Skip to main content

Nursing in Public

This article addresses the tricky problem of breastfeeding in public.

Nursing in Public

Recently, national attention has been focused on the rights of women to nurse their babies in public places. In less industrialized countries, where breastfeeding is a community norm, nursing babies accompany their mothers everywhere and breastfeed at will. These societies have traditional slings and other garments that allow infants to be carried, or more accurately, worn on their mother's bodies. In many other countries, breastfeeding is considered so natural that people scarcely take notice of it.

In the United States, even though the majority of women begin breastfeeding their newborns, many mothers discontinue nursing within a few weeks or months, with relatively few women managing to breastfeed the whole first year or more, as recommended. The period when most American women do nurse — the early weeks after delivery — is a time when new mothers are least mobile and most sheltered. The result is far fewer breastfeeding role models in the United States than in many other societies. While breastfeeding is talked about and encouraged, it enjoys minimal visibility in our society. A foreigner visiting our country would never guess that most new mothers choose to nurse their babies, because breastfeeding is seldom witnessed outside the home. Parents don't think twice about bottle-feeding their babies in virtually any setting, but few American women are willing to nurse in front of others, and even fewer partners of breastfeeding women are comfortable with public nursing. To avoid nursing in public, many breastfeeding women plan short excursions to shop or run errands based on their baby's predicted feeding pattern. They nurse their baby in the privacy of their home, dart out on their mission, and try to get back before the next feeding. If a mother does get caught with a frantically hungry baby, she is likely to try to "hold the baby off" with a pacifier, retreat to a rest room or her car, or perhaps even give a bottle of expressed milk or formula. Those who do venture to nurse in a highly trafficked area like a mall risk feeling self-conscious or being the recipient of passersby's judgmental glances. The topic has come into the spotlight on a number of recent occasions when mothers who were breastfeeding their hungry infants were asked to leave public places because exposing their breasts to nurse might be offensive to other patrons. In each case that has been challenged in a court of law, the right to breastfeed in public has been upheld. Several states even have passed legislation that excludes breastfeeding from public nudity laws and defends a woman's right to nurse in public. Nevertheless, some people still view breastfeeding as something to be done in private or in a public rest room. Even if you have the right to nurse your baby at the mall, you might not feel comfortable doing so unless you are convinced that it is possible to breastfeed discreetly. This type of confidence comes only with experience, maturity, and practical information.

Breastfeeding Clothing
When I was nursing my first baby at the age of twenty, I almost never ventured to breastfeed when away from home. I had never seen anyone else nurse in public, and besides, I didn't know the basics about a breastfeeding wardrobe. I usually wore a shift or dress that had to be unzipped and pulled down to nurse. No wonder I found the prospect unthinkable in public! I wish someone had suggested that I wear two-piece outfits so I could simply lift my blouse to breastfeed or unbutton it from the bottom up. If a woman doesn't feel she can nurse spontaneously when the need arises, she tends to feel restricted in her activities. She may feel obligated to retreat from company and retire to a back bedroom to breastfeed. When a woman is confident that she can nurse discreetly, she can choose to remain with the group, throw a receiving blanket over her shoulder, and breastfeed her baby without missing anything.

While you don't need special clothes to breastfeed, you might be interested in knowing that many maternity shops and specialty catalogs sell clothing that has been altered specifically for breastfeeding women. Professional and even formal wear is available with Velcro flaps and other discreet modifications that make it possible to expose the breasts for nursing. A variety of nursing shawls also are available to shield your breastfeeding baby from public view while allowing you to readily observe your infant. A wide selection of breastfeeding apparel is available from the member companies of the Association for Breastfeeding Fashions. Even if you don't own any special breastfeeding garments, you easily can put together outfits that let you breastfeed discreetly and with confidence in any setting. Wearing a vest over your blouse is a convenient way to keep your midrift covered when you lift your shirt to nurse. A simple receiving blanket can be as effective as a fancy shawl. Many of the various infant slings that are so popular today allow an infant to nurse while being carried without a casual observer even being aware. Before venturing out in public, practice latching your baby on to nurse in front of a mirror until you have your technique perfected. You'll be amazed how little anyone can really see once you learn the art of discreet nursing.

Subscribe to Family Education

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.