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Breastfeeding and returning to work

This article is about breastfeeding in the workplace, outlining your breastfeeding rights at work with information about obligations and requirements.

This article covers the following subjects related to breastfeeding and returning to work:
Breastfeeding at work 
Employers’ obligations - your breastfeeding right at work

Good practice policies
Mixed feeding

Breastfeeding at work

You can continue to breastfeed after you return to work and it is up to you to decide how long you wish to continue breastfeeding. .Depending on your circumstances, for example, how close you live to your workplace, you will need to think about how you want to continue breastfeeding and give yourself and your baby time to get used to the new routine before you actually return to work. The main options for combining breastfeeding with work are:

  • Having childcare near your work so that you can feed your baby
  • Expressing milk at work, and
  • Partial breastfeeding.

You can get advice and support to help you decide the best way to feed your baby on return to work from many of the organisations listed below.

Unfortunately the law does not give a specific right to time off for breastfeeding but you do have some health and safety protection and the right to ask for changes to your working hours. It is important to talk to your employer before returning to work so that you know what facilities are available and what adjustments need to be made.

You must notify your employer in writing that you have given birth in the last six months or you are breastfeeding in order for your employer to take action to ensure your health and safety while you are breastfeeding.

Once you have notified your employer that you are breastfeeding, your employer is required to do consider their workplace risk assessment and any specific risks to an employee who has recently given birth or is breastfeeding. Your employer must take reasonable action to remove any risks, such as changing your working conditions or hours of work. If it is not possible to remove the risks you are entitled to be offered suitable alternative work on similar terms and conditions and if there is no suitable alternative work available to be suspended on full pay (this is unusual for breastfeeding mothers).

The Health and Safety Executive has information on some of the risks to mothers who are breastfeeding. There are few direct risks to breastfeeding but you should seek advice if you work with dangerous substances that could enter breastmilk. If your working conditions stop you breastfeeding and this is a risk to your baby’s health or your baby is very young you should ask your employer to take action. It might be a good idea to talk to your GP or other health professionals and ask them to write a letter for your employer.

Employers’ obligations - your breastfeeding rights at work

If you are breastfeeding and going back to work, then your employer must ensure that you have access to somewhere to rest, which should include a space to lie down. Your employer is also required to do a risk assessment to ensure that the environment is safe for you to work. This may be a suitable place for you to express milk.

Once you have notified your employer in writing that you will be breastfeeding, your employer must take reasonable action to ensure that the environment is safe for you to work and continue breastfeeding, such as altering your working conditions or hours of work, for example, by giving you extra breaks.

If you wish to express milk, then guidelines recommend that you have access to a private and comfortable room in which to express and a safe fridge in which to store breast milk. However, there is no legal obligation for your employer to provide this space. It is not suitable for you to use a toilet facility in which to express milk.

• If you need changes to your hours of work, days of work or place of work you can make an application for flexible work. Your employer must consider your request reasonably and give you a decision within three months. Your employer can only refuse if one of eight business reasons applies. A request for flexible work, if agreed, is usually a permanent change to your contract, so you will need to discuss it with your employer if you are asking for a temporary change to enable you to continue breastfeeding. 

Your employer must not refuse to allow you access to training or stop you returning to work because you are breastfeeding. Your employer must not refuse to support breastfeeding. . If you have concerns about health and safety you can contact the Health and Safety Executive, see below. If your employer refuses to take action to protect your health and safety you may have a claim under the Equality Act and you should seek advice. If yours or your baby’s health is affected you should get advice about a personal injury claim.

Good practice policies

Ask your employer if they have a breastfeeding policy. A good practice policy can offer more than the legal minimum. 

A breastfeeding policy should include provision of:
• a clean, warm, comfortable and private room with a lockable door,
• washing facilities,
• a clean place for you to leave your sterilising equipment and your pump if you are using  one,  and
• a clean fridge to store your milk, and
• reasonable paid breastfeeding breaks.

It is a good idea to get plenty of information on breastfeeding at work to give to your employer. You may also be able to get support from an occupational health nurse, trade union, your union’s women’s officer or equal opportunities officer. You or your employer can get advice and support on this from the organisations listed below.

Mixed feeding

If you do not wish to express milk, then you could supplement feeds with formula. If you plan to use formula rather than expressed milk then it is advisable to get your body and your baby used to this routine before returning to work so that you don’t become engorged and uncomfortable.

Providing breastfeeding is well established, women usually find they can breastfeed fully at weekends/evenings and partially on their days at work, with their baby’s carer giving expressed milk or formula.

If you are formula feeding you need to be confident that your childminder, carer or nursery are making up the formula safely and giving the right amount. See our information sheet, ‘Using Infant Formula: Your questions answered’ for further details’.

However you feed, it is helpful if your child’s carer lets you know how your baby has fed during the day, so that you are up to date with any changes. Whether you are expressing at work or breastfeeding, your employer needs to make sure there are no health and safety risks that could affect your health, or the health of your baby.

Updated April 2016

Further information

NCT supports all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.

ACAS advice on employment rights and Early Conciliation 0300 123 1100.

Guidance on breastfeeding in the workplace

Equality and Human Rights Commission: Code of Practice on Employment, chapter 8

Equality Advisory Support Service advice on discrimination and human rights 0808 800 0082

Health and Safety Executive information on breastfeeding on return to work

National Breastfeeding Line (government funded): 0300 100 021.

NHS advice on breastfeeding on return to work

Maternity Action, a national charity promoting the health and well-being of all pregnant women, their partners and children, has further information on maternity rights. Maternity Action helpline: 0845 600 8533.

Working Families helpline: 0300 012 0312 or email: advice@workingfamilies.org.uk information on maternity rights.