Why is Breastfeeding in Public Still Controversial?

A young mother is breastfeeding her baby in a cafe while she is having a coffee

Ask five different people their thoughts on breastfeeding in public, and you’ll probably get five different answers. It seems everyone has an opinion on the subject, regardless of whether or not they’re a mother themselves. Some people see the act as indecent, while others view it as a normal aspect of motherhood. The latter camp tends to be filled with moms who have been through the struggle of fussy babies and achy breasts.

In fact, many of these mothers simply refuse to be shamed by people who would call them indecent for breastfeeding in public. Some even go to extreme lengths to assert their rights. Take 28-year-old Avery Lane of Fort Gordon, Georgia. According to TODAY, Lane was nursing her two-month infant without a cover while accompanying a friend at an H&R Block on a military post. A manager approached her and asked her to cover up.

“No, but I have a muslin if you would like to cover your face,” Lane responded, according to her Facebook post quoted on TODAY. “You must not know Georgia’s breastfeeding laws.”

The situation didn’t end there, however, and the manager asked her to leave. In response, Lane, whose husband is in the army, called the military police and asked them to inform the manager of her legal rights.

Lane isn’t the only woman who’s had to remind a stranger of breastfeeding laws. According to Parents Magazine, Jacqui Blue of Los Angeles had to do the same when breastfeeding at a restaurant in Florida. As more and more women confront shamers and share their public breastfeeding stories on social media and news outlets, one has to wonder why the concept still strikes so much controversy.

A mother breastfeeding her child.Why does this still cause so much controversy?

Why do some people object to breastfeeding in public?

Some people believe seeing a breast in any context counts as indecent exposure. However, some public breastfeeding advocates counter by saying the true issue is the sexualization of women’s breasts. In their opinion, people who criticize public breastfeeding are really reacting to the idea of a body part typically portrayed in a sexual manner being used in a nonsexual way.

“Women buy into that idea,” Raivon Lee, author of a parenting blog, told CNN. “If we use our breasts for anything other than ‘play’ it’s not okay.”

It’s hard to determine whether or not this is true without surveying every individual against public breast feeding. That said, the fact of the matter is more and more women are choosing to breastfeed their infants wherever they are. Almost every news story about a mother being shamed for breastfeeding creates a public outcry, and more women are sharing their stories on Instagram and Facebook. Social media websites still ask users to censor exposed nipples no matter what the context, and many mothers who shared pictures of themselves nursing have had their images taken down for violating terms of service. But they continue to protest in the hopes that attitudes towards public breastfeeding will grow more progressive.

Deciding whether or not to breastfeed in public

“Breastfeeding is a private choice.”

Breastfeeding is a private choice for every mother. Some feel completely comfortable feeding their child in public while exposed; others would rather use a nursing cover and some prefer to find a private area.

For moms who do want to breastfeed in public, here are a few tips:

  • Know the law. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 49 states (all but Idaho), the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands legally allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. However, only 29 states plus D.C. and the Virgin Islands specifically separate breastfeeding from public indecency.
  • If you want to nurse in public but still wish to be discreet, a nursing cover will be your best friend. Nursing covers are particularly handy for women with larger breasts, who may have a more difficult time keeping themselves covered. Just make sure you purchase one that is well ventilated so your baby gets an ample supply of fresh air.
  • Plan your response. Unfortunately, you’re likely to encounter someone with a negative opinion about public breastfeeding who will make their views known. Knowing what to say beforehand makes it easier to stick up for yourself in the moment.

While overall attitudes are changing, breastfeeding in public is still controversial in some people’s eyes. That said, these opinions shouldn’t have any effect on a mother’s decision. Legally, most states allow women to nurse in public, and many places are creating designated areas for women to nurse or pump. Who knows – maybe soon every public space will accept the idea of public breastfeeding as perfectly normal.

Autumn Green is an artist-turned-writer who traded the sweet tea of the south for the deep dish pizza of Chicago. Her favorite subjects include art, culture, design, small business/entrepreneurship and healthful living.