Public Breastfeeding: More Than a Right

Woman Breastfeeding Her DaughterWhile browsing the internet today, I came across a post about public breastfeeding in which a group of breastfeeding mothers staged a nurse-in to protest a lifeguard at a park demanding that the mothers cover up. Ditching any and all breastfeeding covers, these nursing mothers gathered to nurse opening right next to the lifeguard station. As a mom-to-be who is a proponent of both private and public breastfeeding, I was outraged that a complete stranger (or anyone really) who chastise a nursing mother who was feeding her child in the only natural way. I was even more perturbed by a comment posted to the post that claimed that a mother who breastfeeds in public without breastfeeding covers is creating an issue and trying to make a statement. All this hubbub got me thinking about my own plans to breastfeed.

Public breastfeeding anytime anywhere is completely legal in the United States. By federal law, a breastfeeding mother can feed her baby anywhere that a mother and child is allowed to be. Unless this park plans to prohibit mothers and babies from entering, then these mothers can and should continue public breastfeeding there when their babies are hungry. Because breastfeeding mothers are exempt from indecent exposure laws (which is a whole other can of worms), a mother who chooses public breastfeeding is not required to use any sort of breastfeeding covers. So, for the abovementioned lifeguard or anyone else to demand that a mother stop breastfeeding uncovered in public goes against the actual law. These mothers who staged the nurse-in were completely within their rights to continue nursing in the open at the park. Knowing the laws concerning public breastfeeding affirms my conviction to breastfeed my own baby.

Now, what about the mother who believes uncovered public breastfeeding is just a way to make a statement? I completely disagree. The human breast is in no way obscene. A breastfeeding baby is also in no way obscene. If this mother wants to argue for mandatory breastfeeding covers during public breastfeeding, then I want to argue for covers for other types of public consumption. That child chewing with his mouth open: Throw a cover over him. That adult chewing with her mouth open: Scold her for her lack of manners and then throw a cover over him. Those college students getting drunk and stupid: Throw a cover over them. That couple shoveling unhealthy food down their throats: Throw a cover over them. That baby noisily sucking on a bottle: Throw a cover over it. Breastfeeding is as natural as other forms of eating and drinking. If breastfeeding offends, then other acts of consumption anyone finds offensive should also be covered up.

There will be no routine breastfeeding covers for me while I am out public breastfeeding. (The only time I would cover up would be when I am feeling chilly, which would be a result of a temperature problem, not a public breastfeeding problem.) My decision has not been made as a way to make a statement. The only statement I will be making is that my child is hungry so I am feeding my child. Breastfeeding is completely natural. Public breastfeeding is not a crime (against the law or nature). At worst, public breastfeeding without breastfeeding covers should be tolerated. At best, all forms of public breastfeeding should be encouraged. I am not trying to create an issue; those who find breastfeeding somehow offensive or repulsive are. If my baby is hungry, you can bet I will choose public breastfeeding. If someone has a problem with the way I feed my child, well, walk away.

Update: I breastfed my daughter well past the recommended six month and one year marks. I even continued to breastfeed her as a toddler. Throughout our continuing breastfeeding relationship, I have often nursed my daughter in public. I never use a cover. And I fortunately (and I say fortunately for the other person) have never been told to cover up, go somewhere else, or stop breastfeeding in public.

Originally written on July 14, 2010

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Woman Breastfeeding Her Daughter:

Heather Johnson

Heather Johnson is a mother, wife, writer, librarian, and linguist. She earned a BA in English studies with a minor in creative writing from Illinois State University in May 2007, an MS in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2009, and an MS in English studies with an emphasis in linguistics at Illinois State University in December 2011.

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