Breastfeeding in public

How do I breastfeed in public?

Mothers may feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public, fear confrontation from people who oppose it, or break laws by doing it. This is unfortunate and one more barrier to breastfeeding. Mothers may find that it gets easier over time. They can use a towel or blanket to cover themselves or look for a breastfeeding room or private space. Breastfeeding support groups can provide more information and support. Even some family members may be uncomfortable about seeing a mother breastfeed. This may be overcome by an honest, respectful discussion. 

A) The right to breastfeed in public

Women around the world breastfeed, but attitudes toward public breastfeeding vary greatly (Scott 2015). Some jurisdictions, including in Canada and the United States, have legislation protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public (Grossman 2012). In other places, public breastfeeding is accepted and unlikely to raise eyebrows.

Talk to other mothers or breastfeeding support groups in your area for more information. If you are travelling or living away from home, get to know the laws and customs of the country you are in.

B) The challenges of breastfeeding in public

In many societies, breasts have become highly sexualized and by extension, breastfeeding is seen as a sexual act (Moran 1999). This leads to some people believing that breastfeeding is only appropriate for young babies or that it is a type of exhibitionism and should not be done in public (Morris 2019). The media routinely show babies being bottle-fed instead of breastfed, which compounds the image problem of breastfeeding (O'Brien 2016).

The sexualisation of the breast also results in some mothers being self-conscious about breastfeeding in public. Mothers report other challenges to breastfeeding in public, including (Hauck 2019; McKenzie 2018):

  • Positioning difficulties
  • Lack of acceptance by others (Russell 2017)
  • Fear of confrontation
  • Fear for personal safety (Rosen-Carole 2018)

C) How to breastfeed in public

If you wish to breastfeed in public and it is safe to do so, here are some tools to help you get started. 

If you are feeling uncomfortable, remember that you are breastfeeding because you love your child. You should be proud of yourself. It can be hard to breastfeed in public at first, but it often gets easier over time.

1) Just go and do it!

To help you get started, you can bring a support person to help manage your items and for emotional support. If you are harassed, this person can advocate on your behalf.

2) Be discreet if you want to

If you want to be discreet, you have a few options:

  • You can wear a loose top which will cover your breast.
  • You can cover the baby with a towel, blanket, scarf, shawl, or breastfeeding cover. Be aware that as babies grow, they tend not to tolerate the cover and will pull it off.
  • You can station a stroller or pram in front of you for a bit of privacy.

3) Find a private place

If you are not comfortable breastfeeding in public, you can look for a private place. Breastfeeding, family, or baby rooms are becoming more common in public places, but some have smelly diaper disposals or are dirty. Information about breastfeeding locations may be available online and if none is listed, you may consider contacting the facility.  

D) Dealing with harassment

Someone once said, “If breastfeeding offends you, you are looking too closely.” If public breastfeeding is legal where you are, breastfeeding is the harasser’s problem, not yours.

Depending on the location and country you are in, you may be able to take action to stop the harassment or prevent the situation from recurring and other mothers from receiving the same treatment:

  • Ensure your safety. Friends, family, other mothers, other individuals, security employees, and authorities can all help.
  • Contact local breastfeeding advocacy groups for information and support.
  • Contact the company or organization at fault.Many companies have a good policy, but it is not enforced. Companies regularly apologize for their employees’ failure to follow the company policy.
  • Can you organize a gathering of breastfeeding mothers in that location (a nurse-in)?
  • Can you contact the media?
  • Can you talk to politicians?
  • Can you take legal action?

In a perfect world, mothers would be free to breastfeed anywhere, any time.

E) Dealing with family members who are not comfortable seeing you breastfeed

Sometimes family members and friends are not comfortable seeing breastfeeding. They may also criticize you.

When you breastfeed, they may:

  • Act uncomfortable, irritated, or anxious.
  • Look away from you.
  • Leave the room.
  • Ask you to stop.

They may:

  • Believe breastfeeding is a sexual act.
  • Not know how to behave around a breastfeeding mother.
  • Be afraid of offending you.

Having an honest, respectful discussion is often the easiest way of solving this. Consider:

  • Asking why they feel uncomfortable.
  • Asking about any breastfeeding experiences they might have had.
  • Explain that you are not offended when they look at you while breastfeeding.
  • Talk about your reasons for breastfeeding.
  • Talk about:
  • Asking other family members to support you in these steps.  

References

Grossman JL. The Controversy Over Public Breastfeeding: Breast May Be Best, but Objectors Say Not in My Backyard (or Airplane). Justia 2012 March

Hauck YL, Bradfield Z, Kuliukas L. Women's experiences with breastfeeding in public: An integrative review [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 10]. Women Birth. 2020;S1871-5192(20)30237-7

McKenzie SA, Rasmussen KM, Garner CD. Experiences and Perspectives About Breastfeeding in "Public": A Qualitative Exploration Among Normal-Weight and Obese Mothers. J Hum Lact. 2018 Jan 1:890334417751881
 
Moran M. Analysis and application of the concept of modesty to breastfeeding. J Perinat Educ. 1999 Fall;8(4):19-26
 
Morris C, Schofield P, Hirst C. Exploration of the Factors Influencing Attitudes to Breastfeeding in Public. J Hum Lact. 2019 Oct 11:890334419878119
 
O'Brien E, Myles P, Pritchard C. The portrayal of infant feeding in British women's magazines: a qualitative and quantitative content analysis. J Public Health 2016 Mar 21: (Oxf)
 
Rosen-Carole C, Allen K, Fagnano M, et al. Mothers' Concerns for Personal Safety and Privacy While Breastfeeding: An Unexplored Phenomenon. Breastfeed Med. 2018 Feb 28
 
Russell K, Ali A. Public Attitudes Toward Breastfeeding in Public Places in Ottawa, Canada. J Hum Lact. 2017 May;33(2):401-408
 
Scott JA, Kwok YY, Synnott K, et al. A comparison of maternal attitudes to breastfeeding in public and the association with breastfeeding duration in four European countries: results of a cohort study. Birth. 2015 Mar;42(1):78-85