A Mom's Right: Breastfeeding in Public

Breastfeeding in public is legal, but common sense and a little discretion go a long way.

4 min read

For many women, the decision to breastfeed is an easy one. But figuring out the logistics of just how to fit nursing into a busy schedule can present another challenge entirely.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding (that is, only mother's milk – no water, juice, other liquids, or foods), followed by breastfeeding through a baby's first year of life. But often the desire to nurse is sharply curtailed the moment mom comes face-to-face with the idea that she may not be in the privacy of her bedroom every time baby is hungry.

"There are definitely those who, for whatever reason, are opposed to a woman breastfeeding in public. They can make a woman feel extremely uncomfortable doing so, particularly the first time she tries," says Myrtle Hodge, RN, a lactation counselor at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.

Still, Hodge says she encourages women not to hide, even when in a public place such as restaurant or park.

"I tell nursing moms never go into the bathroom to breastfeed your baby because nobody goes in there to eat. You sit where it's feasible for you and your baby," Hodge tells WebMD.

Here are some facts that any breastfeeding mom should know:

  • Breastfeeding in public is a right in all 50 states, a fact many women don't realize. At least half of states have laws specifically protecting the rights of the breastfeeding mom.
  • In addition, some states have laws on the books specifically geared to protect women who breastfeed in public, excluding them from prosecution under other laws that deal with indecent exposure or obscenity. In this way you are protected against any criminal charges for nursing in public.
  • In other states -- for example New York and California -- specific civil statutes address breastfeeding in public and grant women the right to do so. Being denied that opportunity means a woman can sue for violation of her civil rights.
  • Under current federal law, a woman has the right to breastfeed in public on any federal property or within any federal building.

"At La Leche we have small cards printed up that women can hand out to anyone who questions her right to breastfeed in public. The cards state that it is a woman's legal right," says Carol Huotari, IBCLC, a certified lactation counselor and manager of the Breastfeeding Information Center at La Leche League International in Schaumberg, Ill.

Soon the rights of breastfeeding women across the United States may get an even bigger boost thanks to The Breastfeeding Promotion Act, a bill introduced in May 2005 by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)

"Moms contact me all the time frustrated because they would like to breastfeed but face some really tough obstacles both at work and in public settings, " says Maloney, whose record on health issues concerning women and children clearly make her a new mom's best ally.

Among the challenges her legislation addresses: The right to a clean, safe area of a workplace where a woman can express her milk -- or feed her baby -- and tax incentives for businesses that establish private lactation areas in the workplace.

"I have heard many horror stories of women who were fired for trying to figure out a way to express milk at work. My bill clarifies the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to protect breastfeeding under federal civil rights law, ensuring that women cannot be fired or discriminated against in the workplace for expressing (pumping) milk or breastfeeding during breaks or lunch time," says Maloney.

The legislation also calls for new standardized safety guidelines for breast pumps. Plus, it offers companies important tax incentives for creating environments that areconducive to breastfeeding.

"One way employers can make the workplace a better place: support working women who breastfeed. Employers should not stand in the way of a woman doing the most natural thing on earth -- breastfeeding her child," says Maloney.

Experts say new moms can help encourage a more liberal and accepting attitude about breastfeeding in public by using common sense and modest discretion when feeding their hungry babies.

In fact, lactation counselors say that with just a little bit of practice at home in front of the mirror, any nursing mom can learn to breastfeed so modestly the public will scarcely notice -- let alone object.

"When I first started breastfeeding I used to sit in front of a full length mirror and try out different positions and different ways of placing my clothing to see which looked the most discreet. Then I would do it in front of my husband and ask him if anything was unnecessarily exposed," says Pat Sterner, IBCLC, a lactation counselor at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "In a very short time I felt very confidant about nursing in public."

Using a little bit of common sense helps as well, along with a little discretion about where and how you nurse in public.

"If you are in a restaurant, for example, you don't have to face the entire room and pull out your breast. You can turn your back to the room and nestle your baby close to you," Huotari tells WebMD. "If you have a shawl or sweater to drape around your shoulders, it is very hard to see if you are feeding, or simply cuddling your baby."

If you are approached about breastfeeding in public, Huotari suggests you politely but firmly let people know it is your right.