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Adolescents and Bras

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Shari Nethersole, M.D.

Q: At what point, if any, do "developing" girls need to start wearing bras? My chubby eight-year-old is starting to show some signs of development and has breasts almost as large as mine (okay, I'm small). My 11-year-old is also about ready for a bra, but how do I know when it's necessary and not just that other girls are starting to wear them? Thanks.

A: As you suggest, many girls start to wear a bra just to be "grown-up," but it is not always necessary. The purpose of the bra is to support the breasts so that there is not excessive motion. This is particularly important when involved in vigorous sports, but can also be important in girls who have large breasts. Very large breasts certainly need some support as girls can easily develop poor posture and back pain if the weight of the breasts pulls forward and down.

When there is just a small breast bud (the nipple sticks out a little) or a small, half-dollar size breast, there generally is not much need for the support of a bra. In fact some girls find that when they first start developing, the breasts are a little tender and sensitive, and the pressure of a bra on top of that can be uncomfortable. The concept of a "training bra" is useful, though the breasts certainly don't need to be trained to stay in place! Once the breasts get to about an A cup size, most girls want to wear a bra, at least some of the time. Some girls prefer to start with a sports bra - it can give some support and allow girls to feel a little protected as they continue their athletic activities.

Some girls want to wear a bra because the bra can "flatten" out the breasts a little and not have them quite as noticeable. I would rather that girls get used to their developing bodies than feel that they have to hide it, but for the very early developer, this may be useful.

I would recommend that you ask your girls how they feel about starting to use a bra. Unless your eight year old is very developed, I would recommend waiting, and just using camisoles. Your 11 year old will probably want to get her first bra, as many of her peers have probably started to use one. This age (middle school) is when many schools start to have more serious gym classes for kids, in which they have to change clothes in a locker room. The experience of changing with a group of other girls can make some girls more self conscious about their developing bodies, and they may feel more comfortable with a bra.

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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.


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