All new parents need support when returning to work, whether or not they are breastfeeding. But the confusion over the rights of breastfeeding women who want to take lactation breaks challenges both mothers and employers.
In our work supporting mothers and families, we realise that returning to work after a period of leave can be a time of stress for all new parents. We believe that there are special risks associated with the return from maternity, paternity, and adoption leave which are common to all new parents and which can be overcome with support and flexibility. All new parents may experience stress and fatigue. Mothers are additionally at risk for postnatal depression and physical injuries consequent on birth impacting them.
Premature or abrupt weaning means risk to baby’s health but also a risk to the mother’s health. Without proper provision, women are at immediate risk of engorgement, blocked ducts, mastitis and abscesses. Protecting breastfeeding rights not only benefits the physical and emotional health of mums but also means employers are more likely to see improved recruitment and retention and better morale for employees. Breastfeeding mums who are supported are likely to return to the workplace earlier and take up the government’s offer of shared parental leave with their partners. When women are able to combine breastfeeding and work, this means less absence and improved outcomes which benefit everyone.
Many employers are supportive and flexible with employees returning from maternity, paternity, and adoption leave. With good HR practices, most employees already find their return to work a positive experience. However, we would like to see all new parents able to access a risk assessment to reveal any elements of their working environment which might be problematic and to facilitate open discussions as to how to minimise these risks.
At the moment, breastfeeding and lactating mothers can use a range of existing legal rights to help them continue breastfeeding/lactating and working. This makes a very complicated situation for employers who have to navigate a raft of legislation. We think it would be simpler and fairer to introduce a straightforward right regarding lactation breaks for all mothers on their return to work.
The current UK legislation does not provide a specific statutory right to breastfeed at work. However, legislation on health and safety provides a legal basis for mothers who wish to take lactation breaks, and employers must not discriminate indirectly against mothers. In addition, there are leave entitlements and flexible working provisions which may be used to support breastfeeding. There are also international laws, such as ILO and Human Rights legislation, which protect both mothers’ and babies’ rights. Taken together, these existing rights make it difficult for an employer to refuse lactation breaks, but we would like to make it clear to all employers that they need to support employees who wish to take lactation breaks with an explicit right for employees to breastfeed and express breastmilk.
Breastfeeding is part of family life for working women across the UK. We call on government to recognise the value of breastfeeding. We specifically ask them to include the right to lactation breaks for working women, and risk assessments for all new parents, within their proposed legislation.
Health and Safety Executive: http://www.hse.gov.uk/mothers/law.htm
Health and Safety Executive: http://www.hse.gov.uk/mothers/faqs.htm