Do I have to cover up while breastfeeding in public?

Find out how the law applies to breastfeeding in public, whether you have to cover up when nursing your baby, and what to do if you're asked to leave.

By , Attorney (Tulane Law School)

Millions of women in the United States breastfeed their children each year, and experts agree that breastfeeding has many benefits for infant health and nutrition. Even so, mothers who breastfeed in public places are sometimes shamed or accused of breaking the law. If you're a nursing mother, learn about your legal rights when breastfeeding in public and what to do if you're asked to leave or cover up.

Is It Illegal to Breastfeed in Public?

Generally, no. All 50 states (plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) have laws that specifically allow breastfeeding in public places. Many states, including Florida, allow breastfeeding in "any location, public or private" where the mother is otherwise authorized to be. (Fla. Stat. § 383.015 (2022).) The law in California is similar, except that there's no legal right to breastfeed in a private residence. (Cal. Civ. Code § 43.3 (2022).) Ohio is one of several states that allow breastfeeding in "places of public accommodation," which generally includes hotels, restaurants, stores, movie theaters, airports, train stations, and other facilities that are open to the public. (Ohio Rev. Code §§ 3781.55; 4112.01 (2022).)

A few states include special limitations in their breastfeeding laws. For instance, in Illinois, a mother may breastfeed in a church or other place of worship if she "comports her behavior with the norms appropriate in that place of worship." (740 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 137/10 (2022).) In Missouri, a mother may breastfeed in any public or private location, if she acts "with discretion." (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 191.918 (2022).) However, the trend is to get rid of these limitations. For instance, North Dakota's laws were amended in 2021 to remove the previous restriction that women act "in a discreet and modest manner" when breastfeeding in public. (2021 N.D. Laws, ch. 203, amending N.D. Cent. Code §§ 23-12-16, 12.1-20-12.1) (2022).)

Breastfeeding and Public Indecency Laws

Most states have laws against public nudity and indecent exposure, but these laws usually don't apply to breastfeeding. In fact, over 30 states specifically exempt breastfeeding from public nudity or indecency laws. For example, breastfeeding a baby in Florida is never considered "sexual conduct," "obscene," or "harmful to minors" for criminal law purposes. (Fla. Stat. § 847.001 (2022).) Many states' laws also clarify that breastfeeding in public is legal whether or not the mother's nipple is uncovered while she's breastfeeding. (N.Y. Civ. Rights Law § 79-e (2022); 740 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 137/10 (2022).)

Not all states include a breastfeeding exemption in their public nudity or indecency laws. Even so, it's unlikely that law enforcement would issue a citation or try to prosecute a mother for breastfeeding in public, and even more unlikely that a judge would uphold it. If you have a particular concern, an experienced lawyer can help you understand the laws that apply in your state.

Lactation Rooms in Public Buildings

An increasing number of public buildings have started to install lactation rooms, which may be used for breastfeeding or pumping breastmilk. In fact, a federal law called the "Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act" now requires certain public buildings, including federal courthouses and post offices, to offer a private, hygienic space for members of the public to express breastmilk. (40 U.S.C. § 3318 (2022).)

Several states, including New York and Louisiana, also have laws requiring lactation spaces in certain public buildings owned or operated by the state. (N.Y. Pub. Build. Law § 144 (2022); La. Rev. Stat. § 49:148.4.1 (2022).)

Is Denying the Right to Breastfeed a Form of Discrimination?

The federal government and many states have antidiscrimination laws that protect lactation and breastfeeding in the workplace. But those protections generally don't apply to breastfeeding in public places. A few states have laws that make denying the right to breastfeed in public an illegal form of discrimination.

The methods for enforcing these laws (if any) vary by state. In New Jersey, a person who restricts the right to breastfeed in a public facility may be fined by the local health board. (N.J. Rev. Stat. § 26 :4B-5 (2022).) Under Connecticut law, denying the right to breastfeed in public is a misdemeanor, subject to fines or jail time. (Conn. Gen. Stat. 46A-64 (2022).) A few other states, including Michigan, specifically grant mothers the right to sue the owner or operator of a public facility for breastfeeding discrimination. (Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 37.231-37.233 (2022).)

What If You're Asked to Leave for Breastfeeding in Public?

It's generally not illegal to breastfeed in public in the United States, so in most cases you have a right to stay and feed your child. However, there are some exceptions, and unfortunately other people aren't always informed about the laws that protect your right to breastfeed. If a business owner insists that you cover up or leave their establishment, the wisest choice might be to leave and speak with a lawyer to find out if you have any recourse. Depending on the laws in your state, you might be able to file a complaint or sue the business for discrimination.

You can find information about the health benefits of breastmilk and the rights of lactating mothers on the websites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding advocacy groups like La Leche League International also offer online and in-person resources.

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