Maternal Instincts and the Law: Is Nursing an Infant OK Anywhere?

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  • February 8, 2016

Maternal Instincts and the Law: Is Nursing an Infant OK Anywhere?

Nursing children is an important part of being the mother of a newborn child. Breastfeeding bonds the mother and child together during the child’s formative years and provides a number of health benefits to the child. Unfortunately, breastfeeding is subject to social and legal restrictions in certain areas. To balance these restrictions, many states provide mothers with a right to nurse their children in public.

Nursing a Child in Public

Nursing children in public is not lawful in all areas. State laws against public indecency and exposure often encompass acts that include breastfeeding. Fortunately, many states carve out exemptions for breastfeeding. States differ on the subject of breastfeeding rights, but generally fall on the side of the mother and the baby. In 45 states, mothers may nurse their children in any public or private area in which they are otherwise entitled to be.
These state statutes preclude government intervention while nursing. Private property owners retain their rights to exclude individuals from their premises for any reason. There is a stigma in some locations against breastfeeding mothers and business owners who believe that an individual on their property is disturbing other customers with an otherwise lawful act may ask that customer to leave.

Employment and Nursing

States also generally recognize the right of the mother to produce breast milk at work. However, this right is not absolute. California Labor Code § 1030-1033 requires every employer to grant an employee “a reasonable amount of break time” to any employee who wishes to produce breast milk for the employee’s child. Employers must also take reasonable steps to provide those employees with a suitable private area near the employee’s workspace; toilet stalls do not qualify under that section.

Many other states have statutes virtually identical to the California statute. The running theme between the state statutes is that employers only make areasonable effort to provide employees with a room; there is no absolute right to private accommodations such as infant nursing pillows at work. Additionally, employers are not required to pay employees for the time spent producing breast milk unless the employee does so on an otherwise paid break.

Amenities for Mothers

While states generally acknowledge the right of mothers to feed their infants without fear of reprisal from law enforcement, states rarely proceed beyond this point. There is no overall right to have specific amenities present while nursing in the United States. Private businesses are also not normally obligated to provide specific areas for breastfeeding or nursing. Guam requires certain public locations to provide mothers with accommodations for breastfeeding and a few states require childcare facilities to accommodate nursing mothers, but most locales have no such requirements.

However, providing nursing mothers with the amenities necessary to feed their children in comfort can be beneficial to businesses. Catering to nursing mothers opens up a new demographic to business owners, as nursing mothers who might otherwise be unable to work and feed their children without fear of reprisal can become valuable employees. Some states even encourage such features; in Maryland, personal property used for breastfeeding is exempt from the state’s sales and use taxes. Accessing this new market is as simple as equipping a private area such as the women’s restroom with blankets, pillows, and comfortable seating.

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