The decision to breastfeed in public is often fraught with anxiety and ambivalence. And, considering how awful some breastfeeding mothers are treated, this is not a total surprise. Many women are shamed and asked to "cover up." They're asked to go home or do it or somewhere "more private." It's widely known that cultural taboos, stigmatization, and sexualization of breasts have made it difficult for breastfeeding mothers. Thankfully, in the last decade important legislative strides have been made. As a result, there are breastfeeding rights you should know if someone tries to stop you from breastfeeding in public.
Breastfeeding is certainly not the only way to feed a baby (as there are many valid, healthy ways to feed a baby based on what is best for mother and baby), but most medical professionals agree that breast milk provides the best nourishment. According to the latest 2016 Centers For Disease Control and Prevention breastfeeding report card, breastfeeding numbers are on the rise nationwide. Although this is good news it's hard not to notice what happens six months after the baby is born. The data shows that 81 percent of all mothers in 2013 started off breastfeeding their babies, however at 6 months, a little over half of these mothers were still breastfeeding.
It's certainly an improvement from previous years, but it also shows how much work there still needs to be done to support breastfeeding mothers. Demanding more rights for breastfeeding mothers (and demanding they be enforced) is part of the puzzle, but knowing what these rights are and standing up for them is important too. Breastfeeding rights and ordinances can be pretty vague and confusing. Additionally, rights are not consistent state to state, which only adds to the lack of clarity. In an effort to simplify breastfeeding rights in public, here are seven rights mothers should know about in case someone tries to stop them in public.
1. You Can Breastfeed Anywhere
"The most important thing is for moms to know that they are protected even if the general public is not aware," Tobi Porter, co-inventor of Milkies breastfeeding products and co-host of The Boob Tube, tells Romper. "So don't let the uninformed intimidate you."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. As long as a woman has the legal right to be in a particular location, she's allowed to breastfeed there. It's considered a civil right and you can tell anyone that tries to stop you.
It's important to note that federal law only protects the woman if she's on federal property. This means a woman has no legal ramifications granted to her if someone tries to stop her from breastfeeding in public, unless she's on federal property.
2. You're Exempt From Indecency Laws (In Most States)
According to the aforementioned NCSL website, 29 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. This means a breastfeeding mother will not be charged criminally for breastfeeding in public. But there is a problem with enforcing these laws.
"Unfortunately many of these laws lack 'teeth' and do not have reprocussions for the violating party," Tori Sproat, author and international board certified lactation consultant with Tiny Tummy Lactation Services, says. "For example, if a store kicks a breastfeeding parent out, the store has no consequences."
3. You're Not Required To Breastfeed In A Designated Area
Some states are required to provide designated breastfeeding areas in shopping malls, airports, and public service government centers for women that are not bathrooms. Bear in mind that just because a woman is provided a designated area, that doesn't mean she is required to use it. It goes back to the federal law that women can breastfeed anywhere that she already has a legal right to be in the first place.
4. You Do Not Have To Breastfeed In Bathrooms If You Don't Want To
No one can tell you that you have to breastfeed in a bathroom. You don't have to at work, at the mall, or anywhere else. You only breastfeed in the bathroom if you want to and that's where you feel comfortable.
In regards to the work component, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires employers to provide a "reasonable break time" for breastfeeding mothers to express milk in a place that's not a bathroom. The space has to be private and free from intrusion from other co-workers or the public.
5. You're Not Required To Wear Coverings If You Don't Want To
As mentioned above, most states exempt women from indecent exposure laws so you won't be criminally charged for breastfeeding in public. You don't have to listen to anyone that tells you to "cover up." There is no current law that says a breastfeeding woman is required to cover herself with clothing or a nursing cover. It is all a matter of preference.
6. You Can Breastfeed At Work & Are Protected In Many States
No one at work can stop you from taking breastfeeding breaks and you are protected in most cases. The only workers who are not protected under these guidelines are those mothers who work at a company with 50 employees or less.
7. You Don't Have To Explain Your Rights
If you don't feel comfortable giving someone an explanation on why breastfeeding in public is your right, you can simply say "bye" and ignore them. Or you can say "bye" and hand them a palm card with your rights printed on it. Maternity Care Coalition (MCC) in Philadelphia makes a card with local breastfeeding protection ordinances explained on it.
"It’s a handy tool that mothers can carry in their purse and put to use if someone tries to stop her nursing in public," Katja Pigur, Director of Breastfeeding Services at MCC, tells Romper. Many other local maternal health organizations make these cards for breastfeeding mothers. Additionally, you can order the breastfeeding right cards online from NursingFreedom.org, which prints lamentated cards with state specific laws and ordinances.
Sometimes the best way to explain your breastfeeding rights to someone is calmly and politely (at least initially). It's not your job to educate everyone about breastfeeding rights and laws, but it is your responsibility to know your rights in case a situation in public escalates. Knowing your rights will give you the confidence to stand up for yourself in uncomfortable situations. Additionally, being armed with this knowledge will help you decide if legal action is necessary.