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Breastfeeding in Public: Laws and Tips for Nursing Moms

Brenda Albano

September 3, 2019

Breastfeeding In Public

The issue of breastfeeding in public is often controversial and has often made national headlines. A mother’s concern about this issue might be the deciding factor in her choice to breastfeed or not! Some of us are modest, and others simply aren’t sure what will happen if breastfeeding in public is attempted. Will we get in trouble? Will we experience angry stares and even rude comments from observers? Can it be accomplished tactfully?

Many veteran breastfeeders will attest to the fact that nursing has been accomplished anywhere, anytime. Occasionally someone may have complained, but the bolder among us have shrugged the comments off with the attitude that “it’s their problem, not mine.” Nursing a baby is, after all, a completely natural act devoid of any sexual connotation. Observers may complain about “indecent exposure” or that it’s inappropriate to breastfeed in public, or that it’s an action that should take place in a private location. Sometimes mothers are advised to nurse babies in the ladies’ restroom, which is usually an extremely unappealing option.

1. Baby Retreats?

A growing trend among shopping malls, department stores, theme parks, and other family-oriented places is to provide a lounge or “baby retreat” where nursing mothers can be accommodated. These areas may be comfortably equipped with rocking chairs, diapering supplies, and even toys to amuse older siblings while the baby feeds. It reflects the increasing approval of breastfeeding in society and can be a valuable resource for women who are too modest to nurse in public view.

Some breastfeeding advocates, however, feel that the presence of these retreats does more to hinder society’s acceptance of breastfeeding than to help. Nursing mothers are hidden from the public, while bottle-fed babies are nourished out in the open. Since the public continues to see babies drinking from bottles much more than breastfeeding, it furthers the image of bottle feeding as the norm.

2. The Law

Is public breastfeeding legal? Yes! A mother has the right to breastfeed her child in any location where she would normally be with her baby. This means that malls, parks, restaurants, etc. are acceptable locations for breastfeeding. Men’s locker rooms, nightclubs, and other “adult-only” areas probably are not. Over two-thirds of US states have legislation that gives mothers legal recourse against employees or other people who order a mother not to breastfeed in a public area.

3. I’m Not A Show-Off

Can breastfeeding be accomplished tactfully, in a way that won’t expose breasts or let everyone in the area know exactly what is going on? Yes. There are many strategies for breastfeeding modestly, and your ability to do so will improve dramatically with practice. One method is to drape a blanket or shawl over your shoulder, making a “tent” that shields prying eyes from the activity underneath. While this promotes privacy, it also tends to frighten young babies, distract older ones, and draw attention to what you’re doing.

Baby slings and some upright carriers can mask breast exposure. Specialized nursing clothes can be convenient, with flaps and panels that allow easy access to the breasts without exposing everything else. The simplest way, however, is to simply wear a loose shirt. At home, get your baby accustomed to having the folds of your shirt gathered around his face.

When nursing in public, after a few initial maneuvers, it simply appears as though you are holding the baby in your arms with a rumpled shirt. Using this tactic, most people don’t even notice what you’re doing.

4. A Good Bra

A quality nursing bra will go a long way toward making a mother comfortable with breastfeeding in public. They help tremendously with arranging before and re-arranging afterward. Nursing bras come in several styles. Some have slits in the middle (sort of like men’s underwear) that allow access. Others have flaps that attach at the top with hooks. Experiment to find the type that works best for you. Don’t be wary of investing the extra money to purchase two or three good ones. Think of the money you’re saving by not buying formula or bottle-feeding equipment! Even if you only use the nursing bra when you’re going out in public, its ease of use can make the difference between breastfeeding awkwardly and self-consciously and letting it become second nature.

Practice at home in front of a mirror if necessary. See for yourself how tactful you can be, and remember that others probably won’t be paying as much attention as you are.

5. Practice Makes Perfect

Hold your head high, don’t blush, and don’t look guilty. The more often you breastfeed in a public place, the easier it will become. In a few months, you might even catch yourself in the act and remember that you once worried about it.

As with any other activity, confidence will serve you well. You might wish to start out small and breastfeed in a group that won’t criticize you. Try nursing tactfully at home and see if your family notices what you’re doing. Graduate to a slightly larger group of people. Build your way up to the mall, the zoo, and the playground. I know one woman who breastfed her baby while riding on a float in her city’s parade.

Martha Sears, the co-author of several parenting books, talks about her experience nursing a baby in a sling while being interviewed on a television talk show. If anybody noticed, no one complained. It’s all about confidence. I am one of those mothers who will admit, even brag, about breastfeeding in any conceivable location. I chose to nurse in a “retreat” if I happened to be close to one when the need occurred because it was comfortable (and air-conditioned, a big plus at an outdoor site during the summer), but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one. I have nursed in museums, malls, restaurants, parties, parks, my in-laws’ house (despite their negative attitude), and anywhere else I may have been when my son needed nourishment. I’m not particularly shy about it, but I am appropriately modest. I wouldn’t hide my baby under a blanket, but my loose shirt provided adequate camouflage.

Nursing in public is legal, can be accomplished tactfully, and is often necessary. Don’t let the fear of immodesty or rude comments keep you from your decision to breastfeed, or keep you at home till the baby weans. Even if you don’t want to be an activist and promote the public acceptance of breastfeeding, you can manage it without notice and learn how to shrug off the comments of those who intrude. All it takes is practice, a bit of preparation, and confidence.

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