasts are more prominent or appear darker. This is due to increased blood flow to your breasts.
Some women develop stretch marks along the sides of their breasts due to the rapid weight gain in the area. These usually occur later in your pregnancy but can occur at any time.
You may also notice bumps on your areola. These are glands that have always been there. They just tend to get noticeably larger when you are pregnant.
4. Nipple Color
Along with the tubercles or bumps on your areolas, you will likely notice your nipples and the surrounding areas become much darker due to increasing pregnancy-related hormone levels. This happens fairly early in pregnancy, and the coloring will remain throughout your pregnancy and possibly throughout the time you breastfeed.
For some mothers, the dark color fades shortly after birth. Either way, the darkening is typically not permanent.
Although leakage tends to occur later in the third trimester, you may start to notice a discharge of a thin creamy, white or yellow fluid from your nipples as early as five months of pregnancy. This is actually colostrum or pre-milk, the earliest, nutrient-rich substance you’ll produce for your baby the first few days after birth before your milk comes in. This happens because your breasts are gearing up to feed your wee one. Remember, if the discharge makes you uncomfortable, you can start wearing nursing pads even before you start nursing.
But if you don’t experience discharge, don’t worry. There does not appear to be a correlation between prenatal nipple discharge and postnatal milk production. You’ll still be able to feed your baby (5).
Your breasts may be tender or sensitive throughout your pregnancy, but this feeling could wax and wane. It also doesn’t have to happen in areas where you typically experience breast tenderness. If you usually experience tenderness on the sides of the breast, you may suddenly develop sensitivity in your nipples.
You may also experience itching or an irritating sensation, similar to how your belly feels toward the end of pregnancy as your skin gets stretched.
You may wonder how you’ll be able to nurse when your nipples are so tender, particularly if this is your first pregnancy.
There are nipple creams that contain lanolin, a combination of esters and fatty acids, that is non-toxic to mother or baby and can ease your breastfeeding experience.
Are Breast Changes a Symptom of Early Pregnancy?
Breast tenderness is a common symptom of early pregnancy. It’s due to the hormones estrogen and progesterone and can feel like any of the following:
- Nipple tingling.
- A general sense of heaviness of the breast.
- Pain in the lymph nodes under the arm.
- Overall sensitivity.
- Tenderness localized to specific areas.
One of the problems with using breast tenderness to identify an early pregnancy, however, is that these symptoms are nearly identical to symptoms many women experience immediately before menstruation.
This Is A More Reliable Pregnancy Sign
This can happen as early as a week after conception (6), so it may even be noticeable before you take a pregnancy test. The exact reason for this change isn’t known. Many speculate it’s to help your baby see your nipples more easily when they feed, or it may be due to surging levels of pregnancy hormones that stimulate the production of melanin in the body.
Although darkening of the areola is a common sign of pregnancy, this happens at other times, such as when women take birth control pills, go through puberty, experience cancer, etc.
How Many Cup Sizes Will I Gain?
As your entire body expands and your pregnancy progresses, you may wonder what’s normal and what’s not. As with most pregnancy-related things, the truth is, it depends.
While it’s practically a guarantee your breasts will grow, there’s no telling how much. Some women grow two cup sizes throughout their pregnancy and keep the increased volume for the duration of their breastfeeding experience.
Other women experience some enlarging during pregnancy, but their breasts revert to their pre-pregnancy size shortly after childbirth.
This lack of consistency can make it difficult and frustrating to shop for nursing or maternity bras, especially when you don’t want to overspend on items that may not work for you long-term.
Some ways you can compensate for this include the following:
- Buying only one or two bras at a time and rotating through them until they are no longer comfortable.
- Choosing soft, elastic bras, often known as night nursing bras.
- Avoid underwire bras.
- Using a bra extender if your cup size still fits but your band does not.
The Bottom Line
During pregnancy, your body is doing way more than growing a baby. It’s also preparing your body to nourish that baby for an extended period, which means your breasts have to get ready, too.
From your very first week of pregnancy through your postpartum period, you can expect to experience significant breast changes, including:
- Increased breast size.
- A change in firmness or perkiness.
- Noticeable bumps on your areola.
- A darkening of the areola or nipples.
- Increased darkening of the veins in your breasts.
- Increased breast tenderness or nipple sensitivity.
- Nipple discharge.
Some of these changes are only temporary due to pregnancy, while others may be longer-lasting or even permanent.
Remember to consult with your doctor if any of these changes become a source of discomfort or concern.