Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Breastfeeding in a Victorian Corset

Over the years I have often been asked about breastfeeding my babies while wearing a corset. I have been very blessed to have been able to breastfeed my six babies for at least the first six months of their lives and as we have always had some kind of historical event or another to go to while they were still nursing, I quickly had to learn how to deal with the differences of feeding in a corset vs. feeding in a bra.

This is just my experience and as every mama (and baby!) is different what worked and works for me may not work for you. Size of breast, fit of corset, style of chemise and dress and preferences of Baby must all be taken into consideration. But in my experience: YES! It is possible to breastfeed in a corset and, what’s more important, to breastfeed in a way that is comfortable for both you and Baby.

Historically, women wore corsets while breastfeeding. Special nursing corsets did exist. These had openings at the bust that could be used to allow Baby better access to the breast. I have never used one. For me, a regular corset has sufficed just fine. Other ladies I know have made and enjoyed specific nursing corsets. Please visit the great post about a Victorian Corset for Nursing Mothers at Yesterday's Thimble for a fabulous look at some nursing-corset options for the later Victorian period.
1890's Nursing Corset from Augusta Auctions
The other historically accurate option is to go without bust support entirely. (although I would fairly confidently say that MOST women DID wear a corset, even while breastfeeding.) For the reenacting mama whose baby just won’t nurse in a corset, you can skip that undergarment and wear a looser garment, such as a sacque or wrapper or loosely-fitted dress over the chemise. (And if that isn’t a great option for you, there’s no shame in wearing a good supportive bra that you can nurse in underneath your historical dress. The most important thing is to be able to feed that baby!)
Judah's first event in 2007 when he was a week old - I wore a bra!
It was what worked for us at the time before I had the chance to make a new corset (boobs undergo a dramatic increase in size after a baby is born, it seems) and at least it got us to the event and able to participate. For me, wearing a modern bra was a better option than going without support entirely.
An important thing to note is the difference in shape between a corseted vs. non corseted figure.
A non corseted figure usually has a lower, more rounded bustline. The abdomen is softer.

A corseted figure lifts the bustline and firms the torso. These differences in shape may cause some initial problems when first attempting to nurse in a corset. For a baby that is accustomed to and comforted by the warmth and softness of his mothers breasts and abdomen while nursing, the rigid torso that results from wearing a corset and the higher position of the breast may be frustrating at first. (Anne was one of these babies. She was not enthusiastic about nursing at the first event I took her to after she was born!)
In my corset, I find that the nipple level is higher than it is when wearing a modern bra. The 1860's bustline was lower and more rounded than it had been in earlier periods but is still higher than the average "t shirt bra" line of today.
The top of a corset edge should fall at nipple level. If a chemise is made with a drawstring neckline or the ability to be unfastened in the front, it is fairly easy to loosen the chemise and to be able to push down the edge of the corset at the nipple so the baby can latch.

If the corset cannot be pushed down, the breast can be lifted up out of the corset and allowed to fall over the edge so the baby can latch.

For me this took a bit of time to get comfortable with. Nearly ten years (!) now after my first attempts at nursing in a corset it has become very second nature. But it was certainly awkward at first.
There are quite a few nursing positions that can be achieved in both corseted and non-corseted nursing. These are a few of my favorites.

1. Cradle hold. This is a classic nursing position that is great for most newborns and small babies. At 13 months now, Rose is not a great fan of this position unless she is very sleepy. In a corset, I have found that this position is made a lot more comfortable if I put a pillow or some kind of padding on my lap, to help the baby reach the higher position of the breast. A folded up blanket works just as well, too.
Here, I am using a pillow that has been folded in half underneath Rose's
bottom to help support her and lift her to the elevated nipple level.
2. Side Lying Position. This is also a position that my newborn babies greatly loved, and Rose still prefers this position. This is actually one of the easiest ways to nurse in a corset, I have found! If you are wearing a cage this can be tricky but pulling up the rungs underneath you makes the skirts lay flat. When the boys were little and fussy at events and wouldn’t nap on their own, this position was great to get them to lay still, nurse, and fall asleep.
Forgive the glare - it was very bright outside! I didn't know the pictures came out
so bright until after we were done. Here Rose is nestled next to me and can comfortably nurse
while lying down. This is good for a baby who is sleepy or one that is very small. 
3. Front hold. This works with a baby who can sit up on her own. My last three especially used this position all the time and this is another of Rose’s favorites. This is a good position for discreet nursing in public since the head covers up most of the exposed breast, if you aren’t completely comfortable with public breastfeeding.

4. Hip hold. Another great position for an older baby or toddler. Rose loves this position. I use this one a lot since I this enables me to have one hand free so I can work on another activity while nursing my baby at the same time.

5. Baby Stand. Rose has enjoyed this position since she could stand with support. If I am sitting down with an older child to read a book or help them with something, I am still able to nurse.

6. Sitting Position: A variation of the above position, this has the older baby sitting on my lap while nursing.

These are some of the most common positions that I have used/am currently using. Of course, with a baby, any position that gets the nipple into the mouth is a good position! Ha. ;)

In my experience the older a baby is, the easier it becomes to nurse while wearing a corset. Tiny babies can be quite particular about how they are nursed and the strange differences they feel while being held against a corseted vs. non corseted body may be irritating to them. In that case, a position where they can be held up very close to the breast with a pillow or two may be best, or a position where you can lie down beside them and allow them free access to nurse.

When the baby is done nursing, all that needs to be done is to take a moment to gently place your breast into the corset, much as you would arrange your breast in the cup of your bra. Fasten the chemise and then close your dress. It is more convenient if you do not wear a brooch or pinned on bow at the neckline, but if you do it only takes an additional few seconds to repin the brooch or bow.

There is some primary evidence that some ladies left the neckline of their dress fastened while they nursed, and only undid the dress bodice enough to allow access to the breast. This would only work, of course, if your dress was not very tightly fitted and if your breasts were small enough to fit through this kind of opening. I am able to do this but it is less comfortable for me than to just undo the neckline as well.
Baby Anne and I in 2012
The last thing I have learned while breastfeeding in a corset (and also breastfeeding at historical events!) is that being comfortable with this beautiful function is extremely important. I had less success breastfeeding my oldest son, David, (he only nursed for about six months) because I was very self-conscious about public nursing. I felt like I was offending everyone who saw me nurse. I tried to use a nursing cover but since we did not use one in the privacy of our own home, little David did not like being covered when we were in public. I felt that the process of unfastening my dress, chemise and getting into a good nursing position took too long and I was stressed by the time I was finally ready to put the baby to my breast. David sensed that frustration and that made him tense, too, and less able to nurse adequately.

Breastfeeding does not take too long. I have learned that if I think it is taking too long, I have the wrong attitude about it and need to adjust my priorities. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a beautiful process that both Mama and Baby should be able to mutually enjoy. And breastfeeding is also a fantastic historical demonstration! A mama with a breastfeeding infant has a ready-made impression that many spectators, male and female, young and old, can relate to and have questions about!

Happy nursing!



  1. I love this! I do not have children of my own, but I am a huge supporter of the freedom to breast feed and always wondered how women of the past would have fed their babies while fully clothed. This post was very enlightening! Thank you for sharing photos of how it works. I admire your courage and confidence.

  2. Hey! So I did a blog post on Victorian breastfeeding practices, and thought it might be good to add it here-I'm going to link to yours!


    1. What a terrific, in depth and valuable post! Thank you so much for sharing it! I would love to link to it in this post if you don't mind!

  3. Lovely, informative, wonderful. Thank you for this, it's been a topic sorely lacking in current reenacting.

  4. Great post! My experience (though not as extensive as yours) runs along the same lines. It's certainly possible to breastfeed while wearing stays or a corset, but it might be a good idea to practice before an event, both so that you get accustomed to the necessary steps, and as baby can be miffed at your "new" body. My youngest, then six months, certainly was when I nursed him in 1810's stays - a bust don't go much higher than that, and what with the busk, my posture was quite rigid. Still, he did manage to nurse several times :)

    1. I think maybe an 1810's corset would be the most tricky of all to nurse in. (although I'm thinking a fitted 18th c. corset with shoulder straps may be really hard, too) I love the word "miffed" - that is so accurate! That is exactly how Anne was when I tried to nurse her in an 1860's one.

  5. Such an interesting post, thank you! When I breastfed my children I was reading the 19th century books and thought " How on Earth they did it?" Here's an answer. Thank you!

  6. Wonderful, Sarah! I Thank you for including the photos; they add much to the post and are so sweet. You are a beautiful nursing mother and your courage and practicality are refreshing. I always figured you just scooped over the top of your corset, and I see I was right.
    Remember your beautiful medieval cotte? I have been thinking about making one. Since I don't reenact, I'm considering such a dress for daily wear. I've been wondering if it's a stupid idea and my modern body would find it uncomfortable, and I've also been wondering about nursing. Maybe this is a question I should discuss with you via email, but if you have any words on the matter that you want to share here I'm all ears (or eyes...).
    I'n nursingmy 13 month old right now, and she keeps trying to type with her heel. :)

    1. Oh man, yeah, I remember the cotte! Have you seen Edyth Miller's great series of posts on a supportive chemise that she has done this spring? I have loved following her progress! http://edythmiller.blogspot.com/

      I'd definitely go for making one! I really enjoyed wearing that style of dress, especially since it was supportive enough to wear without additional support garments (no bra! yay!) It's also extremely flattering on most figures, especially if you just make the under-band area on the bodice tightly fitted and let it flare out from there - very, very comfortable and attractive on most. Again, Edyth Miller's blog is an amazing resource on this kind of dress. I love her sooooo much! Amazing seamstress.

      If you want to email me, my email is romantichistory @yahoo.com I am really bad at checking it every day but I try to check at least once a week or so! I'd love talking about nursing and historic attire and such.

  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I have nursed two of my three children in a corset at a historical event, too and it worked well, although I had to hold the Baby in a different Position than usual, as you described it. I was wearing a corset with a relatively low bustline and so it was not very difficult. Nevertheless I would have loved to try a nursing corset... But the most important thing was that I could take even the youngest family members (3 weeks old) to the historical event and have fun!
    Doing wild West live roleplaying

    1. I've always been curious about using a nursing corset, too. But yes, I agree that the most important thing is being able to take baby to enjoy an event! 3 weeks is starting young! That is awesome! :D What positions worked well for you? Did the baby have any trouble at first when trying to nurse with you in a corset? I love hearing about others experience in this matter. It's definitely unique to each woman and baby but its interesting to see the similarities, too.

  8. Wonderful!
    I'm not to the stage of babies yet in my life, as I just graduated from college. I am getting married in less than a year, though!
    I love seeing women who are comfortable with one of the most amazing things her body can do for her baby. Nursing in historical clothing is even better!

  9. Wonderful post. Lovely, informative photos, and excellent advice.

  10. Thank you so much, Sarah, for this insightful post! It has helped! As my corset is too small for my larger nursing boobs it has become uncomfortable, so I'd like to try my hand at making myself a new corset. Do you have any easy-to-fit pattern suggestions for a newbie? Lol Thanks!

  11. This is such great information! I'm about to have my first baby, and I'm very much looking forward to breastfeeding. It's nice to know that it's so possible in period clothing (because of course it is - that was the norm back then!) and all of your photos of different positions are really helpful! I don't do much Victorian re-enacting, but I imagine the process would be very similar for 18th Century and Regency.


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!