Is Public Breastfeeding Legal?

Can Mommy be arrested for nursing in public?

Adam Freedman
4-minute read

Today's article answers the question: Is public breastfeeding legal?

First, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Is Public Breastfeeding Legal?

As far as the legalities go, the short answer is that a mother’s right to breastfeed in public varies from state to state--some states have strong laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public, but in others, public breastfeeding exists in a kind of legal limbo -- neither prohibited nor protected.

Is Breastfeeding Illegal in Any State?

The good news is that no state prohibits breastfeeding in public.   According to experts, only two states put any restriction on public breastfeeding. In Missouri, the law requires that mothers nurse “as discreetly as possible” when doing so in public. Under Illinois law, although generally very supportive of nursing mothers, a mother considering breastfeeding her baby in a place of worship must “comport her behavior with the norms appropriate in that place of worship.”

You Have Rights . . .

Some states take a more affirmative approach -- guaranteeing a mother’s right to breastfeed in any place where the mother is authorized to be. Likewise, federal law protects a woman’s right to breastfeed her child at any location in a federal building or on federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location. So if you find yourself in a state that isn’t friendly to nursing mothers, one solution might be to write somebody a letter and then get in line at the post office. If it’s anything like my post office, you’ll probably not only have enough time to feed your baby, but to burp and change him or her as well.

. . . But You May Not Have a Remedy

The state and federal breastfeeding laws certainly look good on paper -- the problem is that most of the state laws, as well as the federal law, do not include any enforcement mechanism. In other words, the mother has no guaranteed right to sue a person who interferes with her right to nurse in public. As a practical matter, that sometimes leaves mommies vulnerable to the whims of property owners. 

The state and federal breastfeeding laws certainly look good on paper -- the problem is that most of the state laws, as well as the federal law, do not include any enforcement mechanism.

In Maryland, for example, even though state law provides for a mother’s right to nurse in public, the branch of a popular coffee chain tried to stop a female customer from giving her baby a latte, as it were, the old-fashioned way -- the employees even suggested that she go inside the restroom to feed her infant. Now, I can’t speak for any baby, but I personally don’t find your average toilet facility to be a conducive place to eat.

The Best States Offer a Remedy

For mothers who need to lactate out in the open, the best states are those that not only provide a clear right to breastfeed, but which also give mothers a remedy when that right is violated.   In Vermont, for example, a woman whose right to breastfeed has been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the human rights commission, or bring a lawsuit for money damages or injunctive relief.   The offending party may even have to pay the mother’s legal fees!

Not Indecent Exposure

On the other end of the spectrum, the weakest form of legal protection is found in those states with laws that exempt breastfeeding from laws prohibiting indecent exposure or similar sexual offenses. For most mothers, such laws offer little comfort, since they seem to provide immunity from laws that they didn’t for one minute think they were violating. Fortunately, it is very rare for a woman to be charged or prosecuted for indecent exposure based on breastfeeding.

Can Breastfeeding Be Considered Trespassing?

The bigger problem in states with no explicit right to breastfeed is that private property owners -- say, the folks who own the local mall, restaurant, or café --might ask a mother to stop breastfeeding at that location. If the mother refuses, the manager could ask her to leave -- and if she refuses that demand, it is possible that she could face civil or criminal liability for trespassing.

Get to Know the Breastfeeding Laws in Your State

For women who want to protect their right to breastfeed their child, the first thing is to get to know the laws in your state -- and be prepared to cite chapter-and-verse to anyone who tries to interfere. Consult a lawyer -- or an advocacy group such as La Leche League.

Likewise, if you’re a property owner, you also need to be familiar with public breastfeeding laws so that you don’t inadvertently violate a mother’s right. If you’re in a state that does not guarantee the right to nurse in public, you may be legally entitled to request that a woman feed her child discreetly, but you should do so very diplomatically, to avoid potential liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Not to mention, it’s good manners – but I’ll let Modern Manners Guy address that. Finally, employers also need to know the laws in this area, since some states require employers to make reasonable accommodations for nursing mothers.

Thank you for reading. You can find out more about breastfeeding from my fellow QDT hosts: Mighty Mommy, Nutrition Diva, and the House Call Doctor

You can send questions and comments to legal@quickanddirtytips.com.  Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this podcast only.


About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).