Breastfeeding in Public: The Great Debate

I was at Chick-Fil-A with my three small children. My husband was in the Air Force and working the swing shift, leaving me to fly solo in the evenings with our newborn and not quite two-year-old twins. 

It had been a long day, and I gathered up all my energy reserves to leave the house for dinner, in the hopes that maybe everyone would sleep better that night. 

We made it through actual eating time without incident, cleaned up our space, and headed to the play area for my twins to run around for a little bit before heading home. 

My youngest got a little fussy because it was time for him to eat, so I did the logical thing: lifted my top (I had a nursing tank underneath) and began nursing him. He immediately settled down.

My back was to the window and the rest of the restaurant. An employee came in to pick up some trash that had been left in the play area and came to look at the baby. She then realized I was nursing and told me I needed to cover up with a blanket. 

I looked up at her, and calmly said, “No, I don’t,” and finished nursing. We quickly left once we finished and I cried in the car the whole way home. 

I was young, but not a first-time mom. I knew my rights and that I was protected. And the experience still upset me greatly. 

I went back the next day (child-free) and spoke to the manager, who was very respectful and apologetic. It made me feel a little better, but I couldn’t help thinking, “What if?” What if that had been my first time? What if I hadn’t known my rights? What if that interaction had caused a mother to stop breastfeeding? 

Breastfeeding in public continues to be surrounded by controversy and debate. It’s essential to explore both sides and understand the issue so that you can make a well-informed decision for your family. 

Arguments Against Public Breastfeeding

People who have an issue with mothers breastfeeding in public typically have similar arguments, and they often have to do with discomfort or distraction. 

Discomfort for the Mother

Nursing is a way to bond with your child, and at times, nursing in public can really take away some of those special moments because a lot is going on around you. 

It is also challenging to nurse if mom is stressed out because of the environment or other factors. Your milk is less likely to let down, and your baby will sense the stress and might be fussy as a result. 

Distraction for the Baby

Babies like to be snuggled and focused on when breastfeeding. While newborns and very young infants are typically pretty singleminded when it comes to food, older babies might find it difficult to pay attention to their meal because of things going on around them. That being said, a baby who is hungry enough can overcome that hurdle. 

Discomfort for Others

Honestly, this is the most often problem people have. Breastfeeding makes them uncomfortable. They feel as if it shouldn’t be done in public because the mother is “exposing” herself, even if she is doing it to feed her baby. Everyone has a right to their own reactions to this, and your response to public breastfeeding is definitely a personal thing.

mother breastfeeding her child

Arguments For Public Breastfeeding

As always, there’s another side to this debate, and many people feel just as strongly in support of public breastfeeding as others do against, and there are several reasons why. 

Babies Need to Eat

Time and place mean absolutely nothing to a hungry baby. If they are ready to eat, then they expect to be fed! Unfortunately, because babies can be unpredictable, even moms on strict schedules can find themselves out and about when hunger strikes. If it’s time to eat, then it’s time to eat. 

Easy and Immediate

People often say that you can carry formula with you, or pump before going somewhere and bring along a bottle, but both of those options take a significant amount of time to prepare. Nursing is pretty quick; you pick up your baby and go! A few minutes of mixing a bottle may not seem like forever, but if you have a screaming child, you know that it feels like an eternity. 

Another issue with bottle feeding is that some babies refuse to take a bottle. This is just one of those annoying quirks,  but they get used to being fed a certain way, and that’s what they expect. Babies are super adaptable, but they can be incredibly stubborn if they want to be!

Not a Lot of Exposure

Women “exposing” their breasts always makes the list in arguments against public breastfeeding, but often there is very little to be seen. Even without the use of a cover, a baby’s head covers more than your standard bikini and moms quickly become experts at tugging clothing back into place when the baby is done. 

Legal Breakdown

Regardless of your position, it’s a good idea to know where the law stands on this issue. People say lots of things about what should and shouldn’t be allowed, but laws are a little more constant. They have the authority to protect your rights. 

Out and About

It is legal to publicly breastfeed in all 50 states. Idaho and Utah were the last states to put official laws on the books in 2018, but since they have joined the party, mothers everywhere can relax a little bit because the law is on their side. 

If you are legally allowed to be somewhere (so you can’t trespass and breastfeed, that’s a no-no), then you may also breastfeed there. This includes restaurants, water parks, doctor’s office, shopping malls, and even airplanes

Workplace and Daycares

Federal law also dictates that women have a place they can nurse or pump available to them at work. Another layer of protection is provided for working women when it comes to having the time. Workplaces must allow women time to pump or nurse on their breaks. 

Thanks to more guidelines, daycares are also now called upon to have a place where moms can nurse their babies. This is a lifeline for mothers who work close to the daycare, as it enables them to continue breastfeeding their baby without having to pump.

If You Plan to Breastfeed in Public

Breastfeeding locale is a personal decision that all nursing mothers have to make at some point. If you have decided that it’s something you want to try, check out some of these tips that might help you on your journey. 

How to Dress

Easy access is incredibly important when it comes to nursing in public, so your #OOTD might be the difference in between a quick latch and a lot of fumbling. 

Special Nursing Clothes

There are entire sites and brands dedicated to clothes that are cute, comfortable, and easy to nurse in. You no longer have to sacrifice fashion for function! Latched Mama is one of my favorites, but there are many out there for you to try.  

Layer Up

You can also choose to wear regular clothes, but dress in layers. While I love to wear dresses, separates were more comfortable while I was nursing and I would wear regular pants or jeans, a nursing tank, and then a shirt on top. 

The nursing tank keeps your belly covered when you pull your top shirt up and allows easy access for your baby. You can try ones like the UnderCover Mama that latch onto any bra or go for full tanks

Covers and Slings

If you’d rather not worry about your outfit giving you enough coverage, you can also choose to nurse with a cover or in a sling. Both options allow a little more wardrobe freedom and can be lifesavers if you have an easily distracted baby, or it’s winter, and you need a little extra warmth!

Accommodations

Many places have special accommodations for nursing mothers. There are now nursing pods at airports, or special nursing rooms at stores and malls. If it’s time to nurse and you’re out and about, don’t be shy about asking if there is a special place you can go.

Not all places have these spots, but it never hurts to ask, and you might be pleasantly surprised! If this makes you anxious, feel free to do a little research beforehand to scope out good spots that might be on your way. 

Practice

While nursing is a natural thing to do, it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of moms and babies. If you’re new to nursing, adding a public element can really be stressful.

Before you have your debut, I suggest practicing in front of a mirror or trusted partner at home. This will help you get an idea of the logistics and what you will need. 

Consider bringing along a travel nursing pillow if you’re used to having one, or take a test drive going without so you know how it works. A little preparation might save you a lot of heartache when your baby is crying because it’s time to eat!

Know Your Rights

We already talked about the legal protections for breastfeeding moms, but it doesn’t hurt to print out a copy of the laws and pop it in the diaper bag or bookmark it on your phone. It might help you deal with any issues that can arise. 

Dealing with Issues

While support for public breastfeeding has grown over the past few years, you still may encounter some people who disagree with your decision. If that happens, there are some things you can do to help the situation. 

Stay Calm

Calmly but firmly state that you are in your rights to breastfeed. You can choose to ignore after that statement and continue nursing, or if you have a copy of the law, show it to them. You don’t owe them an explanation, but sometimes it ends the confrontation faster. 

Ask for Help

If you are in a store or restaurant, ask an employee or manager for back up. Often times they will be trained to deal with these situations and will protect your rights. If the employee or manager is the one who is bothering you, see the next step for suggestions.

Keep a Record

If you can record the encounter, do it. Even just an audio recording through the Voice Memo app on your phone can help. A recording isn’t always an option, so do your best to get names that will help identify people who were causing the issue. 

Reach Out

Moms groups and breastfeeding support organizations are great resources to help you deal with problems. Often, nursing mothers band together to protect one another’s right to breastfeed in public and stage “nurse-ins” or other demonstrations to show their support. 

Social media is another way to get your voice heard. Posts about breastfeeding issues, especially when you tag the location often elicit more action. This avenue isn’t without its drawbacks, but it’s definitely a way to tell your story and find support. 

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, parents have to make the right decision for their family. 

Do what makes you comfortable and works best for you and your baby. 

Whatever your choice might be, do your best to support other moms, regardless of if their decisions match yours. After all, we’re on this motherhood journey together, and it really takes a village.

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