Do I have to cover up while breastfeeding in public?

Learn more about whether nursing mothers can breastfeed in public, and if so, whether they must cover up.

Question

I am nursing my four-month-old daughter, and I am concerned about breastfeeding in public places, such as shopping malls, parks, or restaurants. Does the law require me to cover up when I breastfeed in public?

Answer

It depends on where you live. Over the past several years, every state has enacted a law that allows nursing mothers to breastfeed in public. However, most of the recent legislation focuses on a woman’s right to breastfeed but doesn’t address whether a mother must cover up while nursing. For example, in New York, the law permits a mother to breastfeed her child in any public or private location. (N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 790e (1994).) While the law is explicit in that you have the right to nurse, whether you must cover up while doing so is up for debate.

Although your rights as a nursing mother vary depending on where you live, a growing trend among states includes adding a provision within the breastfeeding laws to protect women from being prosecuted for other crimes, should they expose a breast while breastfeeding. For example, many states, including Tennessee (Tenn. Code Ann. §68-58-101 et seq. (2006, 2011.)) and South Dakota (S.D. Codified Laws Ann. § 22-24A-2 (2002.)) exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. If you live in one of the 30 states that provide such an exemption, it’s probably a reasonable assumption that the law doesn’t require you to cover up while breastfeeding.

Legal Loopholes

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico permit breastfeeding in public, there’s still much room for improvement. In most states, the current legislation lacks a remedy for nursing mothers who are wrongfully shamed or forced to leave a business. In fact, most of the laws favor business owners, rather than mothers, by keeping the legislation vague and giving power to the owners.

For example, states like Alabama and Ohio allow breastfeeding mothers to nurse in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be present. (Ala. Code § 22-1-13 and Ohio Rev. Code Ann §3781.55 (2005).) But what happens when the mother is no longer welcome at the business? If you’re breastfeeding in a public location, and the owner asks you to cover up, you have the right to refuse. However, if you ignore the owner's request for you to leave the property, you risk being accused of trespassing—a charge that could result in a ticket, fine, or, if it’s not your first offense, jail time.

To avoid the possibility of criminal or civil charges against you, if a business owner asks you to leave the property, it’s best to do so. If you believe that the business owner is discriminating against you, you can follow up with an attorney or letter to the business later. You should research and understand your state laws and look for enforcement provisions that provide a course of action if someone violates your right to breastfeed.

Use Your Resources

Breastfeeding shaming has gained a lot of attention over the last several years. Every time a news story about a nursing mother hits your social media timeline, it’s common for breastfeeding advocacy groups to gather and stand together for nursing mothers’ rights. Many groups provide support and information to mothers who would like to know more about their state laws regarding breastfeeding, which helps women to feel empowered.

If you think a business has violated a state law that permits you to nurse your child in public, you may want to contact a local advocacy group or attorney for advice.

Do What Makes You Comfortable

Every mother has a different comfort level when it comes to breastfeeding in public and confronting discriminatory business owners. If you’re more comfortable covering up while nursing, that’s okay. Some mothers refuse to cover, and that’s acceptable, too.

In a recent news story, a woman was feeding her child in a public place towards the back of the business when the owner asked the women to cover up due to customer complaints. Instead of the mother covering the baby, she put the blanket over her head to make a point. The best advice for any nursing mother is to (1) know what your state allows, and (2) do what makes you comfortable.

If you have additional questions about your state laws, or if you feel like you have experienced discrimination, contact an experienced attorney in your area.

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