Are you nursing, or are you planning to breastfeed? Have you ever wondered what to do when your baby gets hungry in public?
Lots of women have struggled with the idea of nursing in public, and have been too embarrassed to ask some of the most common questions. Is it legal? Is it socially acceptable? How can I keep myself covered?
The good news is we’ve got the answers to all your questions, along with tips on how to make public breastfeeding work for you. Read on so you can feel completely confident feeding your baby — no matter where you happen to be.
Things to Know Before Getting Started
Women have varying degrees of comfort around nursing in public. Some are very modest and avoid public breastfeeding at all costs, while others feel completely comfortable nursing anytime, anywhere, uncovered or not.
But regardless of your comfort level, here are some things you need to know before you nurse in public.
Is it Legal to Breastfeed in Public?
All 50 states have legislation protecting a woman’s right to nurse in public, and 30 take it a step further and specifically exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws (1).
The Law Protects You
Is it Better for My Baby to Nurse in Private?
When a baby is hungry, it’s always best to feed them — and if you’re breastfeeding, that means nursing, even if it’s not a convenient time or location. There are, however, some developmental considerations to keep in mind as you’re deciding whether to choose a public or private space.
In the first few months, babies are not easily distracted and will nurse wherever you choose to feed them. However, as babies grow older, their distance vision improves as well as their awareness of their surroundings, and they become easily distracted.
Some older babies will refuse to keep a nursing cover in place, continually pulling it off or playing “peek-a-boo” while eating in order to check out all the action around them. Others may refuse to settle down enough to eat altogether because they are too interested in all that’s going on around them.
While nursing in public is always an acceptable option for those who choose to do so, it’s also important to know your baby and whether they’ll be able to make it through a full feeding if they’re not in a quiet, private space.
Where Can I Breastfeed in Public?
When nursing in public, you can do so wherever you’re comfortable.
There are no real restrictions as most states that offer breastfeeding protections do so for places open to the public. This means, however, that if you are in a private space that is not generally open to the public, your breastfeeding rights may be restricted.
Aside from legalities, it’s important to choose a place where both you and your baby will be comfortable. Some options include:
- Park bench.
- Mall sitting area.
- Fitting room (if you’re shopping and the store has one).
- Restaurant booth or table.
- Corner of the room, which offers more privacy if you are modest.
How Can I Cover Myself?
While covering yourself is not required, some women prefer to do so — either to keep their baby from being distracted, for their own personal modesty, or to prevent the discomfort of others. If you want to cover yourself while breastfeeding, you can do so in a number of ways by using a:
- Nursing cover, shawl or scarf.
- Sling or wrap-type carrier.
- Layered nursing cami and top.
- Burp cloth.
Keep in mind not all babies like to be covered, and may fuss when you try to do so. (Can you imagine trying to eat with a blanket over your head?)
Tips for Breastfeeding in Public
If you think you may be in a situation where you’ll need to breastfeed in public, a few things will make it easier:
- Make sure your diaper bag is well-packed and includes a nursing cover if preferred.
- If you use a nursing cover, make sure the neck opening is at the desired size for ease of use (you’ll need to be able to see your baby latching at least).
- Think about where you’ll be during the day and brainstorm where you may be able to nurse.
- Be aware of your baby’s feeding schedule so you can feed them before they get too hungry and worked up, which can make the process stressful and draw attention to your situation.
- Wear a nursing bra and nursing top to make the act of breastfeeding easier.
- Wear a two-piece outfit – you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re wearing a one-piece dress and cannot easily get to the food source!
How to Use a Nursing Cover
A nursing cover is a product that usually has an adjustable wired neck opening, and a drape of fabric below. The wire keeps the neck hole open enough for mom to peek at their baby while nursing, and the drape covers the baby and offers privacy. Here’s how to use one.
1. Adjust the Neck Opening.
Before nursing or even holding your baby, make sure the neck hole is at your desired opening. You should be able to peek in and see your baby while they’re nursing, but the opening shouldn’t be so wide that it hangs down and allows others to look in.
You can test whether your opening is still providing you coverage by looking into a mirror while you’re wearing it. Do this at home before you leave the house, so when you pull it out of your diaper bag later, you know it’s all set and ready to go.
2. Hold Your Baby Against Your Chest.
When you’re ready to nurse and have your nursing cover handy, pull your baby into a cradle hold with their head facing the breast where you intend to nurse first.
3. Put the Neck Opening Over Your Head.
Put the opening of the nursing cover over your head, and adjust it so it’s off-center and draping down toward the side where you’re planning to nurse.
4. Cover Your Baby.
Use the fabric to cover your baby. The fabric should be across your breasts, the baby’s torso, and around your shoulder in order to ensure adequate privacy and coverage.
5. Unclasp Your Nursing Panels/Nurse Your Baby.
When your baby is finished eating, cover your breast with your bra, tank top or other clothing, and either lift your baby up to burp or switch them to the other side. Adjust the nursing panel’s coverage to the other side and nurse as normal.
6. Switch Sides.
When your baby is finished eating, re-clasp your nursing panels or pull up your shirt. Once you are covered, either lift them up to burp or switch them to the other side.
Adjust the nursing panel’s coverage to the other side and nurse as normal.
How to Use a Nursing Scarf
A nursing scarf is similar to an infinity scarf, only bigger. It can be worn as a fashion piece and transformed into a nursing cover when needed, or you can just keep it in your diaper bag and break it out when it’s feeding time.
1. To Wear It, Make a Figure Eight.
If you plan to wear your nursing scarf throughout the day even while you aren’t nursing, hold opposite ends of the scarf and twist into a figure eight. Bring the ends together so it is an “O” shape with two layers of fabric.
Place it over your head and “fluff” around your neck.
2. To Nurse, Place the Scarf Around Your Neck.
If you are already wearing the scarf, lift one layer of fabric off your neck and back over your head, allowing it to fall in front of your body.
If you are not wearing the scarf, simply place it over your head. It will drape low in the front of you.
3. Slip One Arm Through the Scarf.
Next, choose which side you would like to nurse on first. Slip your opposite arm through the scarf — it should drape across your body like you’re wearing a sash.
4. Bring Your Baby to Your Chest.
Bring your baby to your chest, placing their head underneath the fabric of the scarf. Extend the fabric so it’s smooth and taut against your baby, offering both support and coverage for your nursing session.
5. Nurse Your Baby.
Nurse your baby as usual.
6. Switch Sides.
When you’re done, sit your baby up or hold them in a way that they are not on the scarf and you can move it freely. Move the scarf to the opposite side of your body, and nurse again as usual.
How to Use a Blanket as a Nursing Cover
You may need to nurse in public, but prefer to do so uncovered. This is perfectly acceptable, and legal in every state. And your baby may actually prefer this and feed better without a cover. A nursing cover may also just call attention to the fact that you’re breastfeeding.
1. Tie Opposite Corners of the Blanket Together.
Hold the opposite corners of your blanket to make a triangle shape. Bring the corners together and tie them, creating a loop. This works best for larger blankets.
2. Slip the Opening Over Your Neck.
Slip the opening over your neck, with the knot slightly to the left or right — it should be opposite of the side you plan to nurse on.
3. Bring Your Baby to Your Chest.
Bring your baby to your chest and drape the excess fabric over them, providing privacy and protection.
4. Nurse Your Baby.
Nurse your baby as normal.
5. Switch Sides.
To switch sides, simply move the makeshift nursing cover to the opposite side.
How to Nurse in Public Without a Cover
You may need to nurse in public, but prefer to do so uncovered. This is perfectly acceptable, and legal in 49 states.
However, if you want a little bit of privacy without having to deal with a bulky nursing cover, you can simply place a burp cloth over your baby’s head while nursing. This will provide coverage for you and keep your baby from being distracted.
The Bottom Line
Breastfeeding in public is entirely a matter of personal preference, but if you choose to do so it’s perfectly legal and safe for your baby. To make it go as smooth as possible, though, make sure you’re well-prepared before you leave the house. When it’s time to nurse, you can either:
- Nurse with a nursing cover.
- Breastfeed with a nursing shawl.
- Use a blanket to cover yourself.
- Opt for no coverage.
Do what makes both you — and your baby — the most comfortable. After all, that’s what’s most important.
Have you run into any hiccups with nursing in public? Tell us about them in the comments — then share this with a nursing mama who needs to know.