Breastfeeding in Public

by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC

Despite decades of research proving that “breast is best,” we still live in a bottle-feeding society. As many nursing mothers discover, everything from hospital feeding schedules to weight gain charts are based on artificial feeding as the norm. Another reflection of this bottle-feeding bias is the current debate on breastfeeding in public sparked by the new Florida law stating that a woman who breastfeeds in public cannot be charged under any obscenity, lewdness or public nudity laws. No one thinks twice about giving a baby a bottle in public. Yet many women worry about offending others by breastfeeding.

These social pressures convince some women not to try breastfeeding at all. They imagine that breastfeeding will relegate them to the back bedroom at family gatherings, to breastfeeding in toilet stalls in restaurants, and keep them at home with their babies when they would rather be at the beach or at the ball game. No mother wants to feel that she is doing something socially unacceptable by feeding her baby.

Although a 1986 public opinion survey found that only 14% of Americans feel uncomfortable seeing a woman breastfeed in public, mothers still worry. Yet despite these worries, most women do breastfeed–some for a short time, but others for months and even years. With experience, these mothers find ways to make breastfeeding a normal part of their everyday lives, even in a society like ours that approves of breastfeeding in theory but not always in reality.


In most parts of the world no one gives a second thought to the sight of a nursing mother, whether she is discreet or not. In our society, however, some people object to breastfeeding in public–even when it’s done discreetly. Some confuse breastfeeding with excretion, since bodily fluids are involved. They believe women should breastfeed in the bathroom. Yet few adults would dream of eating their lunch in a public restroom. The smell and the second-hand smoke make them unappetizing places to dine, for adults and babies alike. Others object to breastfeeding in public because they confuse breastfeeding with sex, since breasts are associated with sexual foreplay. Yet exposed and semi-exposed breasts have become standard fare on beaches, in movies, and in advertising. It seems odd that the slight exposure involved in discreet breastfeeding would be perceived as scandalous. Yet because of this vocal minority, most women prefer to draw the least possible attention to themselves and their babies by breastfeeding discreetly.

Although at first most mothers feel nervous about breastfeeding in public, with a little preparation and practice, discreet nursing quickly becomes second nature. A mother can learn to nurse her baby so discreetly that only another nursing mother knows for sure. Most onlookers assume her baby is sleeping in her arms.

One easy way to prepare before venturing out is by nursing in front of a mirror at home. A new breastfeeding mother may also feel more at ease if she practices inconspicuous nursing with the baby’s father or a friend as a critic.

Mothers have discovered many helpful tricks, such as using a baby blanket as a cover-up. Some mothers drape the blanket over their shoulder to cover the baby, while others wrap the baby in the blanket and pull the corner up over their breast. This allows the mother to see her baby, which can make latching on easier, and it doesn’t cover the baby’s head and face, which bothers some babies.

The mother’s choice of clothing can also make discreet breastfeeding easier. Two-piece outfits allow a mother to lift her clothing from the bottom, with the baby’s body covering any exposed skin. Unbuttoning blouses from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, gives the least exposure. Jackets, cardigan sweaters, and overblouses also provide extra coverage. Although special clothing is not necessary, nursing fashions are also available with special openings and panels to make discreet nursing even easier. These include one-piece dresses for casual or dressy occasions, blouses, tops, nightgowns, and bras. To receive a free directory of companies that sell nursing fashions, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to: The Association for Breastfeeding Fashions, P.O. Box 4378, Sunland CA 91041.

Baby slings can also make breastfeeding in public easier. Unlike baby carriers that hold babies upright, baby slings consist of soft fabric that allows the baby to be carried in a variety of positions, including the nursing position, with padding at the mother’s shoulder for comfort. Many mothers find nursing a baby in a sling the height of ease and modesty, because they simply pull up the extra fabric to cover the baby. This allows them to nurse their babies while walking through the shopping mall (or anywhere else) with no one the wiser.


Even mothers who are usually comfortable breastfeeding in public may sometimes prefer more privacy. Perhaps the baby is tired or fussy and needs more quiet to settle down or the mother feels she would be more relaxed without a crowd around. How much privacy a mother wants will vary. One mother may ask for a seat at the back of a restaurant out of direct view rather than in the front, while another mother may opt for the restroom. At a shopping mall, one mother may look for a bench off to the side, while another will seek out a lounge or a clothing fitting room, which provides privacy without the bathroom smell.

Family gatherings may present a challenge if family members are unsupportive or hostile toward breastfeeding. In a situation like this, a mother may feel that she has no choice but to withdraw to the bedroom to nurse her baby.

My personal experience is, however, that attitudes can change. Some families just need time to adjust. I was the first in three generations to breastfeed, and although my mother and grandmother were supportive of breastfeeding, I was nervous about how they would react at our family’s holiday gathering. When I arrived with husband and newborn, my mother asked me to please nurse in the back bedroom so that my younger brothers, (two grown men, both of whom were married) wouldn’t “see anything.” To keep the peace, I decided to comply, but with the extra excitement and stimulation of the crowd, the baby wanted to nurse more often than usual, and I found herself spending most of my time in the back bedroom. In frustration, I finally decided to throw a baby blanket over my baby while I nursed so as not to offend, and I spent the rest of the evening with her family. After a few more family gatherings using the blanket, I began nursing without it and no one seemed to notice. Years later, when her brothers and their friends began bringing their babies to her parents’ home, she heard her parents tell them, “You don’t have to go in the other room. Stay in here with us and breastfeed. We’re used to it.”


This familiarity with breastfeeding is the key to changing our cultural norm. Once breastfeeding becomes a natural and expected part of everyday life, breastfeeding in public will cease to be an issue. Girls and boys will grow up seeing mothers breastfeed and think of it as the natural process it is. Rather than giving bottles to their baby dolls while playing house, they will offer to nurse instead.

Early this year a significant step was taken in making breastfeeding a more common sight when the Florida legislature passed a bill guaranteeing a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. Florida Representative Miguel De Grandy, the main sponsor of the bill, was inspired to file the bill after reading an article in the Miami Herald by columnist Michelle Genz, who was criticized by a security guard while breastfeeding her four-month-old son at a shopping mall. Many Florida women came out in support of the bill, including the daughter of Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, Rhea Chiles MacKinnon, who nursed her baby at a House committee meeting while lobbying for the bill’s passage.

After he signed the bill into Florida law, Governor Chiles said, “It’s not a shameful act that ought to be hidden behind closed doors. It’s a time of bonding and nurturing between a mother and her baby. We know breastfeeding ought to be encouraged.” Rep. De Grandy said that since filing the bill he has heard from dozens of women who had also experienced harrassment for breastfeeding in public, either at shopping malls or at restaurants. De Grandy says, “Now they can say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s the law.’”