Breastfeeding in Public
by Cynthia Billiar, BSN, RN, IBCLC, ANLC, ICD, CD(DONA), ICCE
Have you ever wondered how we got to the place that we need laws to protect a breastfeeding mother’s right to feed her baby wherever she may be? Every state in the U.S. except Idaho, along with the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, has laws that protect a mother’s right to breastfeed her child in any public or private location. They also exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws, (Breastfeeding laws, 2017). There are also laws here in the U.S. that requires employers to provide reasonable break time, unpaid, for breastfeeding mothers to express breastmilk until her breastfeeding child’s first birthday, (Fitzpatrick, 2010).
Breastfeeding in public is a concern for most breastfeeding mothers. They worry that they will be told to cover up or even asked to leave or go in to the bathroom.
None of us would be here today if our ancestors had not breastfed. Mothers in colonial America were expected to breastfeed their children and they typically breastfed their children until about two years of age. Breastfeeding was common for colonial women; they believed that breasts were created to feed their babies, (McCall, 2014).
Medicine, science, and technology created huge changes in infant feeding in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Artificial milk became available in the nineteenth century primarily to feed the orphans in institutions. Milk factories were providing pasteurized cow’s milk and home sterilizers by the late 1890’s, (Lauwers & Swisher, 2016). Pediatricians emerged and were considered to be infant feeding experts. They were and some may continue to be heavily influenced by the infant formula industry. By the twentieth century artificial feeding grew to be considered the modern and civilized way to nourish infants. Artificial feeding became associated with high class and educated women. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, became associated with the poor or lower social status women, (Lauwers & Swisher, 2016). Women entered the work force in large numbers during World War II and many enjoyed the freedom and challenge of working outside the home. More mothers working outside the home increased the need for artificial feeding.
In the 1950’s men’s magazines and mass media began to idealize breasts in a sexual way. This created a focus on female breasts as sex objects and undermined their function of nourishing and nurturing their babies.
Breastfeeding reached its all-time low in 1971, when only twenty percent of mothers breastfed at least one time before leaving the hospital here in the United States, (Lauwers & Swisher, 2016). Imagine for a moment living in 1971 and seeing a mother breastfeeding her baby. You would see it as out of the norm and even strange; which is why we now have laws to protect the rights of breastfeeding women and their infants.
What we see through history is that women fed their infants according to what was seen as the norm for that time. It was common, expected, and the norm, for the colonial women to breastfeed their infants. By 1971 it was not common or the norm for American women to breastfeed. The United States breastfeeding in public laws have given women the ability to step out and breastfeed their infants wherever they may be. With more women breastfeeding in public our hope is that it will soon become the norm once again.
There are a few tips that can help make breastfeeding in public a little easier. First be familiar with the breastfeeding laws in your state. Keep a copy of the laws with you to help educate anyone who might question your right to breastfeed your baby in public. If you are more comfortable being covered up try dressing in layers and pull your top up from the bottom rather than the top down. Some mothers find wearing two camisoles works well; pull the top camisole up from the bottom and the under camisole down from the top. The bottom camisole keeps your tummy covered and the top camisole covers the top part of your breast. There are several types of breastfeeding cover ups sold in stores and online that you could try. Some mothers are comfortable breastfeeding while carrying the baby in a strap on carrier. Keep your eyes up because people will always look where you are looking. Practice breastfeeding at home in front of a mirror before going out for the first time. Go with other breastfeeding mothers as you will find strength in numbers.
What can we the public do to help normalize breastfeeding? When you see a mother breastfeeding her infant, offer a smile or give her some words of encouragement. Have some little post cards made up ahead of time that you can give a breastfeeding mother with a note that says ‘thank you for breastfeeding’ or ‘great job.’ If you see a mother being hassled for breastfeeding her infant in public, be her advocate. In order for breastfeeding to become the norm, the public needs to see it. We, as breastfeeding advocates, need to encourage mothers to breastfeed when and wherever their infants need to be fed. Empower women by educating them on state and federal laws that protect their rights as breastfeeding mothers. Never be afraid to advocate for breastfeeding at state and federal levels of government whenever you get the opportunity. Stand strong, be a voice, and create a path that will empower the breastfeeding women of our nation.
Breastfeeding state laws. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/breastfeeding-state-laws.aspx
Fitzpatrick, R. B. (2010). Lactation provisions in the patient protection and affordable care act. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/newsletter/publications/aba_health_esource_home/volume7
Lauwers, J., & Swisher, A. (2016). Counseling the nursing mother (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
McCall, S. (2014). Nursing in public: What U.S. mothers faced from colonial times until now. Retrieved from https://breastfeedingusa.org/content/article/nursing-public-what-us-mothers-faced-colonial
The International Childbirth Education Association (ICEA) is a professional organization that supports educators and health care professionals who believe in freedom to make decisions based on knowledge of alternatives in family-centered maternity and newborn care.