Breastfeeding in public: What are the laws in Australia?

We've done the digging to find out.
Written by
Alexandra McCarthy
Reviewed by
Last updated on
June 3, 2024
min read
Breastfeeding Laws in Australia | Kin Fertility
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The concept of breastfeeding is simple — it's a way to feed your baby. But, there are other hurdles that come with it.

There's the physical act of learning how to breastfeed, helping your baby latch and dealing with hiccups that can occur along the way — we're talking about bleeding and cracked nipples, blocked milk ducts, painful letdown and mastitis.

Then, there are the emotional and mental factors that can play a role in breastfeeding, especially when you're out and about in public. Breastfeeding in public feels intimidating for many mums and as a result, the process of feeding your baby can feel overwhelming.

In fact, in a survey conducted by Kin Fertility for World Breastfeeding Week, we discovered that 2 in 3 women feel uncomfortable breastfeeding or pumping in public.

This prompted a question: what are the legalities around breastfeeding in public in Australia? Do women breastfeeding have to cover up? Can you breastfeed or pump anywhere? We've done the digging to find out. Let's dive in.

What are the breastfeeding guidelines in Australia?

According to Australian Federal Law, breastfeeding is a right, not a privilege [1]. Under the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984, it's illegal in Australia to discriminate against a person either directly or indirectly on the grounds of breastfeeding. This also includes those who need to express milk by hand or using a pump [2].

Former federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, had the following to say on the issue [1]:

"A mother's right to breastfeed is protected by the federal Sex Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, pregnancy and potential pregnancy. The Act also makes clear that discrimination because a woman is breastfeeding (or expressing) is regarded as sex discrimination because it is clearly a characteristic of women."

Does this mean I can breastfeed everywhere?

In short, yes! You are legally allowed to breastfeed or pump wherever and whenever you need to.

According to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, "the requirements of a baby are different to those of an adult. All mothers have the right to meet their baby's needs. A hungry baby shouldn't be expected to wait, and no mother can be forced to ignore the needs of her baby" [1].

If you happen to be in a park, at the shops or at a cafe, you have the right to breastfeed your baby in these spaces. And, if you're asked by staff members of a cafe or restaurant to move elsewhere in the establishment, you can say no to this request. You're allowed to breastfeed or pump where you're comfortable.

Do I have to cover up while breastfeeding in public?

While many breastfeeding mothers prefer using a muslin cloth or lightweight shawl draped over their baby, this isn't a legal requirement. You're not doing anything wrong by not using a coverup while breastfeeding — it simply comes down to personal choice.

Using a cover while breastfeeding can often make the experience a little less intimidating for mothers who may feel shy about feeding in public. The main thing is that you feel comfortable so whether that's by covering up or going sans muslin cloth, do whatever feels best for you and your baby.

Can someone ask me to stop breastfeeding in public?

This is where things can become a little tricky. For starters, if someone asks you to stop breastfeeding and it results in them denying you a service (if you're breastfeeding at a cafe, for example), then this is classified as discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 [1].

This law makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone in the provision of goods and services, accommodation, financial services, employment, sport or education.

What does this mean, exactly? In plain terms:

  • A person can't be asked to leave a cafe or restaurant for breastfeeding their baby
  • A person can't be refused employment due to breastfeeding
  • A person can't be expelled from an educational institution because they are breastfeeding [3]

According to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, "outside the provisions of the Act, it is dependent on the 'harassment' or 'prohibited conduct' law in your state or territory which may make this illegal in certain circumstances" [1].

And, outside of state and territory laws, there is no real law against a member of the public telling you to stop breastfeeding. Keep in mind that while someone in public may be able to tell you to not breastfeed, you're legally allowed to breastfeed and can continue to do so wherever you are.

So, to summarise: breastfeeding women can feed whenever they need to — no matter what someone else may say.

What should I do if asked not to breastfeed in public?

Critical remarks from members of the public about breastfeeding are, unfortunately, a common experience for many mothers. And, according to our survey, 72% of mothers said that the fear of social commentary is the biggest barrier they face.

If this happens to you, remember that you're not doing anything wrong by feeding your baby in public. You're simply nourishing your child and they are in the wrong by making you feel bad about that.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association recommends responding with something along the lines of: 'We're happy feeding here, thank you' [1].

If you have been discriminated against on the grounds of breastfeeding, you can lodge an enquiry with the Australian Human Rights Commission via phone at 1300 656 419 or email [email protected] [4].

Do I have to use a baby room to breastfeed?

Breastfeeding rooms, or baby rooms, are often provided in places like shopping centres for mothers to use to feed or change their babies. While some breastfeeding mothers prefer to use these rooms for privacy, others prefer to feed whenever they are at the time.

Remember that just because these rooms are available doesn't mean you have to use them — you're still able to breastfeed or pump in public. It's up to you as the breastfeeding mother as to what your preference is here.

According to Kin Fertility's breastfeeding survey, 94% of respondents said they would use designated safe spaces to feed if they existed. And, this is where we come in. We're encouraging businesses to become a BFF (BreastFeeding Friendly!) space for parents to feel safe and comfortable when it comes to feeding their babies.

We're calling upon you to pledge your BFF business! Display a window decal to welcome breastfeeding or pumping mums into your judgement-free space. Let your community know you're a BFF space with our downloadable social media templates. Want more information? Learn all about Kin's BreastFeeding Friendly campaign here.

The more we encourage people to feed or pump in public, the closer we come to normalising breastfeeding. Nursing mothers should be made to feel supported and that's our goal. Ready to join the campaign? Consider sending it to your favourite local business so they can join.

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