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The Breastfeeding Mom's Bill of Rights

A restaurant manager strides over to a mom discreetly nursing her infant at a table and sniffs, "Please go to the rest room to do that." The head of sales hassles a female subordinate about taking breaks to pump milk in the ladies room. Aunt Gladys expresses shock and disapproval that 14-month-old Sam still nurses.

Think these scenarios are rare? Not according to breastfeeding moms all over the country, who tell us they face similar hurdles practically every day. Many of them simply back off in embarrassment and anger, unsure of how to respond. But not anymore. Babytalk is here to tell you that as a breastfeeding mom you have the legal and moral rights to speak up for yourself. Here's the skinny on when and where you can breastfeed and what you can say to anyone who tries to stop you.

The right to breastfeed wherever you are

If you have a right to be somewhere with your baby, you have a right to breastfeed there.

It's the law. Kerry Madden-Lunsford, a Los Angeles writer, was nursing 3-month-old Norah under a turtleneck and sweater in the children's section of a bookstore when a clerk told her, "You can't do that in here." Then a store manager suggested the rest room. "What was I supposed to do?" Madden-Lunsford says. "Leave my two older children alone? Or gather everyone and head to the toilet to nurse?" She chose to leave the store. "I just kept thinking how unfair it was. You just go through such humiliation."

What Madden-Lunsford didn't know at the time was this: "As a rule, if you have a right to be somewhere with your baby, you have a right to breastfeed," says Elizabeth Baldwin, a Florida attorney and La Leche League leader who is a national expert on breastfeeding and the law. According to Baldwin, the rule holds true whether or not your state has a law that protects a woman's right to breastfeed in public. (Almost half of states, including California, have passed such laws; to learn if yours has, check La Leche League Summary of Breastfeeding Legislation

Baldwin says there are a few places, such as courtrooms, where babies aren't allowed, so obviously, women don't have a right to breastfeed there. But in the vast majority of public places  -- such as stores, restaurants, parks, and malls  -- women are legally allowed to breastfeed. While many moms prefer to nurse in a quiet corner, a turned-around chair, or under a blanket, they need not go to great efforts to hide what they're doing.

If someone asks you to leave a public place where you and your baby have a right to be, Baldwin says that you can take action on the spot, perhaps by asking, "Is it okay to give my baby a bottle?" If the answer is yes, the next logical question is, "Then it should be okay to breastfeed, right?" (One mom was more blunt. When asked to take her nursing child into the rest room, she zinged back: "Would you go to the bathroom to eat your lunch?")

If you feel bold, consider reminding the establishment that the law is on your side. Say, "I have a legal right to breastfeed my baby in public. We'll be done in 15 minutes." If the staff still won't budge, you may want to leave and send them a letter later. Battling it out on the spot may not be worth the upset to you and your child.

Madden-Lunsford, who thinks that those who oppose breastfeeding are usually not malicious, just uninformed, took her battle a step further. She went so far as to file a lawsuit against the bookstore, which was later settled. In an encouraging turn of events, the company educated its employees about breastfeeding and even posted notices in store windows saying that breastfeeding moms were welcome.

Katherine Kam is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area.

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