Breastfeeding in public: what’s the UK law?

Expert legal advice on what you're allowed to do when breastfeeding in public places, plus how to do it discreetly and great retorts to negative comments

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In a nutshell: In the UK, it’s unlawful for a business (such as a cafe or sports centre) to discriminate against a woman who is breastfeeding a child of any age, and you can breastfeed in any public space, such as a park.

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The only time it’s OK to stop a woman breastfeeding in a public place is if it’s:

  • somewhere considered to have a legitimate health or safety risk (for example, where there is a chemical hazard)
  • somewhere that offers service to men only, as long as they’re acting lawfully in excluding women (scenarios would include a religious setting).

Additionally, in Scotland, it’s a criminal act to try to stop a woman breastfeeding a child under 2 in public

We do that know that when you breastfeed in public, there’s (sadly) still a chance that some people are going to stare, tut or even voice their disapproval. It’s not much fun at the best of times but can be positively weep-worthy when you’re tired, hormonal and struggling to get your baby to latch on.

The key thing to remember is that you’re not doing anything wrong. So, next time your baby pulls that ‘Wah! I’m hungry!’ face in public, remember these legal rights of yours – and feed proud.

Breastfeeding in public: the need-to-know legal stuff

In England and Wales, your right to breastfeed in public is covered by The Equality Act 2010 which states, “A business cannot discriminate against mothers who are breastfeeding a child of any age.”

This means:

  • as mentioned, it’s unlawful for the owners or staff of a business, such as a café, shop or leisure centre, to ask you (and anyone with you) to leave their premises because you are breastfeeding a child
  • it’s unlawful for the owners or staff of a business to refuse to serve you because you are breastfeeding a baby
  • you’re quite within your rights to breastfeed in public open spaces, including parks and high-street benches, and on public transport, including buses and trains. You’re also protected in hospitals, theatres, cinemas and petrol stations.

What’s more, businesses in England and Wales must also:

  • make sure any woman they’re providing services to – whether that’s a cup of coffee or a cinema screening – is allowed to breastfeed on their premises if she wants to
  • make sure that mums are not discriminated against, harassed or victimised because they are breastfeeding a baby
  • make sure employees have training, so that they are aware of the protection from discrimination given to breastfeeding mothers under the law.

In Scotland, breastfeeding mothers are covered by an additional piece of legislation called The Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005, which makes it a criminal offence to try to stop or prevent a woman breastfeeding a baby in a public place. That means that anyone who tries to stop or prevent a person feeding milk to a child under the age of 2 years could be prosecuted.

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Incidentally, the Scottish act also covers bottle-feeding, saying: “These mothers, or indeed any adult, should be given the same level of support and respect as breastfeeding mothers by offering to warm the milk if you have the capacity to do this.” Hurrah for that!

Is there anywhere I can’t breastfeed?

Yes. as we said at the beginning, it’s not against the law to stop a woman breastfeeding in a public if there’s a legitimate health-and-safety risk (you’re feeding your baby next to a vat of hazardous chemicals, for example) or  in a place that is providing a service just for men – as long as the organisation is acting lawfully by excluding women.

With regards to this last one, we’re talking here about somewhere such as an area within a religious organisation that’s reserved only for men, for example – and, let’s be honest, that’s unlikely to be the kind of spot many mums would pick for a quick breastfeed.

How to breastfeed in public – without losing your cool

Now you know you that you absolutely have the right to breastfeed in public, you need to think about how you’re going to do it. You don’t have to use a cover if you don’t want to – that’s totally your choice.

But we’ve got some tips from mums who preferred to breastfeed with the help of a specially designed top, or using a muslin, which you might find handy if that’s how you think you might want to do it.

Mums’ tips for breastfeeding in public:

  • Dress clever. Wear a top that can be ‘accessed’ discreetly. Jumpers and T-shirts are usually your best bet: you can just hitch them up a little on one side. Dresses and button-down-the-middle shirts are best avoided – or you risk exposing flesh in all directions.
  • Case the joint. Where’s the best place to sit and feed? Some department stores do actually have a mum-and-baby areas just for breastfeeding. Otherwise, see if you can find somewhere a little bit off the beaten track, where your baby’s less likely to ‘pop off’ the breast every 5 seconds for a look around and where you can feed quietly without fear of being accused of ‘flaunting’ yourself for all to see.
  • Use a muslin. Before you start, tuck a muslin cloth under your baby’s chin and open it out over her front. Once she’s latched on, you can drape the corner of the muslin over any bits of you that need a bit of extra cover.

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How to handle comments when you’re breastfeeding in public

As lovely as it is that we have a right to breastfeed in public without being hassled, it doesn’t mean every café owner, security guard or passing member of the public is aware of the law.

Most of the time, the best policy is just to ignore any raised eyebrows or stares but, should anyone actually become bothersome, here are a few handy phrases to have up your sleeve…

  • If a cafe/shop employee tries to stop you breastfeeding: ‘Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to breastfeed here. Can I speak to your manager?’
  • If someone suggests you should breastfeed in the toilets instead: ‘I’m fine here, thank you. It’s a bit cleaner, isn’t it?’
  • If someone says what you’re doing is obscene/disgusting/improper: ‘Only if someone is watching’ – accompanied by the sweetest of smiles.
  • If someone says you should wait till you get home: ‘Would you prefer my baby to be screaming? She’s human and hungry, and I won’t be long.’
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