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Is Breast Always Best in the Workplace?

Breastfeeding is always a hot topic. Over the last few months women have been asked to leave restaurants, supermarkets and courts for feeding their babies in public. Some restaurants have asked women to cover their child up with a napkin so as not to cause offence to other diners. In July the MP for East Antrim Sammy Wilson described colleagues who breastfeed in the House of Commons as ‘exhibitionists’. What a quaintly Victorian view.

It seems we have a culture where mothers feel embarrassed to publicly feed their children. Given the benefits to both mother and baby of breast feeding that’s a very sad state of affairs.

The scenarios described above shouldn’t be happening because in England and Wales the Equality Act 2010 makes it a matter of sex discrimination to treat a woman less favourably because she is breastfeeding. This applies to anyone providing services, benefits, facilities and premises to the public, public bodies, further and higher education bodies and association. There is specific legislation in Scotland under which it is an offence to stop someone in a public place from feeding their child, if under two, with milk. The legislation allows for fines for preventing breastfeeding in public places.

Britain has one of the world’s lowest rates of breastfeeding, with just one in every 200 children reported to be breastfed until the age of 12 months. Amongst others father of five Jamie Oliver has stated his support for public nursing and urged the Government to include it as part of its anti-obesity strategy.

And what about breast feeding mothers in the workplace?

Breastfeeding exclusively is recommended for around the first six months of the baby’s life. After this time, breastfeeding is recommended alongside solid food. It's up to a mother to decide how long she wants to breastfeed and some may do so for several years. Returning to work doesn't mean she has to stop. Before returning to work, she should give you written notification that she's breastfeeding and you should conduct a specific risk assessment.

Many new mothers have a very tough time juggling work and baby feeding requirements. Mothers who return to work after having a child have the right of access to a private space to allow them to express, store milk and even feed their babies whilst at work. They should be able to rest and that includes being able to lie down.

You must provide a place for these maternal activities. The space provided should be safe and secure, hygienic and have no risk of other employees walking in. For example, this could be an unoccupied office or an area that is used for meetings that could be sectioned off for periods of the day. If you are unsure where is best, ask the employee and canvass her views. It would not be suitable to ask the employee to use toilets, a sick room or even a store cupboard. All these areas could cause a hygiene risk.

Employees who are still breast feeding also have the right to store breast milk in a sterile environment. This could be a fridge or a cold storage area. It is important to make sure that the breast milk is stored in a sterile area and is not a risk of being left near mouldy food (or mistaken for someone’s protein shake). Ask your employee to label it and put it in a re-sealable container to stop any contamination.

You can help by having a policy to support breastfeeding.


  • a break allowance so that mothers can express milk;
  • provision of a clean, warm and private room (not the toilet) for expressing;
  • a fridge to store expressed milk; and
  • flexible working hours for breastfeeding mothers.

Make sure your employees are aware of your policy before they start their maternity leave.

Supporting breastfeeding has a number of business benefits. These include:

  • reduced absence due to child sickness (breastfed babies are generally healthier);
  • increased staff morale and loyalty, and a subsequently higher rate of return to work;
  • lower recruitment and training costs;
  • an extra incentive to offer potential employees.

We deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of HR. If you need help resolving problems with babies, mums or any other HR issues, give us a call on 01908 262628.

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