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How to Use Breast Pads Properly: Step by Step Guide

Medically Reviewed by Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Nursing pads explained.

Are you a pregnant or nursing mom? If so, you’ve likely experienced milk leakage. Unexpected leakage or let-down is a common occurrence that can be embarrassing if you’re not prepared.

Breast pads, also known as “nursing pads,” are absorbent, removable liners worn between a woman’s nipples and her bra. They act as a shield to protect clothing from milk leakage, preventing wet spots, and potential stains.

Having experienced untimely let-downs ourselves, we’ve searched for the best ways to avoid the embarrassment of walking around with a wet shirt. We’ll help you understand the differences between reusable pads and disposable options, and we’ll give you the low-down on how to use them correctly for optimal leakage protection.

Key Takeaways

  • They are useful in the final weeks of pregnancy and early days of nursing when the body is still perfecting the process of making sufficient milk, and sudden let-downs can occur.
  • They are safe and hygienic when used properly, but care should be taken to change them frequently to avoid bacterial growth and fungal growth, which can lead to thrush.
  • Two types of breast pads are available: disposable and reusable. Disposable pads are convenient and easy to use, but not eco-friendly and require regular expense. Reusable pads are machine washable and can be used multiple times, but need to be washed in hot water with bleach to kill yeast and prevent the recurrence of thrush.

Why Do I Need Breast Pads?

In the final weeks of pregnancy and the early days of nursing, your body is preparing and perfecting the process of making sufficient milk to feed your baby. Before your body (and baby) have settled into a solid feeding schedule, your breasts will often release milk without warning (1).

Even after your body’s milk production has regulated and the sudden let-downs subside, leaks and surprises can still occur while you nurse. This is because let-downs are triggered by more than a physical need — emotional situations can trigger them as well. Simply hearing a baby cry or yearning for a snuggle can trigger a release of milk.

The Benefits

The best breast pads are useful because they absorb the released milk, preventing embarrassing damp circles around your nipples. They also protect your clothing from breast milk stains.

Are They Safe?

It is natural to be concerned about hygiene and other risks when considering placing anything next to your nipple, especially when you’ll be feeding your baby afterward. The good news is that, when used properly, breast pads are safe and hygienic.

However, there are some things to keep in mind.


The biggest potential risk when using breast pads is bacterial growth. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments, so breast pads can become a breeding ground if you don’t change them frequently.

Change breast pads when they’re damp to avoid constant moisture around the nipple which can foster the growth of bacteria. This is especially important when you have sore nipples with broken skin. Unresolved nipple pain may result in mastitis, a serious infection of the milk duct in the breast (2).

Warm, moist environments also encourage fungal growth. One particularly bothersome fungus to nursing mothers is candida, which causes thrush. Thrush can occur in the baby’s mouth and the mother’s nipple, where it causes painful symptoms such as itching and a flaky rash (3).

If you’re using reusable breast pads and end up with thrush, be aware the yeast can live within the fabric of your breast pad despite regular washing. You will need to take some extra steps, such as washing your breast pads in hot water with bleach and heat drying, to kill the yeast to prevent a recurrence (4).

Finally, breast pads also have the potential to irritate the skin around the nipple for some women. This is uncomfortable, but not serious. Nipple creams may be used in conjunction with breast pads to prevent irritation.

Breast Pad Options

There are many different breast pad options, and you can choose the one that best fits your lifestyle.

Disposable breast pads are discreet, relatively thin, single-use absorbent pads. Some come individually wrapped in plastic to ensure they are sanitary.

Disposable Pads


  • Convenient.
  • Easy to use.
  • Contain adhesive to stay in place.
  • Many are plastic-lined to prevent leaks.
  • Thin & discreet.


  • Not eco-friendly.
  • Plastic backing may increase moisture retention.
  • Regular, recurring expense while nursing.

Reusable Pads

Reusable breast pads are machine washable and can be used multiple times. They are made of various materials for improved comfort and absorbency.


  • Eco-friendly.
  • Cost-effective.
  • Breathable.


  • Thicker; more noticeable beneath clothing.
  • Higher up-front cost.
  • Regular cleaning required.
  • Need 10–12 pairs to rotate between cleanings.
  • No adhesive.

Using Disposable Breast Pads

1. Prepare Your Nipple

Keeping a bacteria-free environment is essential when using breast pads, so make sure your nipple is dry before applying a clean one. If your nipples are irritated, apply nipple cream before your breast pad.

2. Remove Adhesive Backing

Using clean hands, remove pads from their packaging, and carefully peel off the adhesive backing, if your brand includes adhesive.

3. Position Nipple Centrally

To maximize the absorbency of your breast pad and avoid leaks, center your nipple on the pad.

4. Press Adhesive Against Bra

Bring your bra up into place toward your breast and press the adhesive side of the pad into the cup of the bra. When you position your bra fully into place, re-adjust the pad if it is not in the proper position.

5. Replace When Wet

When your pad becomes moist from milk leakage, remove it promptly and discard it to reduce your chance of infection or irritation. Replace your breast pad with a new, clean one.

6. Wet Nipple If Pad Gets Stuck

If your breast pad becomes stuck to your nipple, gently apply a little moisture and it should release. Avoid pulling it as this could be very uncomfortable, especially if your nipples are cracked or irritated.

Using Reusable Breast Pads

1. Use Clean, Dry Pads

Because bacteria can grow in moist environments, make sure the breast pad you select is completely dry.

2. Prepare Your Nipple

Just as with disposable breast pads, make sure your nipple is also dry before applying a clean pad. If your nipples are irritated, apply nipple cream before your breast pad.

3. Secure Pad In Bra Cup

Position your breast pad in the cup of your bra. Because it lacks adhesive, make sure it is securely wedged between your breast and your bra. Ideally, it will be centered on your nipple.

4. Adjust If Necessary

Adjust your breast pad as much as you need. Reusable breast pads tend to be thicker than disposables, so use a padded or thicker bra to keep them hidden.

5. Replace When Wet

When your breast pad gets wet, remove it. If you’re away from home, place it in a small reusable wet bag or zip-top plastic bag. Remove them when you return home so they do not sit in the moist environment any longer than necessary.

6. Wash Your Breast Pad

Clean according to manufacturer guidelines. If you no longer have the packaging they came in, look up their website and instructions online. Washing methods vary because reusable breast pads are made from different materials such as cotton, bamboo, wool, or other fabrics.

Some recommend hand-washing, others hot water, while others specify cold-water washing only. The same goes for machine drying or line drying.

Regardless of your washing method, avoid all fabric softeners — both liquid softeners and dryer sheets — as fabric softeners can impact absorbency.

7. Disinfect Yeast (If Applicable)

If you or your baby have thrush, you’ll need to take some extra steps when cleaning your reusable breast pads as yeast can live in the fabric and survive the washing process. You can do this by:

  • Using disposable breast pads for 2–4 weeks while setting your washed, dried reusable breast pads aside to allow the yeast to die off without chemicals.
  • Washing your breast pads in the washing machine with 1 cup of vinegar.
  • Washing them in the washing machine along with a combination of ¼ cup bleach, 20 drops of tea tree oil, and 20 drops of grapefruit seed extract (NOT grapeseed extract).
  • Setting your breast pads in the sunlight.


Do You Wear Nursing Pads All the Time?

Some of us choose to pop on nipple pads when we’re going to the grocery store, to work, and anywhere out in public, but at home? A lot of women don’t wear them while they’re simply relaxing in their own space.

That’s not to say you can’t wear them all the time if you want to. Just keep in mind, you’ll have to worry about changing your nipple pads and washing/replacing them more frequently.

Should You Bring Nursing Pads to the Hospital?

Some people would tell you that yes, you should bring nursing pads to the hospital. Honestly, it isn’t a necessity. The hospital of all places is going to have nursing pads when you get there.

Not to mention, there is zero need to feel shame about your body’s natural processes in front of a bunch of medical professionals.

Your nipples leak a little milk in front of the neonatal nurse? I’m sure they’ve seen that happen from five other people since their shift started.

When Should I Start Using Nursing Pads?

Everyone’s body is a little different, but it’s a good time to start buying nursing pads in your final few weeks of pregnancy. Around this time, your body is going to start releasing milk sporadically.

Nursing pads will help you go about your normal routine without worry that you have milk stains appearing on your shirt at random times.

Lots of us like to wear nursing pads up through the entire process of nursing. Even when your body gets the hang of when to make milk, sometimes accidents happen.

How Do You Hide Nursing Pads?

Nursing pads are already very discreet, especially if you use the disposable ones. Disposable nipple pads are thinner than reusable ones, but with the right bra, neither will show through your clothing.

If you’re worried about how the pads are showing through your bras now, try on some bras with thicker padding.

It’s easy to carry these around in your purse and then change them out in a bathroom without anyone knowing what you’re doing. Overall, they won’t be noticeable to anyone but you.

Can Nursing Pads Cause Mastitis?

Nursing pads can cause mastitis if you aren’t using them safely. It’s imperative that you change your nursing pads every single time they get wet from a new let-down.

If you don’t change them out, nursing pads harbor bacteria that can enter through your nipple and cause a seriously painful infection. Not only will you have to go to the hospital to buy antibiotics, but you’ll also experience chills, swelling, and a fever.

The Bottom Line

Milk leakage is a reality for most moms at some point in their breastfeeding journey, and breast pads are a great way to prevent embarrassment, stains, and keep the milk spots at bay.

Whether you use reusable or disposable breast pads, the most important thing is to replace them regularly to avoid irritation and potential infection.

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Headshot of Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Medically Reviewed by

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC is a writer, editor, and board-certified lactation consultant for two busy pediatric practices. She is a former La Leche League Leader, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and Certified Infant Massage Instructor.