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Breastfeeding in public - Is it taboo?

Updated on April 23, 2012

As mothers left the home and enter the workplace there was a change from breastfed babies to bottle fed babies. However, in more recent years as the benefits of breastfeeding began to come to light there has been a shift back to breastfeeding.

Society, as a whole, is becoming more accepting of breastfeeding. USA Today reported that breastfeeding has hit a 20-year high with 77% of new mothers breastfeeding. Yet at the same time Reuters Health is reporting that many birth centers are not supportive, engaging in practices that interfere with breastfeeding. Such reports show that, as with any change to society, the path is not smooth and there will be dissenters along the way.

The number of dissenters a mother encounters can depend on a number of factors. The first is the general knowledge of the people around her. If people are educated about the benefits of breastfeeding they are less likely to stand in the way of a baby receiving the best nutrition a mother can provide. Another factor is her location. Some places adapt more quickly to change than others. A third factor is her discretion. People have differing ideas of modesty. A mother who uses a nursing shawl or blanket will cross the modesty boundaries of fewer of those people. A final factor to consider is age. Many people have a preconceived idea about the age at which a child should be weaned. The older your baby becomes the more people you will encounter who feel your child is too old.

Why Breastfeed?

The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous. A mother's breast milk is designed by her body to met her baby's needs for each stage of life. The first milk a mother makes, besides passing immunities to her child, helps the newborn expel meconium and helps prevent jaundice.

Not only does a mother's milk change as the baby grows, it also changes during a baby's feeding. The first milk or foremilk is more watery and high in carbohydrates. Milk released later in the feeding, also called hindmilk, has a higher fat content.

Researchers are still working to discover the exact properties of breast milk, which is one reason formula companies can continue to improve their products. As more is discovered about breast milk the formula companies scramble to incorporate that newly discovered value into their formula.

Besides the obvious nutritional benefits the American Academy of Pediatrics lists the following benefits to the baby, the mother and society:

  • Decreases the incidence and/or severity of infectious diseases
  • Post neonatal infant mortality rates are reduced
  • Decreased rate of SIDS in first year
  • Reduced incidence of some health problems among older children and adults who were breastfed
  • Slightly enhanced cognitive development
  • Decreased postpartum bleeding in mother
  • Rapid uterine involution for mother
  • Earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight for mother
  • Decreased risk of breast cancer in mother
  • Decreased risk of ovarian cancer in mother
  • Potential decreased annual health care costs of $3.6 billion in the United States
  • Decreased cost for public health programs
  • Decreased employee absenteeism by parents
  • More family time due to less illness
  • Decreased environment burden associated with bottle-fed infants
  • Decreased energy demands for production and transportation of items associated with bottle-fed infants

Breastfeeding Openly and the Law

Because mother's breastfeeding in public represents a change in our (American) culture there are people who will be uncomfortable by such displays. It also means that people are more likely to stare. (Although people love to stare at newborns in any situation.) For this reason there are a variety of brands of nursing shawls available.

I myself did not want people starring while I fed my daughter and so used a nursing shawl. I never encounter any negative reactions to my breastfeeding. However, that is not always the case.

In the July-August 2008 issue of Mothering Emily Mohajeri Norris relates her story of discreetly breastfeeding in the back of a store when the store manager (another mother) asked her to stop breastfeeding. Despite the fact that none of the customers had complained (or even appeared to notice) that she was breastfeeding she was made to leave.

For those mother's who do not wish to use a nursing shawl or blanket the chances of a negative encounter increase. For example Emily Gillette was asked to cover her baby when nursing on a Delta plane--despite the fact that she was in the back of the plane.  She was asked to leave when she did not comply. (The full article is in the Boston Globe.)

Thirty-nine states now have laws allowing public breastfeeding. However, that means there are still a number of states where women can be asked to stop breastfeeding. For a summary of the breastfeeding laws of the 50 states visit the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The states that allow public breastfeeding are as follows:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Wyoming


How long should a baby be breastfed?

The length of time that a mother breastfeeds her child is a very personal choice. Everyone seems to have different ideas and reason about the timing. Even the experts are not sending the same message (although AAP and WHO both agree that a baby should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least the first year of your child's life with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. The World Health Organization recommends two years of breastfeeding.

Whatever your personal opinion on the matter, bear in mind that the older your child is the more likely you are to encounter a negative reaction. As the views of society change, more people are coming out in support of breastfeeding. However, there will always be people who object and you are more likely to encounter them now as society is in the process of shifting its views on breastfeeding.


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    • Kotori profile image

      Kotori 7 years ago from Chicagoland

      Great article! So thorough. I would add that there have been several large-scale protests in recent years of merchants who have been unsupportive to breastfeeding customers.

    • Kathleen Staley profile image

      Kathleen Staley 7 years ago

      I am a HUGE advocate of breastfeeding, and really appreciated this article.

    • DixieChick profile image

      DixieChick 8 years ago from Irl

      Beautiful article and informative. especially love the pictures. they are so precious. It seems unimaginable for me that anyone could have the right to ask a mother to stop feeding her child it is the most natural process in the world.