Returning to Work
By Jennifer Clark, IBCLC. Revised June 2022.
Many mothers return to work and continue breastfeeding their baby/child. Continuing to breastfeed your baby provides health benefits to both you and baby and is also great for reconnecting when you have been apart.
The recommendation from the World Health Organisation is to exclusively breastfeed for six months then continue alongside solids till the age of two and beyond. Some mothers will choose to stop before returning to work, however, it is important that stopping breastfeeding is unlikely to be the easy option as sterilising, buying formula, preparing bottles as well as weaning all need to be done too. If you wish to continue to breastfeed there is some legal protection under health and safety and sex discrimination laws to protect you.
Depending on where you work you may have a few options with returning to work. For example, working from home, having your baby brought to work, doing alternate days or shorter days so you’re away from your baby less.
When returning to work you may or may not need to express milk. This will depend on the age of your baby, the length of time you will be away from baby, whether they take a bottle/cup of milk as well as if you’re more prone to blocked ducts or mastitis. In the UK, most mothers will have at least 6-9 months off and by this time your milk supply is well established. In the first week or so, you may find your breasts are uncomfortably full and you need to express, however, your breasts will hopefully adjust over time.
If your baby is under 12 months and you’re at work for most of the day you may need to leave expressed milk for them. After 6 months babies can take milk from a bottle, sippy or open cup.
If baby doesn’t take milk from a bottle/cup – Depending on the age of your baby those taking solids and water will usually increase the amount they're eating on the days you’re at work and may ‘reverse cycle’ and feed more when your home/through the night.
If baby usually feeds to sleep
Many babies/children will feed to sleep during nap times and at bedtime. If you are at work at these times the carer will find their own way of getting baby to sleep. This maybe in a sling, with a cuddle or in the pram.
If you do long days at work or night shifts you may be able to discuss not doing night shifts while you’re breastfeeding. If this isn’t an option then it is a good idea to slowly get your child used to bring settled in the night by your partner/carer while you’re away.
Employers are obliged under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 to provide “suitable facilities” for a breastfeeding employee to “rest”. The Approved Code of Practice states that these facilities should be conveniently situated in relation to sanitary facilities and, where necessary, include the facility to lie down. These “rest facilities” are very likely to also be a suitable place for breastfeeding or expressing. Although private, the ladies toilet is never a suitable place in which to breastfeed a baby or collect milk.
The Health and Safety Executive and guidance from the European Commission recommend that employers should provide:
Access to a private room where women can breastfeed or express breast milk;
Use of secure, clean refrigerators for storing expressed breast milk while at work, and
Facilities for washing, sterilising and storing receptacles.
The NHS states that ‘Before returning to work, she should give her employer written notification that she's breastfeeding. Her employer must then conduct a specific risk assessment. Workplace regulations require employers to provide suitable facilities where pregnant and breastfeeding mothers can rest.’
Interesting case study from Maternity Action:
In a recent case involving two Easyjet cabin crew members, it was found to be indirect sex discrimination and a breach of the health and safety regulations when Easyjet refused to provide shorter, individual rosters while the women were breastfeeding. Both women had letters from their GPs stating that working for longer than eight hours increased the risks of engorgement and mastitis. Easyjet had offered ground work for a period of six months but the tribunal agreed that employers must continue to protect their health and safety and provide suitable alternative work for as long as breastfeeding continues. (McFarlane & Ambacher v easyjet Airline Co Ltd, 2016)
The law does not currently say you are legally entitled to breastfeeding breaks. However, it is considered good practice and your employer must consider any health and safety issues, as stated above.