By Jessica Sillers
In the earliest days of your new baby’s life, you may feel happy to spend all day in bed, recovering and bonding with your newborn. Eventually, both you and the baby will get out and about, which means you’ll have to make a feeding plan. Here’s everything you need to know about breastfeeding in public with confidence.
Laws regarding public breastfeeding are determined on the state level. The good news is that nearly every state has passed laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed:
- Forty-nine states (all except Idaho), the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have laws stating that a mother may nurse her child in any public or private place where she is allowed to be. That means even a private business does not legally have the right to make you leave the premises, nurse in a bathroom stall, or demand that you stop nursing your baby.
- Seventeen states and Puerto Rico provide allowances for breastfeeding mothers to be exempt from or postpone jury duty.
- Missouri state law “allows a mother, with discretion, to breastfeed her child or express breast milk in any public or private location where the mother is otherwise authorized to be.” North Dakota “exempts the act of a woman discreetly breastfeeding her child from indecent exposure laws” as well as explicitly allowing mothers to breastfeed in any public or private location. “Discretion” isn’t defined under the law.
- Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, and Washington explicitly include expressing milk as a form of breastfeeding that mothers may do in any public or private location. The language in other states refers to “breastfeeding,” not “nursing,” but there may be a little more room for interpretation on the extent to which pumping is protected.
- Twenty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have laws about breastfeeding/pumping rights in the workplace. This is in addition to the federal Affordable Care Act provision that states that companies with 50 or more employees must provide adequate break time and a private room that isn’t a bathroom for lactating employees.
The National Conference of State Legislatures’ website has more information on which laws are in effect in your state.
Knowing you’re legally protected when it comes to public breastfeeding is one thing. Working up the courage to get down to business may be another matter entirely. You may feel awkward or self-conscious, especially at first. Ease your way in, and soon breastfeeding will feel like a normal part of your life, wherever you happen to be.
One of the debates that comes up frequently in public breastfeeding discussion is whether nursing parents should cover up. One side argues that using a cover is a gesture of modesty to keep other people in the area comfortable. The other side protests that not all babies cooperate with a cover, breastfeeding is natural, and those who don’t want to see a glimpse of breast can simply look away.
The answer is: Do what feels right for you and your baby! Some women feel more confident with a cover. Others prefer the easier access and mom-baby eye contact that nursing sans cover provides. Family, friends, and strangers’ opinions aren’t as important as picking the option that makes you feel best.
Ready for a step-by-step guide to nursing outside your home?
- Practice at home. Breastfeeding often helps you and your baby improve latching technique, bond, and establish your milk supply. As you get more experienced, juggling a hungry baby while unbuttoning and unclasping becomes second-nature.
- Go to a lactation support group meeting. You’re surrounded by other nursing mamas and lactation professionals in a welcoming space.
- Look for baby-friendly spaces at first. The maternity store at the mall, the children’s section at the library, the zoo. A little noise and bustle can be a good thing to keep people’s attention off you.
- Wear a nursing-friendly top. At my baby’s baptism, I made the mistake of wearing a high-necked dress with a zipper in the back. The priest invited me to feed my daughter if she cried, but I realized I would have had to strip to the waist. In church. If I could have a do-over, I’d choose a button-down shirt and a cardigan or nursing cover, so I could breastfeed while meeting both my and the setting’s modesty standards.
- Focus on your baby. If someone gives you a dirty look while you’re gazing in your baby’s face, you know what happens? You don’t even see the other person’s sour expression. Just because someone nearby disapproves of public nursing, that doesn’t mean it needs to become your problem.
- Prepare when you travel by plane. TSA regulations let you bring breast milk in carry-on bags, even when you’re flying without your baby. Print out the guidelines stating this, and use bags of frozen veggies to keep milk cold without making a slushy mess.
- Nurse in a bathroom. It’s awkward, and not especially sanitary.
- Get confrontational or rude. Getting into an argument won’t solve anything. Keep your and your baby’s comfort and safety as your main priority.
- Take over other people’s space. Nursing on a train or airplane? No problem, as long as you’re not asking the person next to you to hold the diaper bag while you latch, or elbowing them in the ribs while you attempt a cross-cradle hold.
You may have read sensational stories of breastfeeding mothers who were harassed or shamed for nursing. The thing is, these stories make great headlines, but they’re relatively rare occurrences. Overall, public opinion is very much in favor of breastfeeding, according to a SummerStyles survey shared on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Just over 85% of respondents feel positive or neutral about public breastfeeding.
Most people won’t notice a mother nursing her baby, or may even voice their support. Chances are, if you see someone glance your way while you’re nursing, they’re rooting for you! (Don’t want attention, even the positive kind? Saying something like, “Thanks. Enjoy the rest of your day,” can signal you’d like to be left alone.)
You may find that attitudes vary somewhat depending on where you live or travel in the country. The CDC’s 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card showed that breastfeeding rates vary widely. In California, just over half of mothers are still nursing exclusively at 3 months. In Mississippi, only 21.4% are. That isn’t to say you’ll get criticized in Mississippi and accepted in California, but to point out that expectations about whether and how long to breastfeed may be different from one region to another.
If someone criticizes or harasses you:
- Ignore the person if possible. You’re not obligated to respond or justify yourself.
- Remember you’re in the right. If it seems helpful, calmly explain that you’re legally entitled to breastfeed your baby.
- Ask to speak to a manager. If an employee attempts to make you nurse in a bathroom, or leave the premises, a supervisor may be a source of help.
- Look for people who can support you. In some cases, employees, security officers, or even other passers-by may come toyour defense.
- If you feel like the person criticizing you may escalate the situation, leave. Your safety and your baby’s safety comes first.
- Cooperate with police officers or other members of law enforcement. Law enforcement officials should understand that your rights are legally protected. If they are misinformed or ask you to leave, do what’s best for your and your baby’s safety. You can file a report with the head of law enforcement later if you feel an officer did not handle a situation correctly.
Breastfeeding can be a beautiful way to bond, as well as feed your baby. Knowing your rights and planning for comfortable feedings can help you enjoy your breastfeeding relationship, wherever you happen to be.
Ameda strives to present you with accurate and useful breastfeeding information. This article may contain information and ideas that are not necessarily the views of Ameda. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have any questions please contact your healthcare professional.