Breastfeeding in Public

By Elizabeth Pantley, Author of Gentle Baby Care

In many parts of the world, the sight of a nursing mother is an ordinary aspect of daily life. In our society, however, some people are still uncomfortable seeing a mother breastfeed in public. Slowly but surely, though, people are coming to see breastfeeding as the natural, normal way of feeding a baby that it is. And thanks to public education campaigns, people are becoming more knowledgeable about the many benefits of breastfeeding.

Your legal right to breastfeed

Society has conditioned many people to view breasts only from a sexual standpoint and not as a body part with a crucial biological function - to feed a baby. Breastfeeding is the natural default for baby feeding - not bottlefeeding - yet no one harangues a woman who is feeding her baby from a bottle in a public place. If anyone even suggests that you shouldn't be feeding your baby in public, be aware that you are well within your rights. Keep in mind that it’s the onlooker’s problem, not yours.

From a legal perspective, you have a right to breastfeed your baby in public anywhere in the United States. Some states have gone so far as to implement specific legislation to that effect to protect the rights of both babies and their mothers; these states have set out legal consequences for violations, too. As of this writing, 17 states have passed laws that say you can breastfeed your baby in any public or private location; thirteen more exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. This may lead you to believe that the act is legal only in those states with legislation. The fact is, you have a legal right to breastfeed your baby in public even without a specific law. Don't be shy about letting an impolite person know this. For more information about the legal aspects of breastfeeding in public, check out the website of Elizabeth N. Baldwin, an attorney who specializes in this issue.

In Canada, the Human Rights Code protects women from discrimination on the basis of sex. Breastfeeding in public is not specifically labeled as a protected activity; however, many people are lobbying to explicitly include breastfeeding under this human rights code.

What about breastfeeding when in foreign countries? It’s best to respect the customs native to the country you are visiting. Even if you think you should breastfeed wherever you please, it’s important to understand and adhere to local customs. If you don't see other women breastfeeding their babies, then ask around. Talk to a woman with young children, ask a health professional, or do a little research. Once you know what is typically acceptable, then you can proceed confidently without risk of offending anyone, breaking a law, or embarrassing yourself.

Getting comfortable breastfeeding in public

Although you have the right to feed your baby in public, there is still the issue of your feelings about doing so. Each woman has her own comfort level. Most women want to find the right balance of pride and modesty - not overly exposing themselves, while feeling comfortable knowing that people are aware that they are breastfeeding. You'll probably need some practice with the particulars, simply because breastfeeding is a function that involves a private part of your anatomy that is normally not exposed in public. Wanting to be discreet doesn't mean that you are embarrassed or ashamed to feed your baby; it simply means that you don't want to cause yourself or others social discomfort.

The biggest issue for most new mothers is learning how to get settled with your baby modestly. Even a new mother who is breastfeeding with ease at home may fumble and struggle when she perceives that she has an audience; her tension then causes her impatient baby to cry. That only deepens the feeling that all eyes are on her. The reality is that most people are paying attention to their own activities and their own private conversations, by and large ignorant of what’s happening with other people. Once you become adept breastfeeding discreetly, you'll be able to comfortably nurse your baby anywhere. All it takes is a little practice.


“Always remember that what you are doing is necessary, beautiful, and miraculous. Breastfeed your baby with pride.”

Deborah, mother to Peter (five), Jeremy (three), and Claire (one)

Tips for breastfeeding in public

  • Give yourself permission to feel comfortable about nursing your baby in public. Feeding your baby is a natural, normal part of mothering, whether you are at home or out in public.
  • Dress for breastfeeding. Wear a shirt or sweater that can be lifted up or unbuttoned from the bottom. When you lift from the bottom, the top portion of your shirt helps cover you from the top, and your baby covers you from the bottom. Whatever portion of your breast is shown while feeding your baby is certainly much less than is shown in the typical television show, magazine or at your local beach or public swimming pool.
  • Try a nursing cover-up or a breastfeeding garment with a built-in flap. Many are so beautifully made that even under the most careful scrutiny, they don't look like nursing clothes. Most stores that sell maternity clothing also sell nursing apparel. Even if you don't use these at home, they may help you feel more comfortable when in public.
  • Bring along a small baby blanket. Some babies are fine with having a blanket thrown over your shoulder and over their heads, but many are very good at pulling such a blanket off. A good alternative is to bring the blanket up from below, and tent it around your baby, to cover you as you settle your little one to the breast. The blanket can be loosely placed to create privacy, or even removed once you're settled.
  • Use your sling as a nursing cover-up. Baby slings are wonderful for nursing your baby on the go because they hold your baby perfectly in the nursing position while providing extra fabric for a screen. Some brands have a "tail" at the end that doubles as an extra blanket to keep the baby from trying to peek out while nursing.
  • Feed your baby at the first sign of hunger, because hungry babies aren't quietly patient! If you wait until your baby is crying to be fed, then you may become nervous; your baby may move about and make the latch-on difficult. Instead, if you nurse him promptly, you can be more relaxed about getting him settled.
  • Remember that the alternative to public breastfeeding is usually public crying. Whether you're in a restaurant, at church, or on an airplane, people typically would prefer that you feed your baby than let him cry, fuss or otherwise disrupt the peace. I remember once attending a live play with a very antsy two-year-old: my son, David. When I finally settled him on my lap to breastfeed, the gentleman sitting beside me actually said, “Thank you!”

For more information

La Leche League International


The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action

This article is an excerpt from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)