Why is breastfeeding not socially acceptable?

Breastfeeding in public continues to be a controversial issue in many parts of the world. While health experts recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months of a baby’s life, many nursing mothers face scrutiny when they breastfeed their babies in public places. This results in some women feeling ashamed or judged for feeding their child in the way nature intended.

Breastfeeding Statistics

According to the CDC, about 84% of babies in the US start out being breastfed. However, only 25% are exclusively breastfed for the recommended 6 months. By the time babies are 1 year old, only 35% are still breastfeeding at all. This sharp decline suggests that many mothers who want to breastfeed are unable to continue as long as recommended.

The top reasons mothers cite for stopping breastfeeding include:

  • Baby had trouble latching or nursing
  • Breast milk alone didn’t satisfy baby
  • Painful breasts or nipples
  • Didn’t have enough milk
  • Felt it took too much time and effort
  • Wanted my body back to myself
  • Felt embarrassed breastfeeding in public

As you can see, feeling embarrassed to nurse in public places is a significant factor that prevents women from reaching their own breastfeeding goals.

Benefits of Breastfeeding

Medical professionals overwhelmingly recommend breastfeeding as the healthiest option for both mothers and babies. The AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about the first 6 months of a baby’s life, with continued breastfeeding along with solids for at least the first year and longer if desired.

For babies, breastfeeding provides complete nutrition specially adapted to an infant’s needs. The antibodies passed through breastmilk help protect babies from illness. Studies show breastfed babies have reduced risks of:

  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Ear and respiratory infections
  • Gastrointestinal infections
  • SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)

For mothers, breastfeeding releases oxytocin and prolactin to help the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy state. Making milk burns extra calories to help with postpartum weight loss. Breastfeeding may also reduce risks of:

  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Postpartum depression

As you can see, medical consensus confirms breast milk provides optimal nutrition and immune protection for infants compared to formula. Breastfeeding also provides lifelong health benefits for both mothers and babies.

Public Breastfeeding Stigma

Given the known benefits, why does stigma against public breastfeeding persist? Some of the common reasons include:

  • Sexualization of breasts – Breasts are often viewed primarily for sex appeal rather than for their biological function of feeding babies.
  • Formula marketing – For many years, formula companies advertised their products as equal or superior to breast milk, contributing to lower breastfeeding rates.
  • Discomfort with breast exposure – Some people oppose seeing any part of a woman’s breast in public settings.
  • Traditional gender roles – Breastfeeding may be viewed as forcing women into a maternal role instead of participating equally in the workplace.

Stigma seems to persist even as breastfeeding rates increase. Nursing women still report receiving criticism and negative comments when feeding their babies in public places like restaurants, stores, parks, public transit, and more.

Public Breastfeeding Laws

Currently 49 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands have laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location. However, no federal law protects public breastfeeding on a national level.

Here are some examples of state-level laws supporting breastfeeding mothers:

  • California – Mothers may breastfeed in any location, public or private, where they are otherwise authorized to be.
  • New York – Breastfeeding is permitted in all public places and no person shall interfere with a mother breastfeeding her child.
  • Oregon – Women are allowed to breastfeed in a public place or any place the mother and child are authorized to be.
  • Texas – Mothers have the right to breastfeed anywhere the mother is authorized to be.

Despite laws protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, many mothers still report being asked to cover up, move to a bathroom or private area, or leave establishments when nursing. Public breastfeeding rights do not always translate into acceptance in practice.

Tips for Public Breastfeeding

If you want to breastfeed your baby while out in public, here are some tips to help you feel comfortable and confident:

  • Know your rights. Be familiar with the laws in your state so you can stand your ground if needed.
  • Breastfeed anytime, anywhere your baby is hungry. Don’t feel like you have to hide away.
  • Use a nursing cover if it helps you feel less anxious.
  • Practice nursing in front of a mirror or supportive friends to build confidence.
  • Find comfortable seating in a restaurant or cafe. Many hostesses will accommodate if asked.
  • Use a baby carrier or sling to help discreetly support your baby while nursing.
  • Nurse before going out to minimize need to feed in public.
  • Don’t cover your baby’s head/face – this can interfere with feeding and breathing.

Having a few handy tips can help make public breastfeeding feel much easier. But most importantly, know that you have every right to feed your child wherever you may be.

Dealing with Criticism

No mother deserves to be shamed for nourishing her baby in the most natural way possible. Unfortunately, nursing women still deal with harsh criticism and negative comments simply for feeding their infants. Here are some tips on dealing with public breastfeeding criticism:

  • Stay calm. Arguing or reacting emotionally may escalate the situation.
  • Politely share information about the laws protecting your right to breastfeed in public.
  • Educate them on the health benefits of breastfeeding if they seem open to it.
  • Ignore any negative remarks and tend lovingly to your baby’s needs.
  • Report businesses to the state health department if your rights are violated.
  • Advocate for cultural change by writing letters to businesses, lawmakers, media outlets, etc explaining why breastfeeding should be accepted.

With patience and persistence, public attitudes can change for the better over time. Nursing mothers have already made great strides thanks to advocacy and education.

Breastfeeding Support Groups

Connecting with other breastfeeding mothers can provide community, comfort, and practical tips on nursing in public. Here are some breastfeeding support organizations:

  • La Leche League – International group that offers mother-to-mother breastfeeding support both online and through local chapters in communities.
  • Human Milk 4 Human Babies – Network connecting moms with extra breastmilk to donate with mothers needing milk for their babies.
  • Moms Pump Here – Group dedicated to advocating for clean, accessible space for pumping and nursing in public places.
  • Black Breastfeeding Week – Annual awareness campaign highlighting the unique cultural and institutional barriers facing African American nursing mothers.

Many hospitals, parenting groups, and health agencies also provide lactation support groups. Connecting with other moms who share your experiences can provide solidarity and solutions.

Making Progress

Despite continuing challenges, public breastfeeding rights have made big strides in recent decades. As recently as the 1950s, breastfeeding rates had hit an all-time low of about 25% in the US. Thanks to advocacy campaigns like La Leche League and increased public awareness, initiation of breastfeeding is now over 80% nationwide.

Businesses are also starting to support nursing mothers by designating breastfeeding-friendly spaces, providing nursing rooms for employees, and training staff on accommodating breastfeeding customers. There is still plenty of room for progress, but societal attitudes are gradually shifting.


Breastfeeding provides unmatched health benefits for both babies and mothers. However, outdated cultural attitudes and misinformation still discourage women from nursing in public. Stigma remains, despite laws in almost all states protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed anywhere she has a right to be.

By learning about their rights, gaining confidence, and finding community, mothers can feel empowered to breastfeed their babies when out in public. With more nursing mothers visible in society, increased advocacy, and education, hopefully shame against public breastfeeding will disappear. Society needs to adjust to support women in meeting the health needs of their children.

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