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When babies are born they only require milk to survive. It is only when babies start to grow a bit older that they consume normal food and drinks in day-to-day life. In the UK you can feed your baby through breast milk (produced naturally in the breast of a woman’s body) or formula milk (which can be bought at most shops sold as milk powder to be mixed with sterilised water). There is often much debate as to which method of feeding your baby is the best option but, generally, it is a mother’s choice of how to feed their baby and which is the best option for them and their lifestyle. Some women may prefer to breastfeed, whereas others may prefer to feed their babies using formula milk.
According to UNICEF, in the UK approximately 81% of mothers choose to breastfeed their babies. This is a large percentage of new mothers and makes up the majority of new families in the UK. However, despite sounding like a large figure, the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. This can be down to a number of factors that are based on the practicality of women being able to breastfeed in day-to-day life (especially when mothers have to return to work). This article will explore the issues, laws, policies and importance of breastfeeding at work and how it should be accommodated.
What is breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is the act of feeding your baby with breast milk. Women produce milk naturally when they are pregnant that babies can live off when they are born. They have a natural instinct to suck to drink milk, so the baby will naturally suck on their mother’s nipple to drink their milk.
Some women find breastfeeding extremely difficult, due to no fault of their own. It can be very traumatic physically and emotionally when a mother wants to breastfeed her baby but struggles to do so.
Difficulty breastfeeding can be down to a number of factors such as:
- Some women may find it difficult to produce milk in their breasts.
- Some may find the process of breastfeeding very painful.
- If a woman is receiving some type of medical treatment this can interfere with the production of breast milk.
- Some babies may find it difficult to latch on to drink the milk.
If a woman does suffer from any of the difficulties above, they can then use formula milk instead. Although there are often many links made to babies having a healthier start to their newborn life when they are breastfed, as long as you are feeding your baby a healthy amount, you can still meet their needs whilst creating a loving attachment and bonding with your baby. This is the case no matter how you choose to feed your baby, by breast or bottle.
Why is breastfeeding important?
In the UK it is recommended to breastfeed your baby for its first six months of life, although some mothers may choose to extend this period. If you do decide to breastfeed for longer than six months, this is usually the point where you would reduce the number of breast feeds and start to introduce a number of foods that are healthy for a baby of this age. You can find out more information from Healthy Children about introducing your baby to solid foods.
Due to the length of time recommended for breastfeeding, this can mean that many women have to start back to work following their period of maternity leave whilst they are still breastfeeding their baby. For many women, this can cause anxiety in going back to work due to the anticipated difficulties that they may face juggling work and caring for their child. However, in the UK there are strong campaigns for society to work harder to meet a woman’s needs. This means that workplaces must make adjustments to support their female employees through this period of motherhood.
The first six months of a baby’s life are extremely important to ensure a healthy start in life. It is called the newborn stage and it is a life stage where babies are wholly dependent on their parents. During this stage, new parents receive a lot more support from health services such as midwife visits and health visitors. They also have support from maternity services at the hospital, and neonatal intensive care services, in the unfortunate event that your baby becomes severely unwell.
Breastfeeding is a very important part of motherhood that can be cherished forever. It can provide your baby with a healthy start to life which is often seen as the best choice because breast milk is rich in nutrients. According to the NHS, breastfed babies are generally healthier and have less sickness compared to babies that are fed using formula milk during their newborn stage. UNICEF reports further that there is a correlation between babies who are not breastfed and higher rates of common illnesses such as chest infections, colds and flu viruses, and ear infections. This is why breastfeeding is often viewed as the more desirable option.
What is the law on breastfeeding in the workplace?
Employers are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to support women who are their employees to breastfeed when they come back to work. This is covered in the Equality Act 2010 as a protected characteristic. It falls under the pregnancy and maternity characteristic, meaning that women should not be treated unfairly due to being pregnant, having maternity leave, and any other associated aspects that come with having a newborn baby, such as breastfeeding.
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act (1974) also protects pregnant women and new mothers to support them to have a safe working environment to manage risks that may arise to pregnant women and new mothers. The Act places a responsibility on employers to provide a safe working environment by completing a risk assessment for each individual woman who is employed by them who is pregnant or new mothers in their first six months of motherhood who are likely to be breastfeeding. It is important that risk assessments are individual to each person rather than having one generic risk assessment so that the individual needs of each person are met. Each individual risk that is posed to the person should be mitigated accordingly. This is so that any potential hazards are controlled and your employees feel comfortable to start working again following their maternity leave.
What are the health and safety requirements for breastfeeding at work?
The Health and Safety Executive outlines the workplace policy that employers must follow to ensure the correct procedures to protect women who are breastfeeding during work.
- Logging a risk assessment when an employee informs you that they are pregnant, and when they are returning to work whilst breastfeeding. When you are informed of a pregnancy or an employee returning to work when breastfeeding, you should have a conversation with them to see, from their perspective, what could cause them difficulty with breastfeeding at work. This will help to ensure you are using a person-centred approach.
- Complete individual risk assessments, as highlighted in the section above. This includes women who are pregnant, have given birth in the last six months, or who are breastfeeding. You can include the opinions of health professionals and trade unions to ensure that you are being holistic.
- Ensure that you review the risk assessment regularly to check that it is meeting their needs. This can ensure that you capture and react to any significant changes to the employee or their workload.
- If you cannot control or remove the risk, you must make reasonable adjustments to support your employee such as:
a) Change their working hours to fit in with their breastfeeding schedule.
b) Allow the employee more breaks to meet the needs of breastfeeding their baby.
c) Offer them an alternative work task if they are unable to complete their usual duties due to breastfeeding.
d) If there is no alternative work that can be offered to your employee whilst they are breastfeeding you are not able to sack them. This is because they are protected from unfair treatment and dismissal under the Equality Act 2010. To resolve this issue, you can offer them paid leave or work from home arrangements until your employee is able to return to their normal duties and has finished breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding in the workplace policy
All large employers should have a policy that covers how to accommodate employees that will need to breastfeed at work. The policy should also be known to all staff and staff should be able to have access to it to familiarise themselves with it at any time that they choose to. Often this topic is covered in employers’ Flexible Working policies, or Maternity policies. Smaller businesses may not have a dedicated policy for breastfeeding mothers due to the small size of their team. However, ACAS advises that they could include a section in their health and safety procedures or policies.
How can employers create the right environment for breastfeeding?
Fridge and storage – Women who return to their physical workplace whilst breastfeeding may need to express breast milk during the day so that they can leave this with the babies carer during their time at work. New mothers may need to express breast milk at the workplace to ensure that they have enough to provide to their babies carer. To support this, employers should provide a place to store expressed milk. Most businesses have kitchen areas that contain a fridge. Employers should consider enabling expressed milk to be stored there in a separate section to avoid contamination. Perhaps a separate secure mini fridge could also be discussed if your employee does not want their expressed milk to be stored with other items. It is important that newborn babies only drink milk from sterilised containers whilst they are building their immune system during infancy. It would be good practice to discuss storage preferences with the employee so that they feel the most comfortable with the arrangements. Sometimes employers can make simple adaptations for little cost.
Area for breastfeeding
New mothers require privacy to complete their breastfeeding duties for their babies. Breastfeeding is a very personal and important stage of motherhood and should always be respected. If women are coming back to work and need to express breast milk during the working day, they should be asked about the type of space they require, and be offered types of chairs and privacy locations and systems to help make this easier for them during work.
Risk of physical injury
Some work spaces carry the risk of physical injury, and the consequences for new mothers can be more serious. Check whether you need to provide extra control measures, for example to protect them when moving around the building with their baby, noise levels, or light pollution, and check the areas of private space for them and their baby. Inadequate training can cause a greater risk of accident or injury.
Exposure to harmful substances
Many chemical and biological agents can cause harm to new mothers and their babies. They can be passed on to a baby during breastfeeding. This can lead to infectious diseases and food intolerance for newborn babies. Whilst employees who are breastfeeding are going back to work, all potential risks should be discussed and mitigated to protect the health and safety of the new mother and her baby.
Personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment (PPE) should always be offered to new mothers returning to work. There are many infectious diseases and viruses that can be easily spread in the workplace. This has been made even more apparent since the Covid-19 pandemic. Make sure any PPE you provide will be safe and comfortable for them to use, especially as women return to work whilst breastfeeding.
In contemporary society there are fewer and fewer restrictions on people of all ages, genders, races, lifestyles and individual circumstances to ensure that all people can live with equality. This includes women who would like to return to work whilst having to breastfeed their newborn babies. Some women have to return to work, not by choice, but by the financial difficulties they may face in an ever-changing world with rising inflation for daily living. Due to this, employers should respect a new mother’s decision to return to work and place value on their contribution to the business, as they would any other employee. By doing so, you are showcasing a working culture that values and respects difference, as well as meeting the relevant laws and regulations that protect new mothers who are returning to work from their maternity period whilst breastfeeding. This can also improve employee retention, as colleagues will feel more comfortable at work.