Planning your return to work can be an emotional time. If you’re breastfeeding your baby, you may also be wondering about your workplace rights and the logistics of it all. Here we discuss breastfeeding and returning to work.
Can I continue breastfeeding when I return to work?
Yes, of course. Lots of mums continue to breastfeed when they return to work or study. Depending on the age and nature of your baby, you can usually find ways to continue breastfeeding if you wish to.
How you do this will depend on your individual circumstances. Some mums might arrange their baby's childcare close to their work or place of study. They can then visit them to breastfeed when they can during the working day (NHS, 2018). Alternatively, your partner, childminder, friend or relative might bring your baby to your workplace so you can breastfeed them.
Some mums express milk during working hours to maintain their milk supply and so that their baby can be fed this expressed milk from a bottle while they're at work (NHS, 2018). Some parents opt for mixed feeding, also called combination feeding. This means continuing to breastfeed and offering suitable alternative milk when you're not able to breastfeed.
What are my legal rights around breastfeeding at work?
Before returning to work, it helps to let your employer know in writing that you are breastfeeding (NHS, 2018; HSE 2018). They can then complete a risk assessment and consider whether there are any specific risks to you for as long as you are breastfeeding (ACAS, 2014; HSE 2018).
There are few direct risks to breastfeeding but you should seek advice if you work with dangerous substances, such as organic mercury (HSE 2018).
Employers are legally required to provide a space for mums who are breastfeeding to lie down and rest if they need to (ACAS, 2014; NHS, 2018).
There is no legal right, however, for your employer to provide breastfeeding breaks at work. But they must meet their obligations to employees who breastfeed under health and safety law, flexible working law and discrimination law. (Maternity Action, 2017) This means your employer should make sure you don't feel unfairly treated because you are breastfeeding.
Can I express milk for my baby at work?
You should be able to express milk at your workplace if you wish. You can request that your employer provides you with a suitable private space where you can do this.
Guidelines recommend that you have access to a private, clean and comfortable room with a lockable door - not a toilet - in which to express. However, there is no legal obligation for your employer to provide this space (HSE 2018).
It's also recommended that you have use of a fridge to store your breast milk. (HSE 2018).
Can I change my hours to suit breastfeeding?
You might find that you'd like to make changes to your hours or working pattern to accommodate breastfeeding and/or expressing. Some parents share parental leave, some new mums choose to return part-time and others change their working hours. Have a think about what might suit you best and discuss different options with your employer.
One thing that could support your case is outlining the many benefits of employing and supporting mums who breastfeed, including fewer absences from the workplace and greater staff retention (Maternity Action, 2014; Steurer, 2017). There is also a long-term public health impact of continued breastfeeding and workplaces should be encouraging women to breastfeed (Rojjanasrirat, 2010). You could ask your employer to read Maternity Action’s employer leaflet about this.
Your options may be partly determined by your financial situation and how flexible your workplace is. There are lots of sources of support and information to help you with this, such as Maternity Action (see Further information below).
My employer is not supportive of breastfeeding, what should I do?
Your employer must not refuse to allow you access to training or stop you returning to work because you’re breastfeeding. If they refuse to act to protect your health and safety, you may have a claim under the Equality Act and you should seek advice.
If you feel like you are being discriminated against in the workplace contact Maternity Action.
This page was last reviewed in February 2019
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Maternity Rights Advice Line: 0808 802 0029.
Maternity Action is a UK charity committed to ending inequality and improving the health and well-being of pregnant women, partners and young children – from conception through to the child’s early years.
Health and Safety Executive information on breastfeeding and returning to work.
ACAS. (2014) Accommodating breastfeeding in the workplace. Available from: http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/b/s/Acas-guide-on-accommodating-breastfeeding-in-the-workplace.pdf [Accessed 1st Oct 2017].
Borelli JL, Nelson SK, River SL, Birken SA, Moss-Racusin C (2017) Gender differences in work-family guilt in parents of young children. Sex Roles; 76(5-6): 356-368. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-016-0579-0. [Accessed 1st September 2017].
Gatrell CJ (2007) Secrets and lies: Breastfeeding and professional paid work. Soc Sci Med. 2007;65(2):393-404. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953607001487. [Accessed 1st September 2017].
HSE. The Health and Safety Executive Expectant Mothers - FAQs. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/mothers/faqs.htm [Accessed 20 February 2019]
Maternity Action. (2014) Accommodating breastfeeding on return to work. Available from: https://www.maternityaction.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/BORTW-employer-leaflet-FINAL.pdf [Accessed 1st Oct 2017].
Maternity Action. (2017) Continuing to breastfeed when you return to work. Available from: https://www.maternityaction.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Continuing-to-breastfeed-when-you-return-to-work-2017.pdf [Accessed 1st Oct 2017].
NHS Choices. (2018) Breastfeeding and going back to work. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breastfeeding-back-to-work/ [Accessed 1st Oct 2017].
Rojjanasrirat W, Sousa VD (2010) Perceptions of breastfeeding and planned return to work or school among low-income pregnant women in the USA. J Clin Nurs. 2010;19(13-14):2014-2022. DOI 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2009.03152.x Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2702.2009.03152.x/full [Accessed 1st September 2017].
Steurer LM (2017) Maternity Leave Length and Workplace Policies' Impact on the Sustainment of Breastfeeding. Public Health Nurs. 34(3):286-294. DOI: 10.1111/phn.12321. Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/phn.12321/full [Accessed 1st September 2017].
Dettwyler KA (2017) A Time to Wean: The Hominid Blueprint For the Natural Age of Weaning in Modern Human Populations. In: Dettwyler KA, Stuart-Macadam P Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. Chapter 6. Available from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_8s3DwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT56&dq=+benefits+of+breastfeeding+beyond+two+years&ots=KPM3VOOAYR&sig=F0157OTEF3SC2SzIOsTKKkDfg6E (Accessed 1st October 2017).
Grether T, Wiese BS (2016) Stay at home or go back to work? Antecedents and consequences of mothers’ return to work after childbirth. Research perspectives on work and the transition to motherhood Soc Sci Med. 65(2): 105-128. Available from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-41121-7_6 [Accessed 1st September 2017].
La Leche League GB. (2016) Working and Breastfeeding. Available from: https://www.laleche.org.uk/working-and-breastfeeding [Accessed 1st Oct 2017].