Breastfeeding in Public: Tips and Laws for Nursing Mothers
Breasts are celebrated on screen, in magazines, on billboards and on beaches — but, ironically, they can still be a tough sell when they’re being used to feed a baby in public. While public nursing is becoming more accepted, it still seems to attract a lot more attention than bottle-feeding — and unfortunately not always the “aww sweet” kind. But given the many benefits of breastfeeding and the fact that a hungry baby waits for no mom, you’ll quickly hang up any hangups about nursing in public. Fortunately, there are ways to nurse your baby confidently, even confidentially, in public places. Soon you’ll learn how to breastfeed so discreetly that only you and your little diner will know he or she is having lunch.
Is breastfeeding in public legal?
Breastfeeding in public is legal and protected by federal law. Legislation in most states gives women the right to nurse in public. But even if you’re in a state that doesn’t have such laws on the books, you still have every right to feed your baby.
- You can nurse whenever your baby’s hungry. Regardless of where you live, you may breastfeed your baby anywhere that a mother is entitled to be (except in a moving car, where even a hungry baby must be secured in a child safety seat). So if you have a right to be somewhere with your baby and you can feed your baby a bottle, then certainly you have the right to breastfeed.
- Breastfeeding in public is not a criminal offense. Exposing a breast to nurse in public is not indecent exposure, no matter what you're told.
- You have extra protections in certain places. Federal legislation passed in 1999 guarantees that nursing is always allowed on federal property. Your employer must also allow you to nurse during work breaks; day care centers must provide nursing facilities; and nursing mothers are exempt from jury duty.
- Your state may have additional laws to protect you. For more information on public breastfeeding specific to where you live, check out state-by-state public breastfeeding laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Tips for breastfeeding in public
Now that you know you're within your rights to feed your baby anywhere, here are some tips that will help you nurse with comfort and confidence when you're not at home:
- Dress for (nursing) success. Give baby easier access to his or her lunch—and yourself more privacy—with two-piece outfits (no dresses, unless they have a wrap-style front or open from the front). Ideally, opt for shirts that button from the bottom up, lift up or pull to the side easily.
- Practice. Before you head out, have your baby latch on while you watch in the mirror to see how much exposure you're getting, or ask your partner or a friend to observe. If you're not comfortable with the full-frontal view, you can practice turning to the side until you find what angle works best.
- Try a cover. Put a blanket, shawl or poncho over your shoulders so that it drapes over your baby's head. To make sure he or she has room for easy feeding and breathing (and doesn’t get overheated), be sure it’s well-ventilated. If you’re eating out together, a large napkin can even provide cover.
- Wear your baby. A sling makes public breastfeeding extremely discreet (people will just think your baby is snoozing) and incredibly convenient.
- Scout out nursing spots. Find an out-of-the-way table in a restaurant, a bench under a tree, a quiet corner with a roomy chair in a bookstore or a dressing room in a department store. Turn away from people while your baby is latching on, and turn back once your baby is well-positioned at your breast.
- Ask for special accommodations. Many public places, including large stores, shopping malls, airports and even amusement parks, now offer special nursing rooms complete with comfy chairs and changing tables.
- Feed before the frenzy. Don't let your baby get so hungry that he or starts to fuss and cry. It's much easier to nurse discreetly if you're both calm.
- Know your nursing rights. And feel good about exercising them.
- Do what comes naturally. If feeding your baby in public feels right, go ahead and do it. If it doesn’t, even after some practice, opt for privacy whenever you can.
Breastfeeding gear that can help
Looking for extra gear to make public breastfeeding a bit less stressful? The following can help:
- Breastfeeding clothing. Nursing dresses and tops that are designed with hidden flaps facilitate discreet feeding and easy access for pumping. Such gear is also designed to fit a nursing mom’s larger bust size—a big plus.
- Breastfeeding covers. Nursing covers (like the Hooter Hider) are designed to tent your baby from prying eyes.
- A copy of the law. Carrying a copy of your state’s nursing law in your diaper bag can be helpful if you are ever the object of unwanted attention.
What to do if you get harassed
If someone does ever leer or say you don’t have the right to nurse, stand your ground and remember the law is on your side. A few tips:
- Try to stay calm and avoid threats (like staging a nurse-in) as a first line of action. That’s unless, of course, you feel physically unsafe—in which case, by all means, call the police. Otherwise, ask for clarification as to what they’re asking you to do and why. Here’s where having a copy of breastfeeding laws can come in handy.
- If an employee is doing the harassing or doesn’t make an effort to help you to stand your ground, consider filing a complaint with the establishment, either right away with a manager on-site, or later with the company’s customer relations department. Give them at least a couple of days to respond, and keep records of your conversations. If you don’t get a response, try contacting someone higher up in the company, like a corporate or public relations officer.
- If you still don’t get an adequate response, consider talking to your local La Leche League coordinator or Breastfeeding USA counselor.
- Discuss your experience with your friends and mom group; you may even want to consider staging a nurse-in.
- If you’re comfortable doing so, post about your experience on social media—sometimes publicly acknowledging the situation can be the most effective recourse of all.