Do We Need a Breastfeeding Law?
by Felicia Henry

Felicia Henry is a mother of three children Justin (8), Amanda (5), and Jacob (8 months) and a La Leche League Leader in Oxnard. See the resource page for a Leader near you or call La Leche League International’s Breastfeeding Help line number at 1-900-448-7475 ext. 55 where recorded information is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week ($1.99 per minute, average call 5 minutes).

Recently the California Legislature passed a bill (AB 157) that more clearly explains the authorization of a mother to breastfeed in public. This is much like a bill that was defeated a couple of years ago. One question is, “Do we need a law to make breastfeeding in public legal?”
Breastfeeding in public has never been illegal. In fact, the laws concerning indecent exposure have always excluded breastfeeding. This means that if a woman exposes her breast in public it is considered indecent exposure; however, if her breast is exposed when she is breastfeeding her baby, it is not. So if breastfeeding in public is not illegal, even if a mother’s breast is exposed, why do we need a law?

The text of Bill AB 157 itself states, “Outdated moral taboos and ignorance of the benefits of breastfeeding lead to cultural hostility which acts as a barrier to a new mother’s decision to breastfeed because she fears embarrassment, social ostracism, or criminal prosecution.” On occasion, a mother has been asked to leave a store or restaurant when nursing her baby, most often because someone was uncomfortable with the idea. Most of these women were very discreet when nursing their babies, so exposing themselves was not the issue. Many also later discovered that there was no rule against breastfeeding in that particular establishment; it was just one employee who was not comfortable with seeing a mother breastfeed. As any mother knows, when you have a hungry baby, the baby needs to eat no matter where you are. This applies no matter how a child is fed, and mothers who bottle-feed have never been asked to leave under the same circumstances.

Bill AB 157 states that a woman has the right to breastfeed her baby anyplace she and her child are legally allowed to be, meaning if she and her child are authorized to be there (for example, in a mall) then it is okay to breastfeed there. This law (and California is following other states that have passed such laws) is one of the first steps in having breastfeeding become the cultural norm in our society.

Many women have never seen another mother nursing her baby and may feel they are the only one. With this law to protect breastfeeding women comes the hope that more mothers will feel comfortable nursing their babies in public, and new mothers will know they are not alone. Perhaps more children will grow up seeing breastfeeding babies and when they become parents the idea of breastfeeding will seem like the natural choice.

This is the second time that California has tried to pass this bill. What was the opposition behind it the first time? Many legislators felt that since it was not illegal to breastfeed in public, the law was unnecessary. Some felt that allowing breastfeeding in public would mean that women would be exposing themselves. Others feared that infants would suddenly be placed in dangerous situations. Are any of these concerns reason not to have such a law?

Since some women were asked to leave places (or go into a bathroom) when nursing, it seems evident that some members of the general public did not know that breastfeeding is not considered indecent exposure. A law that clarifies this is valuable and can help make a nursing mother feel more at ease when her baby cries in hunger. She now knows the law is behind her decision to nurse her baby and recognizes it is not a lifestyle choice but a health choice.

Since nursing mothers are usually discreet, the concern about rampant breast exposure is also unfounded. When most nursing mothers feed their babies in public, others around them usually cannot tell. In most cases, it just looks like the mother is holding her baby close.

Finally, a law allowing breastfeeding in public doesn’t mean that babies will be put in danger. Parents will still balance their need to be somewhere with the safety and well-being of their children. The law just eliminates any barrier to feeding the baby when a family is out in public, and that is a right every baby deserves.