National Consumers League

Public breastfeeding legal but stigmatized

Written by NCL Intern Trang Nguyen

Breastfeeding has long been hailed as the best source of food for infants, providing the perfect mix of nutrition in an easily digestible form and lowering the risk of certain syndromes, diseases, and allergies.

For the mother, breastfeeding reduces uterine bleeding after birth, lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and helps moms lose their pregnancy weight faster. With those significant advantages, it is no wonder that organizations dedicated to maternal and children’s health and wellness recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months, and supplemented with other sources of nutrition for at least 12 months and up to 2 years of age and even beyond. Health experts estimate that if new mothers exclusively breastfeed for at least six months, the U.S. would save $13 billion in healthcare and other costs each year. With those incredible benefits, over the last 25 years, the Surgeons General of the United States have been calling for greater incentives to protect and promote breastfeeding. As a society, we need to do all we can to create an environment in which women feel safe and comfortable breastfeeding.

In the United States, 81.1 percent of mothers begin breastfeeding their babies at birth. Yet, only half of the babies are still breastfed at 6 months of age and roughly 30 percent by 12 months. The fall-off is understandable, given the sadly negative feelings too many Americans attach to breastfeeding in public - ALERT: breastfeeding mothers are just feeding their babies, not engaging in a sexual act! Sadly, many mothers are more likely to stop breastfeeding if it means they can socialize outside of the home without fear of hiding in public bathrooms to feed their children.

Breastfeeding should be welcomed and encouraged in public spaces. We need to encourage mothers to do what is best for their babies by making sure infants continue to be breastfed for the recommended optimal time period. It is a fundamental part of sustaining a new life. Indeed, most mothers make every effort to be discreet. Unfortunately, many mothers are still facing discrimination and harassment for breastfeeding in public.

State and federal laws are lacking in protecting breastfeeding mothers. While 49 states already recognize the importance of breastfeeding and have laws explicitly allowing women to breastfeed in any public and private location where the mother can legally be present (e.g., Massachusetts allows breastfeeding in any place open to the general public such as a park or theater), new moms’ rights are often violated when they are asked to stop or relocate, and they have no recourse. In recent years, there have been far too many incidents of breastfeeding mothers being asked to leave places like a Springfield church, Nordstrom bathroom, courtroom, Target store, and many others, despite the fact they were not doing anything illegal.

Furthermore, only 29 states exempt breastfeeding from public indecency, which means even in states that recognize mothers’ rights to nurse in public, they can still be prosecuted for public indecency. In 2003, Jacqueline Mercado was arrested and temporarily lost custody of her children because she was photographed breastfeeding her 1-year-old. She was prosecuted for “sexual performance of a child,” a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. It took her six months to get the charges dropped and resume her children’s custody. This incident happened in Texas, where “a mother [has been] entitled to breast-feed her baby in any location in which the mother is authorized to be” since 1995. 

There are also countless examples of nursing mothers being asked to relocate despite the property having no policies against public breastfeeding. In 2013, Amber Hinds was asked by a lifeguard to relocate herself to the locker room when she was breastfeeding in the county pool. She later called the pool manager and found out they were aware of the Wyoming state law protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed and had no policy against breastfeeding.

Nursing mothers even have to put up with derogatory and humiliating comments from their colleagues and employers when they pump breastmilk in the workplace despite the protection of the law. In 2010, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Section 4207 amended The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 (29 U.S. Code 207) to specify that a mother has the right to take reasonable break time to express breast milk at work for one year after childbirth. Employers must also provide a private space, other than a toilet stall, for that employee to express breast milk. In spite of the benefits nursing has to businesses, including reducing the time a mother may miss work because of baby-related illnesses and encouraging her to come back to work earlier after birth because she is less concern about the effect it would have on the nursing relationship, we still hear heartbreaking stories of how nursing employees are not supported in the workplace. The Washington Post recently shared tales of how women have to pump milk in ant and roach-infested storage rooms, or have the CEO announce everyone of her pumping by playing Joe Budden’s Pump It Up. Under such stress and lack of support, many working mothers, like officer Victoria Clark, had no other choice but to stop breastfeeding altogether.

Incidents like this show that there is still much to do to protect the rights of nursing mothers. States need to revise their laws, adding legal remedies and removing public breastfeeding from the public indecency list. Meanwhile, public accommodations need to better train their staffs on policies and state laws that protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed in public. Even if this is merely a mistake on the staff’s part, and does not reflect the view of the property or the managing board, it can still leave detrimental consequences for new and inexperienced mothers. Mothers who have been yelled at or singled out in public might feel ashamed of breastfeeding in public and might abandon doing so altogether. Overall, we need to improve the public’s perception of breastfeeding so that nursing mothers will not have to go through emotional stress and abuse to feed their children. 

As many women and men continue to fight for the right to breastfeed in public, mothers might equip themselves by better understanding state laws on public breastfeeding at http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/breastfeeding-state-laws.aspx and feeling empowered to state their right to be free of any harassment or discrimination they might face for breastfeeding in public. Even if the law has no enforcement mechanism, it is helpful for breastfeeding mothers to cite their rights when making complaints, calling for support, or contacting legislators.