Breastfeeding, like all topics related to parenting, comes with emotional baggage. And, like all other parenting related topics it is all too often seen as incompatible with working life.
Yet many women want to return to work whilst still breastfeeding. This poses logistical difficulties that employers often refuse to acknowledge or accommodate. Few women are aware of their right to have a clean separate space in which they can breastfeed or express. Even fewer employers are willing to provide it and women often resort to toilets and cars.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations specify that breastfeeding women must have suitable facilities to rest. But there is no right to paid breaks. Women are frequently told that their employer cannot accommodate such a long break. Yet allowing women such space and time would enable some women to return to work earlier because they will still be able to feed their babies in the way they want or need after returning to work.
If there is a health and safety risk to your milk then it is possible that an employer should change where you work (e.g. if you’re exposed to certain chemicals) or change your hours accordingly. Certainly a health and safety assessment must ensure that it considers possible risks to breastfeeding women.
But for many women all that is necessary is time and a chair somewhere clean and private. Simple really. When we think of the challenges that face women the world over in terms of keeping their children safe and fed, the idea that employers here in the UK would refuse to provide 10 minutes and a chair seem ludicrous. Yet it happens all too often and women feel vulnerable and unable to speak out particularly when they desperately need to keep their job following a period of little or no pay during maternity leave. A failure to allow a woman to breastfeed or express could amount to sex discrimination depending on the circumstances.
As social media allows women to speak out anonymously and campaigns such as the EHRCs #worksforme publicises positive working practises I think that employers need to start seeing their family friendly working practices as selling points. I represent employers as well as employees and finding good reliable staff is difficult so supporting those you want to keep seems like a no-brainer particularly at an emotionally difficult time in their life such as leaving their baby for the first time.
As ever at YESS we think that good communication is at the heart of solving any problems. Here are our top tips for women who want to breast feed at work:
- Sort out your return to work first by speaking to your employer about what hours etc. you will be doing.
- If you need/want to be able to breastfeed raise it as a separate issue from your return to work.
- When you talk about it try not to use ‘rights-based’ language.
- Present them with a plan if you can e.g. ‘I am going to need to breastfeed/express milk twice a day for the first few months back. I anticipate that each session will take about 15 mins and will not disrupt my ability to work as I will try and take them at x and x times when we’re not busy. I believe that the spare office would be an ideal place as it is used infrequently and I could put a sign on the door.’
- Try and raise it in a face to face or over the phone chat first. Emails can often be misinterpreted.
- Keep communicating. If they say no ask them why and suggest something that could work for you all.