Public Breastfeeding in America: Well-Known Benefits, Challenges and Stigma
Are you a breastfeeding mom? In part one of our public breastfeeding series we explore the benefits of breastfeeding, and the need for support to have success. We also explore some of the challenges women face as breastfeeding moms, in particular, harassment for breastfeeding in public.
The month of August is National Breastfeeding Month. We would like to explore the topic of breastfeeding in public over three parts. In the first part, we will discuss the benefits of breastfeeding and some of the challenges moms face when they try to breastfeed. We then focus our attention on exploring some questions around breastfeeding in public, and why women continue to experience harassment even though what they are doing is legal.
In the second part, we will explore the state laws related to public breastfeeding. Recently, public breastfeeding became legal in all 50 U.S. states. But what do these laws mean in real terms? How do they differ between states? Do women have any recourse if they are on the receiving end of harassment while breastfeeding? What does the law say if people tell women to cover up or move?
In the third and final part, we are going to propose a practical public breastfeeding "game-plan" for moms who want to get out and about with their hungry breastfeeding baby in tow. A little bit of preparation goes a long way.
Part One: The Benefits of Breastfeeding - What does the research say?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends moms exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of the babies life (they state even water or juice is not necessary and can be harmful). Then, they suggest introducing other liquids and foods after the baby reaches six months. They also recommend continuing breastfeeding up until the baby is 2 years old (and they state even beyond is fine). Furthermore, they recommend breastfeeding babies as soon as possible, ideally within one hour of birth. At the moment, only 2 in 5 babies are breastfed in the first hour.
Research shows that “breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most babies. As the baby grows, mom’s breast milk will change to meet his or her nutritional needs. Breastfeeding can also help protect the mom and the baby against some short- and long-term illnesses and diseases.” - Center for Disease Control
Babies who are breastfed typically have a lower risk of:
Childhood leukemia (cancer)
Diabetes (type 2)
Eczema (skin disease)
Infections (ear, respiratory)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Mothers who breastfeed their babies have a lower risk of:
Breast and Ovarian Cancer
Diabetes (type 2)
Postpartum bleeding and faster contraction of the uterus
Helps to increase the spacing between pregnancies
Helps mother return to pre-pregnancy weight faster
Yet, only about 40% worldwide and 57.6% of U.S. of babies are exclusively breastfed (meaning given only breastmilk) between 0 and 6 months of age.
The Challenges of Breastfeeding
Despite the widely accepted benefits of breastfeeding, women face various challenges to meet whatever breastfeeding goals they choose to set for themselves.
1. Breastfeeding is a Skill
Breastfeeding is a skill, and women need support to learn how, and to keep going with the practice. Often, there is even a lack of knowledge and support in hospitals and from the medical staff.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects data on how many moms start breastfeeding and keep it up in America. They have found most moms do want to breastfeed but stop doing so due to a lack of support.
2. Working While Breastfeeding
In the United States, there is no federal maternity leave policy and women don’t get guaranteed paid maternity leave like women in Europe and Canada. This means women will usually have to return to work while they are breastfeeding. Even more crucial then, is the support they receive at work (and home as well). If they are supported to pump and store breast milk, they are more likely to continue breastfeeding their baby even while working. However, many working moms don’t get the support they need, and they end up weaning before they would like to.
3. Breastfeeding in Public
Breastfeeding moms still need to live her life and this involves going into public spaces. Despite the fact that public breastfeeding is supported by law in all 50 states, women are often at the receiving end of discrimination and harassment when they breastfeed in public. Some of these incidents are reported on social media and in the news but many women suffer in silence. The fact these incidents still happen will undoubtedly put women off from going into the public eye with their nursing baby. Here are some examples of public discrimination incidents which have been reported in the last few years.
A breastfeeding KFC worker was forced to pump breast milk in a single-stall bathroom, then in a non-private office where her supervisor continued to work and where there were windows and surveillance cameras that couldn’t be turned off. In addition, Lampkins was demoted and took a pay cut when she was transferred to a nearby store that also held a Taco Bell. (She won the $1.5 million breastfeeding discrimination case 2019)
A nursing and pumping mom who was attending a bachelorette party at the Las Vegas establishment Wet Republic was asked to leave when she was pumping in her cabana under a towel. (2018)
A breastfeeding mom was refused permission to breastfeed her baby in the dressing room of a Victoria Secrets store in Texas. (2017)
A breastfeeding mom was asked to cover up in a pizza restaurant in Michigan. (2018)
A woman in Kentucky Kingdom amusement park with her family was told to move to the bathroom by a young staff member. (2014)
In the hallway of a government building in D.C another woman was accused of indecency. (2011)
Incidents like these not only show that there is still much to do to protect the rights of nursing mothers, but they put the nursing moms in a difficult position. On one hand they are told breastfeeding is the best for them and their baby (if women are able to do it), but on the other hand, the public understanding, perception and support are still lacking and/or outright negative.
Staying at home and scheduling trips out of the house around a baby who doesn’t have a schedule is near impossible, let alone if you have older kid(s) who are on a different schedule from the infant.
Why do women have to make these difficult choices, when all the evidence points towards the significant benefits of breastfeeding?
The Things People Say
There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding public breastfeeding, and unless you’ve been a breastfeeding mom you might think one of the following things:
“Why can’t she cover up” or “go somewhere else to breastfeed” or “why not give the baby a bottle when in public.”
Well, using a cover is possible and does work for some moms, but using a cover isn’t always as easy as people think. Many babies react negatively by pulling the cover off or screaming. Furthermore, women often continue to receive harassment despite using a cover (refer to the examples in the previous section.)
Women often do try to go somewhere quiet to breastfeed, however, they continue to receive harassment for nursing even when doing so. Giving a bottle does work sometimes and some women choose to do this. However, some breastfed babies will refuse a bottle. Some moms might also be concerned about giving a bottle too early to a newborn in fear of causing nipple confusion. Furthermore, using a bottle generates the need for a host of equipment such as breast pumps, bottles, sterilizing equipment, facilities to store the milk, and so on. Breastfeeding is supposed to eliminate the need for all these items! Furthermore, if you choose to supplement with formula, the high cost can present an issue for some moms.
The Stigma Around Public Breastfeeding
The 2017 National Consumers League (NCL) article, (just before breastfeeding became legal in all 50 states) discussed the stigma of public breastfeeding and the harassment women often face in the United States.
In a 2015 survey carried out by SummerStyles, 4,121 people were asked how they felt about the following statement:
I am comfortable when mothers breastfeed their babies near me in a public place, such as a shopping center, bus station, etc.
In 2015, 19.12% of the respondents disagreed with the statement (while 57.75% of respondents agreed). When the same question was asked in 1999, 28% of respondents disagreed (49.9% agreed).
Interestingly, even though some people in 2015 acknowledged feeling discomfort at the sight of a breastfeeding mom in public, only 13.24% disagreed with this statement:
I believe women should have the right to breastfeed in public places.
That means some respondents believe women should have the right to breastfeed in public places even if they feel uncomfortable witnessing the act.
These statistics demonstrate the number of people who actively disagree with women having the right to breastfeed in public has reduced, and there have been positive shifts in public opinion towards public breastfeeding. While this is good news for moms and babies everywhere, we still need to better normalize public breastfeeding because nursing moms continue to face harassment.
We are all different and that is okay
In the end, everyone’s motherhood journey is unique. We have different experiences and are entitled to different opinions. And that is okay. Not everyone will support public breastfeeding, and they don’t have to.
However, those people who don’t agree, need to understand the law does protect the rights of women to breastfeed their baby in public.
If we can all agree to focus on the clear individual, collective, health, and economic benefits of breastfeeding, we can find a way through any disagreements we have on the matter. Regardless of how passionate each party feels, finding ways to discuss the topic constructively remains important. Only then can we find common ground and move forward.
Will you choose breastfeeding?
In the end, every woman has to make the best choice for her and her baby. Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to nourish and bond with your child, but not every woman wants to or able to breastfeed and that is okay.
If you do choose to and able to breastfeed your baby, it is important to acknowledge the possibility of crossing paths with others, who disagree with or are simply unaware of the law. You can then find a balance by preparing yourself to react in a constructive way should the worst happen.
What do you think? Do you worry about going into public and having to breastfeed your baby? Does this put you off breastfeeding in the first place? Tell us what you think in the comments.
Check out part two of this series as we explore breastfeeding laws across the USA, and what they mean on the ground in real terms. Or skip straight to part three of this series as we set out a public breastfeeding "game plan" for moms. Let's get prepared!
Resources - Benefits of Breastfeeding
If you would like to learn more about the WHO recommendations and the findings from their research have a look at their breastfeeding fact sheet. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends breastfeeding.