The Great Public Breastfeeding Debate

Updated on:

A woman is nursing her baby while visiting her favorite café. A fellow customer is uncomfortable and reports the woman to an employee who then asks her to leave. The woman, frustrated, posts about her experience on social media, and the whole thing blows up.

There are verbal attacks against the woman; she should have been more considerate of others.

There are verbal attacks against the store; they should not infringe on the woman’s rights.

Around and around they go until the next incident comes up to take their attention elsewhere.

With all the controversy surrounding the subject, it can really make a new mother hesitant to enter a public establishment for fear of the baby getting hungry, and not being sure how to handle the situation.

So, how can you know what to do in public? Can an establishment really ask you to cover up or leave? How did this whole debate start anyways?

breastfeeding in public debate

Why are People Uncomfortable with Public Breastfeeding?

If we are looking strictly at the basis of human anatomy, women’s breasts exist for the sole purpose of child nourishment, but in today’s society they have been highly sexualized.

We see them in advertisements, on magazine covers, and we even have an entire runway show dedicated to them.

People have come into the mindset that if they are not being used for pleasure, they need to be put away, out of sight, out of mind. After all, you wouldn’t have sex in public; why would your breasts need to be out?

The biggest source of discomfort is when women choose to breastfeed uncovered.

Some women feel it is their God-given right to breastfeed uncovered; they feel that since the breasts are feeding a baby and they are not flashing people for no reason, there is nothing wrong with it.

Many people still are uncomfortable with this and feel uneasy even when a woman is breastfeeding completely covered.

Due to their highly sexualized nature, men may feel uncomfortable seeing a mother breastfeeding in public due to the fact that he is attracted to breasts. He may be tempted to look whether he consciously wants to or not.

For the same reason, wives and mothers – and even some fathers – feel that they have to “protect” their loved ones from being exposed to even the idea of partial nudity when they see a woman breastfeeding in public.

Religious and personal beliefs also play a huge role in someone’s discomfort level.

For those who are ultra-conservative or have strong religious convictions, the sight of a woman breastfeeding can make them extremely uncomfortable.

They may even feel that they have done something very wrong.

The breastfeeding child’s age can also make a difference to onlookers.

While it is not very often you see a mother breastfeeding a young child, or even a toddler in public, there are still some times that it happens.

People on the outside may feel that the child is too old or that they can wait until they get home (since they obviously eat solid food now).

Extremes Of A Breastfeeding Mother

One of the common misconceptions is that women are comfortable breastfeeding in public and don’t care what others think.

I can tell you from personal experience this is not the case. Even though there was nothing for me to be embarrassed about, I still felt a bit uneasy every time I had to breastfeed my baby in public.

I am not alone in feeling like this; there are many mothers who feel uneasy or uncomfortable when nursing in public.

Their babies may be squirmy eaters like mine was, and they are constantly worrying that the baby will kick the cover away and expose them.

You will also find that many of these women will avert their gaze, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone while they are breastfeeding. They may just stare down at their baby or focus on something else, afraid that they will see a look of discomfort on someone’s face.

public nursing debate

On the other hand, there are also women have taken the public breastfeeding debate to the opposite extreme.

They feel that they should have the right to exercise their freedom to nurse in public, anytime, anywhere, and any way, including completely uncovered.

Others have staged nurse-ins to make a statement against establishments that may have asked a nursing mother to cover up or escorted them to the restroom.

These women simply do not understand how anyone could have a problem with her feeding her baby in public, feeling that their babies deserve to eat just like everyone else.

Oftentimes, you will see that these women aren’t particularly sympathetic to others’ opinions.

Your Legal Rights to Nurse in Public

Despite specific regulations in most American states, it can be difficult to predict how a scenario will be treated when public nursing is cited as a cause for the discomfort of others.

Being a melting pot of many different cultures, you may have some people who are either for or against breastfeeding based on their cultural beliefs and customs (we will talk more about this later).

In the United States, there are state laws in place that protect certain rights of breastfeeding mothers.

There are currently forty-nine states (only Idaho is excluded) that allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location, and there are twenty-one that have laws that exempt breastfeeding women from public indecency laws.

The majority of public areas in these states welcome breastfeeding, and they see it for what it is.

However, there are loopholes that establishments have found to get around these if they or their patrons are uncomfortable.

For instance, they may ask you to leave, and if you refuse based on your right as a breastfeeding woman, they may choose to charge you with trespassing instead.

There are no concrete consequences built into the laws that protect breastfeeding women’s rights as of right now, but this will hopefully change in the near future.

When Traveling Abroad

If you are heading overseas with your little one it is important to be aware of any local regulations at your intended destination.

You will generally find most countries are agreeable with the practice, but it is still a good idea to be informed so you avoid any potentially awkward and dangerous situations.

Most countries in Africa and the Middle East support breastfeeding in general, believing it to be the only acceptable form of nutrition for a baby.

There are even several Muslim countries that are okay with public breastfeeding even though the women are expected to keep their heads covered.

Below is a video made in Malaysia, which is predominantly a Muslim country. The consensus is that people are generally ok with it as long as there is a reasonable effort to cover up.

In Pacific Asia, breastfeeding is not frowned upon, but it is also not heavily supported – whether in public or in private.

However, even though you do not see many women breastfeeding their children in public, there are special mother-baby rooms in most shopping malls that give women a comfortable and private place to breastfeed their baby, warm up a bottle, or change a diaper.

As we have seen, most Western countries – particularly the UK, Europe, and USA – do not have a definitive stance on public breastfeeding, but it is also not seen as something common or even comfortable for most people.

Controversial Public Nursing Cases

Over the years, there have been several cases of public breastfeeding controversy that have appeared in the news. This has been divisive at times with elicited reactions of both applause and outrage.

Mom Enough?

Time magazine featured a cover photo in 2012 that created quite a bit of backlash. A woman was shown breastfeeding her 3-year-old with the caption “Are You Mom Enough?”

While the magazine claims the purpose behind the cover was to break the stigma of extended breastfeeding, many were offended, believing that the magazine was “mom-shaming” those who did not also practice extended breastfeeding.

Victoria’s Apology

In 2014, after having purchased over $150 worth of merchandise from Victoria’s Secret (a store known for its provocative images and half-naked women), a woman asked for an empty dressing room to breastfeed her son and was turned away.

After taking her complaints public, the store offered her a formal apology.

Full Intentions

Just this year, an Indian magazine cover featuring a woman breastfeeding her baby sparked some heated reactions from both sides of the breastfeeding debate.

Those who are pro-breastfeeding applaud the image, which was designed to address the taboo of public breastfeeding.

The main complaints centered around the fact that the woman in the photo is staring squarely at the camera; they believed that the image misrepresented a woman’s intentions when breastfeeding her child.

You’re A Star!

On a more positive note, a Starbucks barista in Ottawa in 2014 responded to a customer’s complaint about a woman breastfeeding without a cover by giving the mother a free coffee rather than asking her to cover up.

Starbucks has no official policy regarding breastfeeding, but it does abide by a policy to make their customers feel comfortable and welcome.

Whether the news in the public breastfeeding arena has been positive or negative, it has created quite the hype.

Adding fuel to the fire, breastfeeding enthusiasts have used these pieces of viral media to hijack the issue and stage a fight for the rights of nursing mothers, while those opposed use them as evidence against these women.

The Breastfeeding in Public Debate

If you are looking to voice your opinion on the issue, there are a number of popular forums engaging in the discussion. In the faceless world of the internet you will of course encounter both productive discussion, and pointless slanging matches of hate.

So if you are up for it you can check out these discussions here:

It makes for some very interesting reading, as the responses – both positive and negative – range from reasonable to the most extreme.

A common theme is seen in these posts: the subject on whether or not a woman should cover up in public when breastfeeding.

Perhaps unsurprising, the most vocal groups against are either men or non-mothers (people who don’t have children of their own). Which highlights just how much motherhood can change a woman’s views.

outside nursing

Argument For Public Breastfeeding

  • You see more exposed female skin at the beach or pool (which is widely accepted) than you do when she is breastfeeding (which is frowned upon).
  • Mothers are not breastfeeding for attention, but are solely focused on their babies and their needs.
  • Breast is best, and pumping and formula are inconvenient or nutritionally inferior.
  • No one should have to eat with a blanket over their head (in the argument against covered breastfeeding).
  • With the frequency of babies’ meals, it is nearly impossible to be out for a day without needing to breastfeed in a public place.

Argument Against Public Breastfeeding

  • Some men claim that is if it is acceptable to take out bare breasts to feed babies, they should be able to do the same with their own genitalia.
  • There is a call for discretion, just as people turn away to pick a wedgie or men discreetly “adjust” themselves.
  • Even if they don’t “want” to look, it is biologically difficult for men, teenagers, and boys to practice self-control.
  • Breastfeeding is natural, but so is sex, urinating, and defecation, all of which are not done in public for everyone to see.
  • Women are simply being “pleasured” from breastfeeding since it stimulates uterine contractions.

Celebrities are weighing in on the debate as well. Several celebrity moms – including, but not limited to, Kristen Bell, Olivia Wilde, Brooklyn Decker, and Liv Tyler.

They have defended women’s right to breastfeed in public by either speaking out directly or posting “brelfies” (breastfeeding selfies) on social media.

Impractical Alternatives

When the argument arises, you will hear a lot of common suggestions being made by those who are uncomfortable with public breastfeeding.

The problem is that many of these alternatives are not practical, or suitable for a mother and/or baby.

The Bathroom

The problem with this is that the baby is eating.

Mothers are taught to wash their hands before they breastfeed their baby to prevent germs and bacteria from getting in their mouth.

I am yet to meet someone who has a habit of taking a packed lunch to the bathroom with them, and it is bizarre that anyone averse to this would suggest a mother and baby do exactly that.

The Car

I have done this one, but there are two main problems that result in it not being a suitable place.

First, there is very limited space in the car, which is a no-go for larger or more active babies.

Second, there are the temperature extremes depending on the current season; a mother can’t be expected to keep her car running every time she nurses.

Despite these reasons, the car is still a venue that I frequent regularly to feed my child as it is often the best of what is available at the time.

At Home

If only a baby’s stomach could be filled to a schedule!

Depending on the baby’s age, they will need to eat about every 2-4 hours when their diet consists of only breast milk.

When they want that milk is mostly up to them. Attempting to control those demands is a futile exercise and without being overly dismissive you could assume that anyone making this suggestion has not dealt with a baby before.

Just Pump

This takes a lot of time and effort to pump milk and it requires being prepared ahead of time, which doesn’t always line up with an outing.

You also have to keep the milk at an appropriate temperature until consumption, and it is not always practical to have a cooler in tow.

Then there is the cleaning…

Even if you go to all that trouble it is still up to the baby if they will take a bottle or not. Many will not.

Use Formula Instead

Besides the bottle pickiness problem again, you also have health and finances to worry about with formula. No matter how good the formula is, it cannot compare to breast milk, so many mothers opt for breast milk.

Formula is also expensive and may not fit into every mother’s budget… If you can even get it in the first place.

Breastfeeding Still Is Not Mainstream

The public breastfeeding debate really just boils down to the fact that breastfeeding (in public or in private) is not a common practice amongst many western Moms.

The percentage of mothers in the United States who initiate breastfeeding after birth has risen in the last decade or so, with approximately 81% as of 2013.

However, as their babies continue to grow, that number begins to drop.

Many of the big baby groups – American Academy of Pediatrics, UNICEF, World Health Organization, La Leche League – recommend that babies are solely breastfed until they are at least 6 months old, and then continue in addition to solid food through their first birthday (second according to WHO).

Researchers have found that these guidelines are not followed. Dropping from the initial 81%, only about 52% are still breastfeeding at 6 months, and only 30% by the first birthday.

So, why does the number drop?

  • Though most hospitals encourage breastfeeding, very few are staffed or trained properly to help mothers succeed with breastfeeding. It is also no longer the norm for a baby to have physical contact with the mother directly after birth (when breastfeeding is typically initiated) or to even sleep in the same room during their stay.
  • Formula companies have upped their advertising game over the years. They try to improve their product, making it as close to breastmilk as possible, and even put samples in hospitals for staff to hand out to new mothers. It may not be a fully conscious decision for a mother to choose formula when she sees it everywhere and almost seems encouraged to use it.
  • The debate itself also discourages mothers from breastfeeding. Whether it is the threat of a perverted look or a negative comment, women may be nervous or scared to nurse in public, causing them to resort to other feeding options to avoid confrontation.
  • With the increasing number of working mothers, there are more obstacles to overcome if women want to breastfeed successfully. Most companies only allow a short (unpaid) maternity leave, and while they are required to accommodate pumping mothers, the attitudes and space designated does not always support a breastfeeding mother’s needs.

9 Tips For Discreet Breastfeeding in Public

Whether you feel it is a woman’s right to breastfeed in public – covered or uncovered – or you feel uneasy about doing it yourself, you can rest assured that there are several ways you can successfully breastfeed in public discreetly.

1. Use A Nursing Cover

This is the number one thing you can do to void confrontation.

Yes, it may not be the most “discreet” per se – I mean, what else could you be doing under there other than feeding your baby – but you can avoid some of the negative looks and prevent accidental flashing if you find the right one for you.

I always used my nursing cover in public.

It was not always the most convenient thing to use, but I also never had anyone say anything to me when I had to nurse in public. If, for any reason, I forgot it at home, I just used my baby’s blanket instead which worked just as well.

2. Choose Your Outfit Accordingly

If you know you are going to be out for the day with your little one, it probably wouldn’t be the smartest thing for you to wear that dress that only allows you to access your breasts by pulling it all the way up.

Instead, pick something that is easy to breastfeed in.

For me, this meant loose flowing shirts that could double as a cover or button down shirts. You can even look into specific breastfeeding tops that are designed with easy access points.

3. Wear The Right Bra

The right breastfeeding bra doesn’t always mean a nursing bra. Sometimes those clasps are hard to handle with one hand as you are trying to get your baby situated.

The right bra for you could just be a sports bra or bralette that can be pulled aside.

I used both sports bras and nursing bras depending on how I was feeling on that particular day and what outfit I was wearing. Don’t be afraid to try a few different bras to find what works best for you and your baby.

4. Scope Out Your Spot

When you arrive at your destination and you know there will be a feeding necessary while you are there, take a look around to find the best spot for you to sit so you can be prepared.

You probably won’t want a seat in the middle of the room where there is a 360° view of you and your baby.

Instead, find a place where your back is covered or against a wall so you can feel more comfortable.

In restaurants, booths work great. You have a nice wide and cushy seat for your baby’s legs to have room to spread out, and you only have one side and the front of you to worry about covering up.

5. Visit A Familiar Place

When it is time for your baby to eat, they are not going to be patient. They only know how to cry in order to communicate, and they expect their needs to be met right on cue.

It can be stressful enough worrying that your baby’s cries are disturbing other people, but add the unfamiliarity of your location and you are bound to be frazzled.

If you are out and about during feeding time, it may be best for you to visit a familiar location for a breastfeeding session.

I had a bookstore I frequented often both before and after I had my baby. I knew where seating was available, which areas were usually crowded, and what kind of people were around. It really took a lot of stress off me when I was breastfeeding to know where I could feed my baby when the time came.

6. Have A Buddy

There is nothing better to take your mind off what other people may be thinking of your breastfeeding in public than doing it with a friend. You can keep each other company and feel a sense of comradery knowing you are doing it together.

I am so thankful for my sister-in-law, whom I lived with at the time my baby was breastfeeding the most and had a little one of her own.

We went almost everywhere together, which means we almost always breastfed together. We would just chat and not worry about anyone else, simply focusing on our baby and the task at hand.

7. Utilize A Baby Carrier

Many experienced breastfeeding mothers will suggest using your baby carrier as a cover up and easy method for nursing in public.

However, due to the design of my carrier, I could never quite get this one down.

Several newer carrier models do support breastfeeding in their design. There are some that adjust slightly or pivot to allow your baby to get at a good angle to latch.

Slings are also great for nursing since your baby is already laying as just about the right angle and the fabric can act as a nursing cover.

8. Focus On Your Baby

If you are self-conscious or look uncomfortable when you are breastfeeding in public, chances are that someone will notice and may feel uncomfortable as well.

I don’t suggest putting on a big smile or making pointed eye contact with others, as both of those can seem strange.

Simply acting like what you are doing is normal, focusing on your baby or carrying on with what you are doing (reading a book, checking email, etc.), can take attention away from you and make everyone feel more at ease.

9. Know Your Body And Your Baby

Breastfeeding is different for every woman and baby. Knowing what works for both of you will give you a better chance at public breastfeeding with confidence.

Some babies are very active when they eat, kicking their feet (and the nursing cover) or grabbing mom’s shirt or face.

Women’s bodies are also different. While a busty woman may have no choice but to use a nursing cover to prevent exposure, a small-chested woman may be able to get away with breastfeeding uncovered.

Personally, I would highly recommend waiting a few weeks before you decide to attempt breastfeeding in public. You and your baby are still learning how to latch, so nursing covers can be a hindrance, and you don’t know what your baby’s feeding habits are like.

Take it from me, a mother who had to breastfeed her baby in public on many occasions – in restaurants, bookstores, cafes, parks.

It may not be the easiest thing to do, but it is possible, and the more often you have to do it, the more comfortable you will become.

How To Respond To Others

I have never had anyone approach me personally when breastfeeding in public, but it does happen, and you need to know how to respond (if you don’t want the whole thing blowing up in your face).

First, know who is addressing you. Is it a stranger or someone you know? An employee or a patron?

This will set the stage for the conversation and determine what tone and approach you will need to take.

Never assume the person’s intentions. They may not be coming over to slam you for breastfeeding in public; they may just have some genuine concerns or questions about it. Be quick to listen and slow to speak.

After hearing them out completely, address their specific concerns. Do not approach the subject as a whole, but rather just the points being made.

They may just feel uncomfortable with their husband or teenage son nearby, or they may ask why you can’t just feed from a bottle.

Be respectful of their opinion; they have a right to it.

woman breastfeeding
At the same time, do not be afraid or embarrassed to offer your own opinion on the subject. The best debates are had when both sides are allowed to share their opinion freely.

If necessary, educate them. They may not realize the health benefits that breastfeeding offers over formula, or the fact that your baby won’t take a bottle, or even that your baby cannot wait until you get home to feed them.

If the comments are negative and you think it is appropriate, do not be afraid to express how their comments make you feel. They may not realize that they are being offensive or that their words are hurting you.

Above all, stay calm and collected.

You can gently remind them that you are protected by law (as long as you’re not in Idaho), and if they still insist, then perhaps there is a compromise to be made.

After all, no one accomplishes anything by getting into an all-out argument in public, especially when your child is present. You can always make a phone call or write a letter or email later if you feel it is necessary.

No Winners – Just Opinions

The debate continues, and there may never be one side that ultimately wins out. People are entitled to their own opinion. It’s just a matter of the manner in which that opinion is communicated.

While it’s easy to get caught up in one side of the argument or the other, it’s important to understand things from both sides.

Those who are anti-public-breastfeeding may not be out to attack women. They may be victims of social conditioning, being taught that breasts are sexual items and to have them exposed in public makes these people uncomfortable.

The important thing is for them not to push their beliefs on others by shaming mothers for feeding their babies in public or by accusing them of exposing themselves.

Those who are pro-public-breastfeeding see it for what it is.

The family is out together, and when baby gets hungry, she eats, just like when mom gets hungry, she eats. The important thing is for them not to abuse their rights.

If you are trying to be discreet and not flashing everyone around you, there’s no reason to make a big deal over the controversy, despite any strong feelings you may have.

Final Word

The most important thing is to do what’s best for you and your child. If you are nervous to feed in public, plan ahead and either pump or feed before you enter where you’re going.

But if you do need to feed in public, just remember you are doing the right thing by your child and providing them with the best nutrition available.

If you are simply feeding your child while trying to be considerate of other people’s feelings, you have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about… and it is hard to argue with that right?

Read more: 

Sharing is caring!

Photo of author
James is our general tech. guy, product testing extraordinaire, and loving father of one. He has been with since 2016 and has a hand in most of the content on the site.