Breastfeeding at Municipal Pools In Canada - A Report From the Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton

Originally posted on our BACE Facebook Page on August 29, 2011

The purpose of this report is to express our concerns regarding the treatment of women nursing their children at municipal pools in Canada, and to call for changes to this situation.  View the document.

Prepared on behalf of the Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton
By Barb Strange, BSc, RN, BN, LLB, IBCLC
(International Board Certified Lactation Consultant)
With the generous assistance of Jodine Chase and Bruce Ziff

Executive Summary 

“Breastfeeding Incidents”

Women breastfeeding their children in public places often feel uncomfortable doing so, for a variety of reasons.  There is evidence that mothers breastfeeding in public have on occasion been treated in disrespectful and even humiliating ways.  The places where this seems most likely to happen are restaurants, malls, and especially swimming pools.

The Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE) was organized in the summer of 2001 as a response to a number of “breastfeeding incidents” at a municipal pool in Edmonton, in which women breastfeeding had  been asked to exit the water, or cover up, or move to a change room.  In each case, the experience was very embarrassing and upsetting for the mothers involved.

The purpose of this report is to express our concerns regarding the treatment of women nursing their children at municipal pools in Canada, and to call for changes to this situation.

Pools Surveyed

In July of 2001 and July/August 2002, BACE carried out an informal survey by email of municipal pools in other Canadian cities, asking what policies they had, if any, regarding breastfeeding at their pools.  Many pool administrators indicated that breastfeeding was “allowed” or “not a problem” on the one hand, but went on to stipulate that it needed to occur, or did in fact occur, under conditions of “discretion”, such as using a towel to cover the woman’s breast and child’s head, or going to a change room.  These actions were even more likely to be recommended if another pool patron had complained about seeing a woman breastfeed.

At many pools, breastfeeding while the mother is standing or sitting partially immersed in the water is either not permitted or is discouraged.  Reasons for this are not always given, but when they are,

  •  “No food or drink in the pool” rules are cited, or more generally, rules to prevent the contamination of pool water with debris or bodily fluids (such as breastmilk) are put forward;
  • A few administrators mentioned the possibility that the child might spit up or vomit into the water;
  • One pool’s policy mentioned the risk of the baby having a bowel movement in the water; and
  • One pool raised concerns for the health of the breastfeeding child should she ingest pool water.

Breastfeeding in the Water No Cause for Concern

Breastfeeding in swimming pools is no cause for concern because:

  • When a woman breastfeeds in a swimming pool, the public is not endangered by her breastmilk, even if some of it gets into the pool;
  • Breastfeeding babies are no more likely than artificially fed (formula-fed) babies to spit up or have bowel movements in swimming pools and should not be treated any differently;
  • A breastfeeding child is not any more likely to ingest pool water than an artificially fed baby enjoying the water with an adult; and
  • Ingestion of small amounts of pool water by babies, however fed, occurs frequently, and while less than desirable, does not generally result in illness.

A breastfeeding child’s health is endangered, however, by supplementing with artificial infant milk (formula) and by premature weaning, which can be the result of a cultural milieu hostile to the needs of breastfeeding women and their children 

Discomfort with Breastfeeding in Public

It is important to note the number and variety of conditions given by pool managers under which breastfeeding can or should take place at their facilities.  What may actually underlie this is not how dangerous or offensive breastfeeding at (or in) swimming pools is, but rather the discomfort that many people feel regarding breastfeeding in public, as well as society’s confusion about the anatomical purpose of breasts – that is, to feed and comfort our young.

When women feel they need to be ultra-vigilant about being discreet while breastfeeding, rather than focusing on the needs of their children in the moment, they are less likely to breastfeed outside their homes and for as long as they would like or as is recommended by health professionals.  Since there are economic, health, social and emotional costs to not breastfeeding, women, children, and society suffer as a result.


In light of the problems which mothers have experienced breastfeeding their children in public, BACE makes the following recommendations –

We call on pool administrators to:

  • withdraw any unwelcoming policies that presently exist and replace them with truly breastfeeding-friendly ones;
  • communicate these new policies to pool staff, nursing mothers and all users of the facilities;
  • install signs, literature and, where possible, web messages indicating that breastfeeding mothers are welcome in their facilities; and
  • educate pool staff as to the importance and normalcy of breastfeeding, the hesitancy with which some mothers venture out in public to breastfeed, the embarrassment it causes them to be asked to move or stop, and the resolution of complaints about breastfeeding in a manner sensitive to breastfeeding mothers, consistent with their legal rights,  and that do not involve her in the discussion. 

In particular, there should be no suggestion or requirement, written or otherwise, that a breastfeeding mother be “discreet”.

We encourage municipalities to ensure that all users of their public facilities, particularly pools, know that these facilities endorse a policy of  “Breastfeeding Friendly – Anytime. Anywhere” and “Breastfeeding Mothers Welcome Here”.  We also call on cities to enact breastfeeding-friendly bylaws and provinces to enact human rights provisions explicitly protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public.

We call on human rights commissions, Canada Health, and provincial public health services to launch campaigns promoting awareness of breastfeeding women’s rights and needs.  We call on Canada to uphold its commitments under international law to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding.

Taking the measures outlined would be bold steps forward and will create a culture where breastfeeding is seen as the normal, natural method of feeding an infant.  Once breastfeeding becomes more visible, it will start to be seen as both usual and ordinary and fewer people will see it as strange or offensive.  As society changes and more women start to breastfeed wherever they happen to be, the expression “breastfeeding in public” will cease to be meaningful.  Women, it will be observed, are simply feeding their babies.

Full report at

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