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Breastfeeding and returning to work

Planning your return to work can be an emotional time and 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.

I’m feeling overwhelmed about returning to work, what should I do?

Returning to work can be an emotional time, especially if your baby is still little when you need to go back to work or study (Gatrell, 2007). It’s a good idea to consider all your options.

Some parents share parental leave, some new mums choose to return part-time and some change their working hours. Others leave their job to take more time off to be with their baby and later choose a new career path.

Your options may be partly determined by your financial situation and how flexible your workplace is. If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, you can call the NCT support line on: 0300 330 700, talk to your GP or seek support.

Can I continue breastfeeding when I return to work?

There’s no reason why you can’t continue to breastfeed when you return to work. The NHS recommends exclusive breastfeeding (breast milk only) for around the first six months of your baby's life (NHS, 2018).

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.

Some new mums express breastmilk, while others try mixed feeding. You should let your employer know you are breastfeeding (NHS, 2018). It’s good practice for your employer to complete a risk assessment with you to make sure you and your baby are safe with the situation they provide (ACAS, 2014). Employers are legally required to provide a space for breastfeeding mums to lie down and rest if you need to (ACAS, 2014; NHS, 2018).

What does breastfeeding in the workplace actually mean?

It will depend on your individual circumstances. Some mums who live near their baby’s nursery may be able to visit them to breastfeed while they are on a break from work (NHS, 2018). Alternatively, your partner, a friend or relative may bring your baby to your workplace for you, so you can breastfeed them.

Some mums express milk in a private room during working hours and your baby can feed with this expressed from a bottle (NHS, 2018). Some parents opt for mixed feeding, also called combination feeding. This means continuing to breastfeed and offering suitable alternative milk while the mum is at work.

I’ve gone back to work and I’m struggling – what should I do?

It can be really hard to juggle work life with family life in the early days, especially if your little one is still tiny and you don’t get much sleep. Many new mums feel guilty about their work-life balance (Borelli et al, 2017).

A good place to start is by talking to your partner, friend or a health professional about how you’re feeling. If you’re really struggling, talk to your employer and see if it’s possible to cut down or change your working hours if you think that will help.

Breastfeeding and returning to work can be stressful while the whole family adjusts. If you’re concerned about you or your partner’s mental health, there are lots of places you can get support. Some parents return to work after having a baby but then find their ambitions or priorities have changed. They might even choose to leave their job and take time out, retrain or try working somewhere different.

Employers’ obligations: What are my legal rights around breastfeeding at work?

There is no legal right to breastfeeding breaks at work. Instead, employers must meet their obligations to employees who breastfeed under health and safety law, flexible working law and discrimination law.

This means your employer should make sure a mum who is breastfeeding does not feel unfairly treated. Your employer should suspend you on full pay if no suitable work offering is available that ensures the safety of the breastfeeding mum and baby (Maternity Action, 2017).

While your employer doesn’t have to allow you to take time off to breastfeed, they should try to accommodate you if you want to keep breastfeeding after you return to work. If your employer says you can’t express milk at work or change your working patterns around breastfeeding, this may be unlawful sex discrimination.

Can I express milk for my baby at work?

You should be able to express milk at your workplace if you wish. Guidelines recommend that you have access to a private, clean and comfortable room (not a toilet) in which to express. They also recommend having use of a fridge in which to store breast milk

You should request that your employer provides you with a suitable private space where you can express breastmilk - for example a private office or room with a lockable door. However, there is no legal obligation for your employer to provide this space.

My employer is not supportive of breastfeeding, what should I do?

Where possible you should discuss your situation with your employer. You may wish to have a colleague go with you to any talks as moral support and as a witness. There are lots of benefits to employing mums who breastfeed, including fewer absences from the workplace and greater staff retention (Maternity Action, 2014; Steurer, 2017). You could ask your employer to read Maternity Action’s employer leaflet, which explains some of the benefits.

Breastfeeding alongside family foods is best for babies from six months (NHS, 2018). There is a long-term public health impact of continued breastfeeding and workplaces should be encouraging women to breastfeed (Rojjanasrirat, 2010). If you feel like you are being discriminated against in the workplace contact Maternity Action.

This page was last reviewed in October 2017

Further information

Our helpline offers practical and emotional support in many areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 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’s employer leaflet.

Health and Safety Executive information on breastfeeding and returning to work.