Going Outside: Tips for Breastfeeding in Public

By Carly Hill

There is nothing more natural than breastfeeding your baby. It’s such a short and special season that you get to bond with and nourish your child. No one will deny the health benefits that come from breastfeeding an infant, but not everyone appreciates seeing it happen in action.

Aside from that, even if you find yourself in a group of supportive people who are completely comfortable with you nursing in front of them, breastfeeding in public places is challenging for many reasons.

There are a lot of factors to consider – what you’ll wear, where you’ll be, who you’ll be around, etc. If you’re not confident with what you’re doing or you don’t have a plan, you may find yourself mumbling under your breath in a tizzy, “I am never leaving the house again! Nursing in public is just TOO STRESSFUL!”

The problem with that is you can’t actually “never leave the house again.” You’ve got to live your life. And, although your first few attempts of being a nursing mother in the outside world might not be the easiest thing you’ve ever done, it definitely doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

Get a strategy in place, and before you know it, you’ll be nursing in public like a pro. Here are some things to think about…

Know Your Rights

One thing to keep in mind is that federal law is cheering you on. You are legally entitled to breastfeed wherever you want. As WhatToExpect.com put it, “…if you have a right to be somewhere with your baby and you can feed your baby a bottle, then certainly you have the right to breastfeed.”

No, you don’t have to do it in a dirty bathroom stall. No, you don’t have to “step inside here, ma’am.” Everyone has their own opinions on how a woman should breastfeed and moms are going to have different standards when it comes to modesty. But, knowing what is legally allowed and what isn’t is an important starting point.

As of 2010, Federal law mandates that employers must allow nursing mothers breaks to breastfeed or pump during their workday. Also, none of the fifty states forbid breastfeeding outside the home. Only two states put any limitations on it whatsoever (Illinois and Missouri).

You can read more general information about federal law on breastfeeding from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention government website. To see exactly what’s in the books in your state, visit the website for the National Conference of State Legislatures here – NCSL.org.

But, the take-away from all the legal language you’ll find on those government sites is this: You’re allowed.

With breastfeeding becoming more and more popular again in American culture, you’re not likely to get too much negativity from passersby, provided you aren’t being intentionally obnoxious about showing the world what you’re doing.

Of course, you might encounter people who are uncomfortable with the knowledge that they are talking to you while there’s a human eating from one of your private organs; its just part of it. But, despite the opinions of others, you need to know that you have every right to feed your baby wherever you are, no matter what uncomfortable bystanders may tell you.

Know Your Schedule

Yes, babies can be unpredictable. Yes, every day you will find yourself learning something new and changing your way of doing things. But babies do follow patterns. Depending on their age, babies eat at specific times each day. Yes, it changes, but you know when feeding time is and so does your baby.

Now, when you’re at home, you can be a little more flexible. But, when you’re out, it is key that you feed your baby a little before feeding time.

If your baby eats at 2 p.m. every day and you wait until 2 p.m. to nurse, your baby is likely to be so desperate and frantic to feed, you will make a scene and wind up flustered and frustrated. However, if you attempt to feed your baby a little earlier, your baby will be less desperate, and you’ll be much more likely to have a calm, peaceful feeding.

Beside the fact that it will be less stressful for you and your baby, you will also be more discreet.

Having a baby latch successfully and drink is wonderful and incredibly discreet. Having a baby scream and flail and pull at your shirt and nursing cover is sure to make you the center of attention.
Save yourself the headache, and feed early.

Once you get the hang of it, you can breastfeed in the middle of crowded subway and people might not even notice; that is, if you’re sure to sidestep your baby’s hunger-panic, by not waiting until the last minute to offer the breast.

Be Wardrobe Ready

Picking up a nursing top or a nursing bra at a department store can be a little intimidating. Why are there so many latches? Where do I put this flap? But, having a nursing wardrobe is hugely helpful when it comes to breastfeeding in public.

Many women are comfortable in loose fitting tanks and sports bras and they don’t necessarily feel the need to stock up on nursing wear, but nursing apparel is out there for a reason.

You can find nursing tops now that are comfortable and trendy, but so smartly designed that you could feasibly have your baby attached to your breast without a cover and no one would notice (unless they’re really paying attention, of course). It’s all about the placement of the material. Look around and see what works for you. But, just remember, nursing clothes are designed to make breastfeeding easier and more discreet, so don’t let all the clamps and clasps intimidate you.

Now, some women might not want to spend a lot of money on nursing clothes, especially if they don’t plan to nurse long-term. For those women, just make sure not to wear restrictive clothing. Don’t wear dresses that you’ll have to completely take off in order to give your baby access to the breasts. Most of what you wear should be two-piece, unless it’s a dress specially designed for nursing. You want to put yourself in things that stretch and are loose-fitting. Otherwise, you will make something easy and natural into something difficult, uncomfortable and frustrating for you and your baby.

Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time for form fitting cocktail dresses and chiffon tops in a few months, but right now, go for the drape-y look.

Here are a few other great tips for discreet public nursing taken from one of the breastfeeding experts, Dr. Sears:

  1. Two-piece outfits, with loose tops are the best. You can lift the shirt from the bottom so the baby can get at the breast. The rest of the fabric will drape around the baby’s head to cover any exposed skin.
  2. If you’re wearing a shirt or blouse that buttons, unbutton it from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
  3. Think of nursing in terms of snuggling your baby under your clothes rather than getting your breast out.
  4. A loose jacket or cardigan sweater can provide extra coverage for your middle.
  5. Drape a lightweight blanket or shawl over your shoulder and over baby as you nurse.
  6. An old t-shirt worn under a sweater or another shirt can provide extra coverage and protect your middle from icy drafts. Cut slits in the t-shirt at breast level. When you lift the outer shirt, the t-shirt stays in place.
  7. A baby sling is a real boon to discreet nursing. You can stroll through department stores or play with a toddler in the park while keeping baby latched on behind the fabric of the sling.
  8. Wear a large t-shirt over your swimsuit for discreet nursing at the beach. Or look for swimsuits made especially for breastfeeding women.
  9. If you yearn to wear dresses, look for special styles for nursing mothers, with hidden openings at the breast. These are available from catalogs and can sometimes be found in maternity shops.
  10. Nursing bras with cups that are easy to unfasten with one hand can make it easy to get your baby started at the breast, but refastening bra cups often requires two hands. You might have to wait to do this until you have a private moment–a reason to avoid clingy or sheer tops when you’re out with baby.
  11. Prints and loose styles camouflage leaking–and spit-up stains.

It’s All About Location

Just like a cop or detective might have a natural tendency to “case the joint” when he walks into a room – looking for exits, suspicious types, and escape plans – a nursing mom will learn to case any room or public place she walks into, looking for the ideal place where she can inconspicuously and successfully feed her baby without any riffraff.

Here are some things you can think about when toting a nursing newborn around each of the following locations:

Restaurants: The first words out of your mouth when you get to the hostess’ stand should be, “Do you have a booth available?” Booths are about as private as it gets, when you’re in a restaurant setting. Look for booths that are located on the side of the restaurant or in the corners. Even if being discreet isn’t all that important to you, nursing your child while seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant will be difficult and distracting.

The Mall: The mall is actually a really great place to take a nursing baby. Why? Because there are private nursing rooms galore, or as non-nursing moms will recognize them, “fitting rooms.” It’s always a good idea to ask the store employees first, or just let them know you’ll be nursing your child in the fitting room, so they don’t get worried or suspicious about “that lady who’s been in the fitting room for forty-five minutes.” Be mindful of whether the particular store you’re in is crowded. You don’t want to keep people waiting, so you might be better off trying a store that’s quieter. Malls also have a lot of chairs and couches scattered about, many of which are near large, fake potted plants. Those spots are great for nursing too and you’ll find them every few steps you take.

Family Rest Areas: Some women who have the hang of breastfeeding, might be most at ease stepping into a restroom, where they feel more comfortable to be exposed. Others think it gross and unsanitary, but it is definitely worth checking out the restroom area when you’re in a new place. There are many public places nowadays that offer rocking chairs and changing tables – special areas just for nursing mothers. Take advantage! Baby stores and kid stores usually have superb nursing areas available to moms and they are usually located in or near the restrooms.

Nurse on the Go in a Sling: Many of the baby sling carriers on the market are perfect for discreet nursing. Your baby might not nurse as easily while you are walking from Macy’s to Gymboree, but it’s worth a try. Those slings hold your baby so snugly and close to you, and the material covers any breast that would be exposed, so give it a try. Practice at home and see if your baby is willing to be a flexible eater.

Church: Church can actually be an ideal breastfeeding location. Many bigger, more modern churches offer “cry rooms” or “nursing areas” where nursing moms can watch the service on a screen in a soundproofed room. This is great. Churches that don’t offer areas like that are likely to have many quiet, private rooms, or you can always use the church nursery and feed your baby in the rocking chair there.

Get a Nursing Cover

This is a tricky tidbit because there are a lot of women these days that are strongly opposed to nursing covers. These women are trying to make a difference in our society’s view of breastfeeding – trying to help Americans stop sexualizing the female body. Whether or not you’re one of these women, you won’t find any nursing mother disagree with the idea that it would be nice if our culture viewed breastfeeding as a loving way to nourish your child, rather than an opportunity to sneak a peek at a sexual organ.

It’s interesting that only a generation ago, breastfeeding was not very common. I recently spoke to my husband’s grandma about it, and she said that when she gave birth, the doctors and nurses gave her baby a bottle without even asking if she wanted to breastfeed. They just assumed everyone would bottle feed, because that’s what was “in fashion” back then. But, now, thankfully, society is definitely more open and appreciative to mothers who choose to breastfeed their children. Of course, you can’t escape the fact that America does sexualize the female anatomy, making it tricky.

We know so much more about the countless benefits of a mother’s breast milk now, and that has helped breastfeeding to be more commonplace, but no matter what your stance is, any time a sexual body part is exposed, there are going to be strong opinions.

So, if you’re one who wants to forgo nursing with a cover in order to impact society, then do your thing! You’ve got the legal right. Of course, you can still be polite about it.

Many women are proud nursing mommas who would love to help get the culture more comfortable with public breastfeeding, but still want to be discreet and put others at ease. For this reason, I’d say every mom should at least own a nursing cover. You can feel out a room – get a sense of your surroundings and wear the cover when your circumstances dictate that it might make you and others around you more comfortable.

Nursing covers are also great for those women who just aren’t comfortable whipping them out in public. Everyone’s got their own perspective and personality, and for shyer types, the nursing cover is man’s greatest invention.

The way that nursing covers are designed, you can breastfeed your baby, fully exposed, be sure that there is no blanket or material obstructing your babies nose, and you can see your baby at the same time, while covered up.

Nursing covers also allow you more freedom when it comes to choosing your outfits. When you’re wearing a cover, you don’t need to think about breast exposure as much. You can wear that cute dress you bought, and give your baby access through the top of the dress. No one will notice if you’re wearing a nursing cover.

Any mom looking to feed discreetly should invest in a nursing cover (or two) with the wire section around the top.   Unless someone is standing directly over your head, they won’t see a thing and may not even notice what you’re doing.

Even if you don’t plan on using one, it’s a good thing to keep stashed in the diaper bag, just in case. You never know what situation you might be thrown into. Maybe you’re all about breastfeeding openly, but you might have a day where you just want to put your sunglasses on and be incognito. Covers are good to have for so many reasons, so put it on your registry and stash it way.

Have Confidence

All that being said, if you go into public breastfeeding blindly, you will likely be fumbling around nervously – eyes darting back and forth – wondering who is looking at you, who might be offended, and what they are saying about your public decency or parenting style.

From the moment you become a mother, you’re bombarded with advice, whether it’s wanted or not. Every mom has an opinion and feels very strongly about it and a lot of these moms aren’t shy to give you their two cents. So, if you’ve been a mom for even a few hours, you’re likely already used to constant feedback – whether it be coming from the check-out lady at Target, your mother-in-law, or the highly opinionated blog posts that your friends keep sharing on your Facebook page.

So, given the fact that you will be bombarded with opinions, you need to decide how you feel about public breastfeeding and get a grasp on this sooner than later; in the words of Taylor Swift, “Shake it off.”

Read what you want to read. Ask advice from people you want to listen to. Then, make up your mind, do what you want, and smile politely at people who criticize your decision to breastfeed in public as you let it roll off.

Whether you choose to wear a cover, invest in a nursing wardrobe, or just breastfeed uncovered is up to you, so decide what you want to do and stick to your guns.

Know that you are giving your child the most wonderful gift by choosing to breastfeed, and just because you made that decision, it doesn’t mean you should lock yourself behind a closed door for twelve months.

Just own it – for your sake and for the sake of your child.

Having fears and insecurities won’t help a thing. You know how dogs can smell fear? Well, babies sort of can too. If you aren’t confident in what you’re doing, you’ll likely find that you have a more difficult time getting your baby to latch and stay on. If you’re uncomfortable, even an infant will pick up on that.

On the flip side, if you feel secure with yourself, your decisions, and the wonderful thing you’re doing for your baby, your baby will feel safe and secure as well.

If you’re not really sure where you stand or how you feel about public breastfeeding, there is an abundance of resources. Check out reputable websites like La Leche League, Ask Dr. Sears, Kelly Mom, What to Expect, Baby Center, and of course, SmartMom.

There are countless great sites out there, all supportive of breastfeeding, that come at it from all different sorts of angles. Do your research, decide where you stand, and then you can feel good about your plan going forward.