The Fight for the Right to Breastfeed in Public

“It’s just pure love.”

Austin-based birth, breastfeeding and boudoir photographer Sabrena Rexing lights up as she describes the moment a mother nurses her child through breastfeeding. “I think that comes across in breastfeeding photography; not just making a statement about doing it in public but showing the love between a mother and a child.”

Photographer Sabrena Rexing takes pictures of Jenny Dorsey nursing her son Trace.

Austin-based birth, breastfeeding and boudoir photographer photographs Jenny Dorsey nursing her son Trace.

As a birth photographer, Rexing documents moments of early parenthood, ranging from the birth of an infant to the everyday, intimate experiences breastfeeding mothers have with their children.

“Some of our society views breastfeeding as something that should be done in private. It’s something that should only be done in the home or to be done with a cover,” Rexing said. “Women should be able to breastfeed wherever and whenever their child needs it.”

Rexing began photographing breastfeeding mothers six years ago when a mom took a break from a family photo session to nurse her child. Moved by the intimacy of the moment, she asked the mother if she could snap her photo. The mother agreed, giving Rexing the confidence to ask the same question to every mother she shot during a family photo session.

“If they said no, I wouldn’t have done it.” Rexing said. “But no one ever said no.”

One Austin mother who has participated in one of Rexing’s breastfeeding photo sessions, Jenny Dorsey, vouches for for her and the rest of the birth photography community’s work.

“I think that often times we forget that [breastfeeding] is an important bonding experience and we don’t always capture it. And then later on down the road looking back we don’t have anything to remind us of those times,” Dorsey said. “Nursing my baby should be just like feeding my baby a bottle. I think that it’s good to bring those pictures to the public for awareness.”

Sabrena Rexing takes a portrait of Jenny Dorsey nursing her son Trace. Photo courtesy of Sabrena Rexing.

One of Sabrena Rexing’s final edits of Jenny Dorsey nursing her son Trace. Courtesy of Sabrena Rexing.


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Dorsey is an example of someone who benefits from community efforts, such as the Public Breastfeeding Awareness project, an initiative that began in 2013 dedicated to normalizing public breastfeeding through photography.

Rexing, one of the 75 photographers around the globe who make up the Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project, organized Austin’s Breastfeeding Law Awareness Day, where approximately 30 nursing moms, nurslings and members who support the breastfeeding community were photographed in a portrait in front of the Capitol on Aug. 10.

While the event intended to celebrate Texas’ breastfeeding laws, Austin mothers in attendance echoed the sentiment to work against women’s feelings of insecurity and experiences with rejection while breastfeeding, stemming from society’s collective discomfort with seeing women do so in public.

Lauren Yamada is a stay at home mother of three and a holistic health and wellness coach for pregnancy and nursing moms. Pictured with her is her middle son Kai.

Lauren Yamada is a stay-at-home mother of three and a holistic health and wellness coach for pregnancy and nursing moms. Yamada is pictured with her middle son Kai.

“This is what babies need and we shouldn’t have to be ashamed of it or feel embarrassed or somebody’s going to look down on us.”
-Lauren Yamada

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Robin Smith’s baby girl was born premature and had to use donor breastmilk to be nourished. “It really helped her grow,” Smith said. “We’re hoping to donate breastmilk too and help someone else in need.”

“It’s just such a healthy, natural way to feed and nourish your child. One of the most instinctual things a mother can do and so there shouldn’t have to be a stigma on it.”
-Robin Smith

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Valerie Butler is accompanied by her oldest son Cole and her baby Austin.

“I don’t go up to people that are formula feeding or breastfeeding and tell them that what they do is wrong. I feel that everybody should do what works for them and I don’t think that people should be so mean. I mean, we’re all just trying to do what’s best for our kids.”
-Valerie Butler

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Alison KcKeon tandem nurses her 3-year-old and her 1-year-old boys. Tandem nursing is when a mother feeds siblings at the same time. She nurses them anywhere between seven and 15 times a day.

“I just want to not have to worry about what other people are going to think when I’m nursing.”
-Alison McKeon

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Jennifer Giannou-Moore advocates for public education and exposure to breastfeeding. “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were commercials? Breasts are not to be sexualized. They’re to provide nourishment for our babies.”

“We have to come to a place where can accept that women are going to feed their babies. The more it happens in public, the more people will feel comfortable for it and it will become more normal.”‘
-Jennifer Giannou-Moore

Austin is one of 10 capital cities that formally organized a group portrait of breastfeeding mothers and supporting members of the community in front of their state capitols. Other participating states included New York, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Hawaii, California, Washington D.C. ,Washington State, Michigan and Connecticut. Each of these states, including Texas, has varying degrees of protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public.

 The breastfeeding community and supporters gathered in front of the Capitol for a portrait. Austin had one of the biggest turnouts across the nation for Breastfeeding Law Awareness Day. Photo courtesy of Sabrena Rexing.

The breastfeeding community and supporters gathered in front of the Capitol for a portrait. Austin had one of the biggest turnouts across the nation for Breastfeeding Law Awareness Day. Photo courtesy of Sabrena Rexing.

 

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Sunayana Weber, outreach coordinator of the Central Texas Breastfeeding Coalition, says these kinds of public demonstrations are necessary because they work to inform the public about breastfeeding laws that have existed for years. These demonstrations heighten in August, which is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, to remind the public of these laws.

“Many businesses and individuals do not realize that a mother is permitted by law to breastfeed anywhere she’s allowed to be,” Weber said. “This can lead to a breastfeeding mother being harassed and humiliated for feeding her child in public.”

Even though Texas has a 20-year-old law protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed her child anywhere, the Central Texas Breastfeeding Coalition has been working on an enforcement provision since 2007.

“Countless number of women are still being told that they cannot “do that” here,” Central Texas Breastfeeding Coalition president Janet Jones said. “They are being told that they are going to have to leave, or go to the bathroom, or go to the alley.”

Despite the challenges facing the breastfeeding community, the most recent Texas breastfeeding law states that public employers, including school districts, will be legally required to provide employees with a time and place to express breastmilk beginning Sept. 1.

While the breastfeeding community has had some success in the legislature, Kim Updegrove, executive director of Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin, says she works with women who routinely talk about the hoops they go through to breastfeed their infants.

“The sexualization of breasts in this country has worked against women’s ability to breastfeed in public because it’s seen as a sexual act by some and seen as a disgusting act by others despite the fact that the mother is protecting her own health and her infant’s health by doing so.”

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