While serving in the military there will come a time in your career when you may need to breastfeed in uniform, such as at a well-baby visit (some clinics/hospitals enforce this rule, others do not), during a lunch break at the CDC or while shopping at the commissary. What are you to do? Can you breastfeed in uniform? Is it allowed? Are there any regulations or policies that define what is permitted? The short answer is that there are no regulations within any of the services that specifically approve or deny a breastfeeding mother from nursing her baby while in uniform.
The various branches of the military all have uniform regulations that state, in one form or another, that military members must present a “neat, clean, professional appearance” and “maintain an image that conforms to military order and discipline”. The uniform regulations also state that having buttons unbuttoned and blouses untucked or rucked up are out-of-uniform and against regulations. Further most uniform regulations also state that there will be no holding of hands, embracing, kissing or other forms of PDA. Reading the regulations and adhering to them in a very strict manner means that breastfeeding in uniform could be construed as being against regs due to the fact that one’s uniform must be unbuttoned/untucked and holding a baby is an embrace or PDA.
You can find the uniform regulations for your branch of service here (ANG and Reserve follow your parent branch):
Air Force AFI 36-2903
Army AR 670-1
Coast Guard COMDTINST M1020.6G
Marine Corps MCO P1020.34
Navy NAVPERS 156651
Because this is such a grey area in terms of what is permissible and what is not, due to the lack of specific regulations regarding breastfeeding in uniform; you may be told by a supervisor that breastfeeding in uniform is not permitted, or that you need to cover up or move to private area, or even that you need carry your breastmilk in bottles to use while in public. You may hear from co-workers rude comments and misinformation about breastfeeding in uniform or worse yet, be reported to your supervisor for a uniform violation. There are a lot of heated opinions on this topic, and breastfeeding in general, so be prepared to get some flack over it. There are a few things to keep in mind if you do decide to breastfeed in uniform:
- While in uniform you must maintain good order and discipline.
- No slings or fancy blankets and no skin showing (as those do make you ‘out of uniform’).
- Practice, practice, practice latching your baby (in front of a mirror while on convalescent leave) so that you can get him latched on as quickly as possible and with as little skin showing as possible.
- When possible wear uniforms that have untucked blouses that can be pulled up from the waist or that unbutton/unzip in the front as they are best for easy access without having to undress completely.
- Wear an undershirt with slits cut-out for nursing under your uniform so that your bare midriff does not show.
- Be matter of fact about breastfeeding and try not to bring attention to yourself (this can be hard with a squirmy, loud baby…or one that pops on and off the breast all the time!).
If you are asked to stop breastfeeding or to move to a more private area, it will be up to you decide whether you are comfortable with telling your superior that you have the right to breastfeed in uniform or backing off and fighting the fight another day. There is no right answer here. In speaking with various legal personnel at different bases, the consensus is that there is no reason that you cannot breastfeed in uniform, since there is no specific regulation forbidding it. You also have the law on your side as most states and the federal government have breastfeeding in public laws on the books (overseas is another story). See this website for a comprehensive, federal and state-by-state breakdown of breastfeeding laws (keep in mind that military law and the UCMJ overrules any state or even federal law).
In addition, it needs to be made clear that while breastfeeding in the military is supported by various instructions and regulations by the different services (except the Army), pumping in uniform is also NOT specifically addressed by the uniform regs. The various instructions that pertain to breastfeeding state that a clean, private designated area is to be provided while on duty for pumping (or breastfeeding if you are lucky enough to bring your baby into work). The Federal law stating that a mother can breastfeed her baby anywhere she is allowed to be does NOT mean that as a uniformed military member you can pump anywhere you want and not have to use the designated space!
Until there are service specific or even a military-wide policy or regulation on breastfeeding in uniform this will continue to be an issue. There have been a number of recent controversies regarding breastfeeding in uniform that you can read about here, here and here.