Nursing in Public: When Did It Become So Controversial?

Written by Robin Kaplan, M.Ed., IBCLC

When I look back at 2012 and recall the variety of breastfeeding stories that were covered by American media, I can’t help, but grimace and wonder,

“When did breastfeeding become so controversial?”

News story after news story depicts a breastfeeding mother being harassed for breastfeeding in public:

Charlotte Dirkes was asked to stop, cover up, or go somewhere else when she breastfed her 10-month old at a water park in Englewood, Colorado.

Tiffany Morgan was asked to stop breastfeeding her 6-month old, cover up, or leave Denny’s in Sedalia, Missouri.

Dawn Holland was asked to finish breastfeeding her 20-month old son in the bathroom of Applebee’s in Georgia.

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

Most recently, Brittany Warfield was screamed at and forced to leave a Hollister store in the Galleria Mall in Houston, Texas, when she breastfed her 7-month old, sparking a nurse-in across the United States and Canada of over 1,000 breastfeeding mothers, children, and friends on Jan 5th, 2013.

What ensued during this most recent nurse-in was truly shocking.

Three women participating in the Hollister nurse-in at Wilmington, Delaware’s Concord Mall were asked to remove their signs (written about normalizing nursing in public) and move to another part of the mall.  After taking down their signs, they continued to nurse in front of the Hollister store.  The mall’s security guards called the local police, who ended up not taking any action with the mothers once they showed them a copy of Delaware’s law that protects a woman breastfeeding in public.  The security officers took it upon themselves to continue to harass the mothers by threatening them with removal from the mall and then followed the mothers throughout the mall.

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

When other mothers heard about what happened at the mall, they posted on the Concord Mall’s Facebook page that they should be ashamed for calling the police when mothers were just feeding their babies.  In response, the Concord Mall responded that the breastfeeding was an ‘eyesore’ and that they ‘hope you guys don’t mind if I suck on my wife’s breasts in public.’

Since this Facebook exchange, The Concord Mall has disabled their Facebook Page (and denies that it ever had a Facebook page).  They also have apologized to the three mothers, yet the apology never admitted wrongdoing or that the women were treated improperly.

By the way, all of these harassment stories took place in states where breastfeeding women are protected by law to breastfeed in a public space.

While this type of harassment ruffles my IBCLC-feathers, it truly upsets me as an avid advocate for a breastfeeding mother’s right to meet her personal breastfeeding goals.  How can we expect mothers to breastfeed for any decent amount of time if they are relegated to their homes, cars, and public restrooms whenever their babies are hungry, just to avoid degradation and humiliation?

How can we, as mothers and IBCLCs, create the necessary change in our society where women will be able to feed their babies as nature intended?

I asked these questions to a group of mothers at my breastfeeding support group today, as well as of the followers on my business Facebook page, and their answers were honest and insightful.  Here’s what they had to say:

  • More women need to breastfeed in public so that people become desensitized to it, just like ‘we’ (Americans, in general) are desensitized to the sexualization of the breast and to violence on TV.
  • More breastfeeding on television shows and in movies, rather than always bottle feeding.
  • Public service announcements about how breastfeeding protects the health of the baby and of mom.
  • Have easier access to the laws that protect breastfeeding mothers, to use as a defense when asked to stop breastfeeding in public, cover up, or leave a public place.
  • In addition to the laws that protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, there is a need for laws that involve recourse for those who harass a woman for breastfeeding in public.

Fortunately, breastfeeding advocates are already thinking these same ideas!

Thanks to the Breastfeeding Law website, breastfeeding mothers can find all of the laws in the United States that protect their rights to breastfeed in public.

In California, on September 28, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB2386, which states that it is unlawful to engage in specified discriminatory practices in employment or housing accommodations on the basis of breastfeeding or medical conditions related to breastfeeding.  What this means for breastfeeding moms… they are now considered a ‘protected class’ of citizens and will receive a full spectrum of workplace discrimination protection.

In October, 2012, Best for Babes announced the launch of their Nursing in Public Harassment Hotline.  Now, breastfeeding mothers can report incidents of nursing in public harassment, document them, and receive guidance on how to deal with the situation and approach the offending institution.  The goal… to have enough documentation to influence policy makers to create laws that require enforcement of existing breastfeeding in public laws, the creation of laws that cover harassment and discrimination against breastfeeding in public, and educational and sensitivity trainings for employees.

Even MTV is changing their stance on breastfeeding.  While season 2 of Teen Mom removed scenes showing Kailyn Lowry breastfeeding, season 3 star, Katie Yeager, stated on Facebook and twitter that the show “will show me breastfeeding for a year.  I’m breaking the stigma and normalizing it again.”  That’s quite a commitment for a 16 year old!

For me, I plan to hand out a business card-sized copy of the California state laws that protect breastfeeding in public and prohibit discrimination in the workplace and housing to every breastfeeding mother I work with.  Hopefully having it in her wallet will provide some comfort that the law is on her side.  I also plan to submit an editorial to my local newspaper every time I hear a story about a mother being harassed for nursing in public.  I figure, it’s my job to educate my community about a mother’s right to feed her baby in public, without fear of persecution.  Lastly, I plan to promote Best for Babes Nursing in Public Harassment Hotline.  The more documentation they can collect, the better chance we have of creating a REAL change in our communities to help mothers meet their personal breastfeeding goals!

What plans do YOU have to create change in your communities for protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public?

RobinRobin Kaplan received training to be a Certified Lactation Educator and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant from UCSD. She holds a Masters in Education from UCLA, a multiple-subjects teacher credential from UCLA, and a BA in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, MO. In 2009, Robin started her own business, the San Diego Breastfeeding Center, where she offers in-home breastfeeding consultations, free weekly support groups, breastfeeding classes, and online support through her business blog.  In addition to her private practice, Robin was the founding Co-editor of theInternational Lactation Consultant Association’s (ILCA)blog, Lactation Matters, and a regular contributor to ILCA’s E-Globe newsletter.  She also is the host/producer of The Boob Group online radio show and the Director of Marketing for NaturalKidz.com.  Robin lives in her native San Diego, where she enjoys cooking, hiking, trying new trendy restaurants, and traveling with her family.

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17 Responses to Nursing in Public: When Did It Become So Controversial?

  1. Elizabeth Brooks 17 January 2013 at 10:14 #

    Standing, clapping and cheering not only as an IBCLC, but as a woman, feminist, mother, mother of child-bearing-aged daughters and son, and overall-believer that *families* are a part of society and culture … which means going *out* into one’s society and culture ought to include the understanding that meeting any family members’ needs, during that outing, should be free from hassle, vilification and shame.

  2. Doraine Bailey, Lexington-Fayette Co. (KY) Health Dept. 17 January 2013 at 10:25 #

    If I had to do it again, I would incorporate breastfeeding protections into state Civil Rights law (in my state in the U.S.). Then, there is a built-in enforcement mechanism that is used to dealing with issues of harrassment. In the U.S., it is (somewhat) easier to place discrimination/harrassment issues such as this into a civil rights paradigm rather than a human rights paradigm, although we can use the arguments presented in the previous Lactation Matters on “Breastfeeding as a human right” to support our work. Civil rights also gives us a stronger position in the debate over ‘private property’ and what can happen there — after all, the owner of the location can make counter-arguments about ‘acceptable’ behavior on their property, especially if there is little or no enforcement (or education) on the issue.

    Since I don’t have breastfeeding protection in civil rights law, and since so many harrassment incidents seem to happen at restaurants, I suggest breastfeeding advocates work to incorporate information concerning public breastfeeding laws into trainings for restaurant managers (which might be organized by health departments) and/or place such information on restaurant regulation websites. I also suggest connecting with your local Chamber of Commerce, noting that supporting breastfeeding mothers *while they are out patronizing area businesses* is good for the local economy!

    What are YOUR suggestions?

    • Dianne Haworth 20 January 2013 at 04:13 #

      Hi from Tasmania, Australia, we had a project a few years ago to ask local cafes and restaurants if they were breastfeeding friendly and then offering them a sticker for their front window and their name printed in a booklet of breastfeeding friendly eateries, including an indication of where change tables and children play areas were. The booklet was handed out to new mums in hospital or at child health clinics.

  3. jessgrtn 17 January 2013 at 21:03 #

    Hi there! I am co founder of breastfeeding peaches of Georgia. Please check out out page and sign the petition at bfgeorgia.org we are working on changing state laws to add enforcement provision! Look us up on Facebook too 🙂

  4. Krisdee Donmoyer 17 January 2013 at 23:24 #

    In Texas we are working to convince school districts, currently Austin ISD, to adopt a policy that conforms to our right-to-breastfeed law. Mothers should not have to choose between being involved in the lives of their school children and feeding their babies optimal nutrition.

  5. shandreeh 18 January 2013 at 00:41 #

    Reblogged this on A Moon Half Full and commented:
    Great post on nursing in public.

  6. Margot Mann 19 January 2013 at 15:25 #

    Robin, you are an inspiration! I will certainly share the Best For Babes Harrassment Hotline link.

  7. Alissa 19 January 2013 at 22:11 #

    Trying to do my part by nursing in public (both my 10 month old and 2 year old) as often as possible as well as advocating, supporting breastfeeding moms by starting groups in my area and destabilizing with Facebook posts!

  8. Alissa 19 January 2013 at 22:35 #

    desensitizing

  9. Mama Mia 20 January 2013 at 06:49 #

    Reblogged this on Mama Mia's World and commented:
    Breastfeeding is considered weird, wrong and gross, why?

  10. Sarah 23 January 2013 at 21:08 #

    I have a four month old daughter who is exclusively breastfed. We nurse in public and have never been glared at, spoken to rudely or asked to leave anywhere. I have nursed in church, poolside at a resort, at the YMCA by the pool and in the lobby, at Walmart, at Chili’s, at Applebee’s, at local privately owned restaurants, the hospital, Target, Starbucks, Panera…. I could go on and on. I don’t nurse in public to flaunt my breasts, or to be obnoxious; I nurse to nourish my child. I nurse in public without a cover with my size G breasts despite my own mom trying to put covers over my daughter. My gay uncle actually stood up to my mom for us, and I haven’t had to deal with her ignorance since. I proudly upload my breastfeeding pictures to my Facebook and Instagram and have yet to experience anything unpleasant. Maybe when she’s four years old my experience will be different, but for now, we are happily nursing in public in Keene, NH.

  11. Helen 17 March 2013 at 11:59 #

    I have been an LLLL for over thirty years, and for most of that time an IBCLC. Several years ago I took a university course called Gay and Lesbian Studies. I was amazed to discover that the response by many to the existance of gay and lesbian people, let alone to same sex couples, is quite similar in intensity to the response to breastfeeding in public. Many same sex couples hardly dare to even hold hands in public, due to possible harrassment or worse. Breastfeeding in public pushes the envelope for many people, because it is a violation of what they believe to be the norm, which is bottle feeding. The intimacy of the breastfeeding couple offends them. They do not see a mamababy, they see a woman whose breasts are being “used” by a baby. The good news is that the furor is due to a protest against a broad change in society, and change that has not yet arrived but is inevitable. Thirty years or more ago, smoking was seen as a lifestyle choice. Now, it is seen as a health choice. Many people still see breastfeeding as a lifestyle choice, not a normal way of life, a choice to engage in the most basic and powerful health initiative there is. Some day soon, I hope to see breastfeeding supported in the way hand washing is, as a normal and essential part of a healthy life. Breastfeeding will be applauded and encouraged. Perhaps there will even be signs everywhere that say, “Please breastfeed your baby in our restaurant (mall, museaum, funpark)” in every bathroom. 🙂

  12. Cover up 21 February 2015 at 19:00 #

    I am a 40 year old mother whom breastfed her baby. I breastfed in public many times, but I always covered up. I think that the reason this is being blown up is because of the mothers that are basically saying, “Look at me everyone I’m breastfeeding in public and there is nothing you can do about it.” We live in a time where people love controversy. Without social media most would go into severe depression, because they can’t live without it. I personally never desired to breastfeed in public without being covered up. My son was not harmed in any way because I chose to cover his face. If I was in a restaurant and a mother was breastfeeding her son, it would not bother me at all. But there are those individuals that it would bother. So either remove yourself, cover up, or you will have to sit there and accept the stares and the criticizm because it will come. With all simple minded people in this world, and all of the perverts in this world I wouldn’t want any part of my breast exposed.

    • Judy 3 April 2015 at 13:16 #

      Hi Coverup. Thank you for your comment. I truly appreciate your comment and agree with it. There should be etiquette for breastfeeding in public. If you choose to bottle feed it doesn’t mean you are ashamed to breastfeed in public. Some women prefer to bottle feed. My mom did. For her it was more practical to bottle feed. Some women do prefer to use bathrooms to breastfeed because they would like their privacy. Women should have the option to breastfeed or bottle-feed. Bottle feeding isn’t less healthy. The beginning of the article said that Brittany Warfield was screamed at and forced to leave a Hollister store in the Galleria Mall in Houston, Texas, when she breastfed her 7-month old, sparking a nurse-in across the United States and Canada of over 1,000 breastfeeding mothers. Maybe this individual did something else apart from breast feeding that made the other person want to scream. Where you there? Situations are not black and white. If you want someone to respect you, you have to respect them as well. Treat someone as you want to be treated.

  13. Emmy Dillon 4 July 2015 at 04:09 #

    Breastfeeding in a public place has always been too distracting for the baby. Sometimes you have to, but my child needs a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. They are babies for such a short time that I would rather have these moments to myself to bond with my child. There is plenty of time for going to the mall and restaurants later.

  14. Jill Cronkrite Antrobus-Wilcox 7 July 2017 at 20:50 #

    As a beach/camp nudist, I’m not worried about public nakedness. But if I have to do something in a family environment which requires me to bare my nipple, I will find a private place where I won’t cause offense. No problem to myself to take a bit of a walk with my baby. I think we should respect the feelings of others and find a more private spot to nurse.

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