Breastfeeding in Public: Do You Know Your Rights?

You’re at your third stop of the day running errands with your little one. Your heart is already racing because you’re getting dangerously close to nap time. And then it happens—the head thrust, the crying—your kid is in full-on meltdown mode. You know some milk will calm your little one, but you have nowhere private to breastfeed. We’ve all been there, and though you know you’re just doing what’s best for your baby, you may still wonder what’s up with breastfeeding in public.

Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about breastfeeding in public, including:

  • Is it legal to breastfeed wherever you want?
  • What if somebody asks you to stop breastfeeding in public?
  • Plus, how to breastfeed in public comfortably

Is It OK to Breastfeed in Public?

Believe it or not, until February 2018, mothers in Utah and Idaho did not have laws in place to protect women while breastfeeding in public. (Wild, right?!)

Now all 50 states, plus DC, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have laws protecting mom’s right to breastfeed in public.

In addition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures:

“Thirty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws.”

These states include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming

“Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace.

These states include: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming

“Seventeen states and Puerto Rico exempt breastfeeding mothers from jury duty or allow jury service to be postponed.

These states include: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia

“Six states and Puerto Rico have implemented or encouraged the development of a breastfeeding awareness education campaign.

These states include: California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, and Vermont

What Do These Laws About Breastfeeding in Public Mean?

The Equality Act of 2010 says it is discriminatory to treat a woman unfavorably because she is breastfeeding. This applies to any and all public places, public bodies, further and higher education bodies, and associations. Furthermore, service providers must not discriminate, harass, or victimize a woman because she is breastfeeding.

Discrimination includes:

  • Refusing to provide a service
  • Providing a lower standard of service
  • Providing service on different terms

For example: A coffee shop owner cannot ask you to stop breastfeeding, move, cover up, or refuse to serve you.

If you are denied service or treated differently at any establishment, remain calm and don’t make any threats. You may also choose to:

  • File a complaint with the on-site manager, then report it to a corporate office or customer relations department if there is one. Keep a record of who you spoke to and when.
  • Follow up and ask to speak to someone higher up, if you don’t get a response within 48 business hours,
  • Contact your local Le Leche League or other breastfeeding support groups for advice.
  • If all else fails and you wish to do so, you may consider further action like talking with local police department, contacting a lawyer, leveraging social media, or sharing your story with media outlets.

Is It Illegal to Ask a Woman to Stop Breastfeeding?

Technically, no. Anybody can ask you to stop, but you are protected by the law while breastfeeding in public and don’t have to stop.

If you’re breastfeeding in public and you are asked to stop, you don’t need to respond. However, there are a few ways to approach the situation, if you choose to:

  • Calmly let the person know that you are within your rights. (See above.)
  • Ask the person what makes him/her uncomfortable about you breastfeeding. It may be an opportunity to open somebody’s mind.
  • Share how your baby needs to be fed on demand and is currently hungry.
  • Explain that pediatricians recommend breastfeeding your infant or toddler for at least one year, ideally two years.

Note: The safety of your baby is of utmost importance and sometimes it’s safer not to engage and go about your own business, particularly if the person persists. Remember that the person’s reaction is his/her issue, not yours, so try not to take personally. Trust your gut on how to handle the situation.

Is It Legal to Pump in Public?

You would hope that people would recognize pumping in public as the same thing as breastfeeding in public—as a way to nourish your child. But it’s a gray area, because the laws don’t specifically state anything about breast pumping.

Fortunately, as the result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, mothers do have the legal right to pump at work—though, in many cases, your employer isn’t required to set up a place for you to pump or a refrigerator for you to store expressed breast milk. 

Is It Legal to Breastfeed in a Car?

We know the rules when it comes to texting and driving, but what about breastfeeding and driving? Believe it or not, some states have exceptions to child restraint laws in the case of breastfeeding. But I think most of us can agree that safety trumps legality in this situation. There is nothing wrong with breastfeeding in a parked car, therefore your safest option is to pull over. Or consider wearing a hands-free bra (like this one) while you are pumping so you can drive safely.

Tips for Breastfeeding in Public

You should never feel bad about breastfeeding in public. You are feeding your baby!

Still, it’s completely understandable that some mamas are more comfortable with it than others. You do you. If you want a special nursing cover, go for it. If you don’t want to bother, that’s fine too.

Either way, these tips can help make breastfeeding in public less stressful for you:

  • Wear easy access clothes: Try nursing bras and/or nursing shirts, shirts that button, loose blouses that are easy to lift up, a tank top you can easily pull down—whatever makes feeding most comfortable for your and your baby.
  • Bring a blanket: If you’d like more privacy, drape a breathable organic cotton blanket over your shoulder or wear a scarf that can help cover the two of you.
  • Babywear: Babywearing is a great way to feed without anybody even realizing you’re doing it. Plus, when baby is held close, it supports milk production and enhances the bond between mama and baby. That’s a win-win!
  • Pick a discreet spot: If you’re shy, sit facing away from others, find a back booth, or duck into a changing room. Though restrooms seem like the obvious choice, they can be really germy, not to mention uncomfortable. Many airports even offer rooms specifically designed for nursing mamas now! And have you heard about the breastfeeding stations in some Target stores? More of that, please!
  • Turn away to latch: Once latched, it’s hard to see much anyway.
  • Practice at home or in front of family members or friends: If you’re nervous about breastfeeding in public, a little dress rehearsal at home can give you the confidence boost you need.
  • Finally, don’t wait until your baby is crying: This can make it harder to latch. And, if your at all nervous about breastfeeding in public, try to avoid a full-on meltdown.

Relax, mama… You got this!

Above all: You’re feeding your baby! Breastfeeding in public is perfectly legal and appropriate. You’ve got this!

How About You?

This can be a very loaded topic. Some of you have had a bad experience or two when it comes to breastfeeding in public. I’m hoping, though, that the positive experiences are increasing as people become more open-minded about the subject. Do you breastfeed in public? I want to hear about your experiences. Let’s keep this conversation going!

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 75,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

3 Comments

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  1. I’m so glad to see you talk about the importance of breastfeeding in public! It’s sad that some folks still harass breast-feeding/chest-feeding parents. Thank you!

  2. I’m surprised that as being a Christian, you would advocate for nursing without a cover in public. I totally agree a woman should be able to feed her baby anywhere but its morally wrong to show your breasts in public. A breast is a breast to others around you whether or not there is a baby attached to it.
    It’s no excuse when people say their baby doesn’t like to be covered when nursing. A baby should be taught to leave the cover where it is, it’s most likely just that the baby wants to play with the cover, not that he doesn’t like it.
    I have had four babies and have learned with practice to easily cover while nursing. It would be shameful to show my breasts to other people, especially other men. What a dishonor to my husband that would be.

    • Breastfeeding is not a sexual act. It absolutely makes sense that most babies do not like being covered when eating, it gets hot being under a blanket. It is in no way “shameful” to nurse a baby with or without a cover. Each mother should feed their baby in whatever way they feel comfortable without judgment from others.

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