Breastfeeding in Public: Knowing Your Rights and Being Prepared

Breastfeeding, specifically in the United States, has a long and complicated history. Seemingly a simple, biologically natural way to feed our babies, debates over breastfeeding can leave moms feeling confused, overwhelmed and frustrated. So, what gives? Why is feeding our babies so fraught with conflict, and where do things stand today? Let’s explore the history of breastfeeding in the United States and begin to unravel the complicated history that has led us here.


Breastfeeding hasn’t always been taboo – in fact, looking back through the centuries there is even a plethora of artwork depicting mothers nursing their babies, including depictions of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding a baby Jesus. So when did breastfeeding begin to become taboo? Some experts believe that our history as a nation of immigrants contributed to this, along with the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Immigration was booming in the 1800s, and families often arrived in the U.S. without familial support or much money. This meant that during the industrial revolution, as factories opened and needed workers, many immigrant moms and even middle-class Americans began to work outside the home. This led to the development of alternative feeding methods, and what we now know as baby formula. Having an alternative to the breast was new – up until now, if a mother was unable to feed her baby she would typically have sought out a wet nurse – and it was intriguing. Whereas breastfeeding used to be the only way to feed your baby, moms now had options, and they began to explore the opportunities that formula could provide.


In addition to the evolution of baby formula, another factor has contributed even more mightily to the breastfeeding debate: the sexualization of women’s bodies, specifically breasts. History tells us that breasts have not always been an object of sexual desire, so when did they become the seemingly uncontested gauge of a woman’s desirability? Many experts believe the sexualization of breasts truly accelerated during World War II as the archetypal “pinup girl” began appearing on posters and various propaganda in support of war efforts. These posters became so popular that a whole new industry was born: porn. Beginning with softcore magazines like Playboy and the careful honing of the images of Hollywood starlets such as Marilyn Monroe, the function of breasts as a means to feed our young was slowly overtaken by the image of breasts as an object of desire.


This evolution gave way to a logical conclusion: if breasts are a sexual organ, then they are taboo. No one would want to see any sexual organ on display in public, so along with the sexualization of breasts came the idea that they were something to be kept under wraps. As this phenomenon developed and breasts became viewed as almost strictly sexual, the idea of breastfeeding began to seem strange and even repulsive.


By the 1970s, as women increasingly began to not only work outside the home but gained more freedom to become career-driven, the convenience of formula feeding reached a high point in 1972, with breastfeeding rates in the United States coming in at just 22%. Over the last few decades, we have seen this statistic slowly begin to turn around. In fact, 1989, breastfeeding rates had rebounded to 52%, and today the rate of breastfeeding initiation in the U.S. has climbed to 83%! So, with this steady increase in breastfeeding rates, along with greater knowledge of the benefits of and science behind breastfeeding, why is breastfeeding in public still so controversial?


At Latched Mama, most of us are mothers, and we feel that it is high time to stop pretending that babies don’t eat. Breastfeeding is natural, and has well-documented benefits for both mother and baby. As our culture slowly catches up with these indisputable facts, it’s important to know where the laws stand regarding breastfeeding in public.

Breastfeeding in public is legal and protected in all 50 states.

Here in Virginia, the law reads “A mother may breastfeed in any place where the mother is lawfully present,” meaning that if your baby is hungry, you can feed them no matter where you are (as long as you are there legally). This includes all public and private establishments, including schools, restaurants, parks, buses, and anywhere else you may travel with your hungry little one.


So, what’s a mama to do when she’s asked to cover up or leave an establishment to breastfeed? We’ve got some helpful tips to help you prepare so that you can breastfeed safely and confidently, no matter where you are.


Be Prepared


First, it’s important to remember that many moms are able to breastfeed in public without any issues; without public comment or confrontation. With that being said, it’s important to know your rights and be prepared for the off chance that you do encounter resistance when feeding your baby in public. Here are some easy ways to make sure you’re ready:


  1. It can be helpful to carry a copy of your state public breastfeeding law with you, in case you are questioned. Some states even have printable cards that you can keep in your wallet!
  2. Wear clothes that make it easy to access your breasts. Of course, we recommend Latched Mama! Our clothes are maternity and breastfeeding-friendly and offer easy, discreet nursing access.
  3. Practice breastfeeding in front of others, such as family and friends, before you venture out into a public space.
  4. Keep an eye on your baby for hunger cues, and try to feed them before they become fussy. This will make nursing in public less stressful for you!
  5. If you are stressed or uncomfortable, many stores and public areas have designated nursing areas! It can’t hurt to ask an employee or attendant if there is a quiet place where you can be comfortable and feed your baby.


If You Encounter Resistance


If you do encounter criticism or resistance when breastfeeding your little one in public, here are a few ways you can keep calm and diffuse the situation.


  1. Inform the person who is questioning you about the laws in your state, and remind them that you have the legal right to feed your baby wherever you are.
  2. Ask them why it bothers them that you are feeding your baby from your breast. This way, you can respond to their specific concerns.
  3. Remind them of some of the benefits of breastfeeding.
  4. Tell them how their comments make you feel. This may help the person to realize that their comments are hurtful, not helpful.
  5. Be kind and calm, but also firm. 

Most importantly, remember that there is only love and pride when it comes to feeding your baby – no matter where you are. Your body has grown a new life inside it, and now is able to nurture that sweet little one. Breastfeeding is a beautiful miracle of nature, and there is no shame in it whatsoever! Hold your head high, mama. You’re doing great.

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