Written Thursday 27th August 2020

Breastfeeding Awareness Month: Breastfeeding and the Return to Work 

Breastfeeding awareness month

For millions of women, breastfeeding is vital to the health and happiness of mother and baby. Working life should never stand in the way. 

Since August 2011, the world has marked Breastfeeding Awareness Month: a global effort to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of newborns around the world. To celebrate the occasion, we will be taking a look at the rights of breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, and the things that employers can do to make breastfeeding as simple as possible.

As it stands, more than 80% of women choose to breastfeed, while 17 percent of babies are still exclusively breastfed at three months old. Yet, with most doctors recommending exclusive breastfeeding until babies are at least six months old, it is clear that there are bigger factors behind this shortfall. 

The myriad benefits of breastfeeding are well documented – boosting immunity for the baby, and reducing the risk of certain cancers and osteopathy in mothers. The majority of women feel empowered to breastfeed in the first few months, but working mothers can find themselves up against a professional culture that can make this fundamental act of nurturing feel impossible. Clearly, the problem is not to encourage women to breastfeed, but to destigmatise breastfeeding in all corners of society – especially for women who work.  

In order to accommodate breastfeeding employees, the Health and Safety Executive and the European Commission recommends that all workplaces should be equipped with:

  • A private room where women can breastfeed or express breast milk 
  • Suitable refrigerators to store expressed breast milk while working
  • Facilities for washing, sterilising, and storing bottles for breast milk

The right to these facilities and resources should be guaranteed by legislation (such as the Employment Rights Act), but in reality, things are often more complicated. 

While employers are required to provide “a space” for breastfeeding employees to rest or express milk, there is no legal obligation to carry out a specific site risk assessment or install a space that is solely dedicated to breastfeeding. Nor are they obliged to provide paid breaks for doing so.

Many employers may be worried about the cost of providing these facilities, but it is vital that mothers are provided with a clean, private space – one which is not a bathroom. Not only is it fundamentally unhygienic (we wouldn’t prepare our lunch in the toilets), but far too many women have suffered the embarrassment of being interrupted while trying to express milk in staff toilets or changing rooms. Based on a recent survey, a staggering 1 in 3 women are currently forced to express milk in work bathrooms, with others confessing that they had felt compelled to do so in the staff room, their car, and even at their desk, due to a lack of suitable facilities. 

Mothers may also struggle to find “suitable refrigerators”. Many workplaces fail to provide options for secure storage of expressed milk, and in recent years, shared workspaces like WeWork have come under fire for both a lack of provisions and a lack of sensitivity. WeWork continues to draw criticism for its overwhelming lack of breast-pumping rooms and facilities, while staff at Second Home – which bills itself as “co-working with a soul” – have reportedly clashed with mothers who need to store their expressed milk in the communal fridges.  

At best, instances like these are humiliating. At worst, there can be severe consequences on the mental and physical health of the mother. An inability to express milk at regular intervals in a safe, clean environment can lead to stress, anxiety, sexual harassment, and infections requiring hospital treatment. 

In spite of the overwhelming support for breastfeeding from the medical community, too many employers are still doing too little to end the stigma of feeding and expressing while working. Sadly, many mothers not only have to deal with a workspace that doesn’t meet their needs, but also “indirect sex discrimination” and unfair dismissal. A 2019 report on the extent of prejudice against breastfeeding mothers found that “lactation discrimination” is real and incredibly widespread. Almost 75% of breastfeeding discrimination cases involved a loss of earnings, and nearly two-thirds ended in job loss. 

These are truly shocking statistics, but things do not have to stay this way. Over 70% of women are integrated into the workforce; it is not too much to ask for a workplace culture which reflects the essential needs of new mothers. Employers may be worried about the upfront costs of investing in facilities for breastfeeding, but they should see it as an opportunity to create a supportive and inclusive work culture which will reduce staff absences in the short-term and promote morale and staff retention in the long-term.

When polled, two in three expectant mothers believe that breastfeeding at work is still deeply stigmatised. Half of them feel that it could impact their career so negatively that they would need to change fields altogether. 

Breastfeeding is a vital part of a child’s early development, but the rate of breastfeeding has not improved for more than two decades. It is the responsibility of every employer to create spaces which make breastfeeding as easy and natural as it should be. The onus to change is not on the mother.

Speaking as a mother and a professional woman, I truly hope that we will see swift and sweeping changes in attitudes toward, and provisions for, working women who want to express milk for their children. The stigma is not only harmful, but completely nonsensical. If women are to be a truly vital and valued part of the workforce, the entirety of their womanhood must be accommodated. 70% of women are employed, and almost 90% of women are mothers. We cannot continue to act like these are distinct groups of people, and ignore fundamental human rights in the process. 

Ultimately, we should aspire to to treat everybody with respect and dignity. Everyone is an individual, with a unique set of needs and expectations. It may sound like a lofty ideal, but in the long run, the net positive impact of integrating empathy into their workplace won’t just be limited to the world of business.