Breastfeeding and Working: How You Can Help New Mothers in Your Workplace

Amanda Beattie

Amanda Beattie

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12 Oct 2018

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When a new mother returns to work, there’s plenty you can do as an employer or HR manager to help her and her newborn. Among these is making it simple and safe for the mother to continue breastfeeding at work.

When a new mother returns to work, there’s plenty you can do as an employer or HR manager to help her and her newborn. Among these is making it simple and safe for the mother to continue breastfeeding at work.

Many mothers choose to breastfeed their baby—the NHS recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of the baby’s life—and it’s in your best interest to help a new mother to continue breastfeeding while she’s at work.

If you’re not sure why it’s beneficial to you, don’t worry, we’ve listed some of the advantages further down the page.

Breastfeeding and going back to work

When a new mother is returning to work after maternity leave, and plans to continue breastfeeding, it will be good practice for you to talk to them about how you could reasonably facilitate their return to work.

You might decide it would be best for a female employee to conduct this discussion with the returning employee if there’s a difficulty of sensitivity or appropriateness.

The law for breastfeeding mothers at work—what you can do to help them

First, you should carry out a workplace risk assessment and remove any risks to a breastfeeding mother and her baby. It’s a legal requirement to regularly review your workplace for general risks anyway, so take this as an opportunity.

Second, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require that you provide a breastfeeding employee with somewhere that she can rest—and this includes being able to lie down.

UK law doesn’t require you to grant paid breaks to an employee while she is breastfeeding, nor while she’s expressing milk for storage and later use. This is different to many European countries, where statutory rights exist regarding paid breastfeeding breaks, or even shorter working days to accommodate the new mother.

In instances where a mother’s work brings her into contact with any dangerous substance, you should take appropriate steps to make her job safe. If you can’t do this, you should transfer your employee to a suitable alternative job (same terms and conditions as her current employment), or suspend her on full pay. The reason for this is that certain hazardous substances can enter breastmilk, and when this happens, your employee’s baby is at risk.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), such hazardous substances include:

Expressing milk at work

Not heard of the phrase? Don’t worry.

Expressing milk is a just way a mother can extract milk from her breast without the baby needing to suckle.

The mother could express milk using her hands, or she could use devices like a manual or electric pump.

Once she expresses her milk, she can store it, such as in a refrigerator or freezer, and use it to feed the baby, now or later.

She could use a bottle, open cup, syringe, spoon, or beaker as a container for the expressed milk during a feed.

Why express milk?

Reasons a mother might express milk include:

  • If someone else, such as the mother’s partner, is going to feed the baby—for example, while the mother is at work.
  • The mother wants to produce more milk to stockpile her supply.
  • The mother’s breasts are very full and she’s in discomfort—expressing milk can reduce her discomfort.
  • If direct breastfeeding is difficult for either the mother or the baby.

Consider a “Breastfeeding in the Workplace” Policy

With such a policy, you can outline critical information such as:

  • How you will handle requests from employees who are breastfeeding and returning to work, such as temporary flexible working for breastfeeding.
  • How staff can avoid discrimination due to sex, pregnancy, or maternity.
  • Details about health and safety regarding breastfeeding and expressing milk.
  • Information about facilities for breastfeeding or expressing milk.

You should also state in your policy how you will approach any requests from a new mother that will have some effect on other employees or your organisation as a whole—you might want to involve relevant people in the discussion. However, you must reiterate that neither discrimination nor unfair treatment are acceptable because of this domestic circumstance.

Providing facilities to breastfeed or express milk at work

A breastfeeding employee may ask you to provide a private, hygienic, safe, secure area where she can breastfeed or express milk.

The best course of action here will be to ask your employee what area would be most appropriate. Try to avoid toilet areas and sick rooms—these facilities will come with a hygiene risk no matter how rigorously your cleaners go about their job.

If you think that physically providing a space for your employee isn’t possible, discuss the issue with them to try to come to an arrangement that best benefits the mother, her baby, and your business.

The benefits of letting a mother breastfeed at work

First, by letting a new mother continue to breastfeed her baby, the baby will continue to receive the nutrients of breastmilk—many scientific studies have found that breastmilk helps babies to fight off viruses and bacteria, as well as potentially reducing other illnesses to which a newborn baby can be highly susceptible, such as ear infections. If the baby is sick less, the mother will need to take fewer absences, too.

Second, you’ll encourage staff loyalty by showing your willingness to accommodate the new mother—you’ll be making her life far easier if she can breastfeed at work rather than having to find alternatives, or taking time off.

For a new mother, figuring out how to fit her job back into her life while raising a small, vulnerable human being can be stressful. If you provide an accommodating workplace, you’ll play some part in reducing her stress and increasing her wellbeing.

Third, your business will benefit from the returning employee’s skills and experience a lot sooner than if she delayed her return to work while she continued to breastfeed—or express milk—away from the workplace. This might mean an additional benefit of lower recruitment and training costs for cover work.

However, you shouldn’t use the freedom to breastfeed at work as a ploy to pressurise new mothers into returning to work early.

Talk to an Expert

If you have a question about helping your employees with breastfeeding and working, or any other employment law or HR matter, give Croner a call on 0808 145 3378.

About the Author

Amanda Beattie

Amanda represents corporate clients and large public bodies, including complex discrimination and whistleblowing claims. Amanda also drafts and delivers bespoke training regarding all aspects of employment law, including ‘mock tribunal’ events; in addition she also frequently drafts employment law articles for various publications for Croner and their clients.

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