Breastfeeding and returning to work: what are my rights?

  • Posted

With Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) covering 39 weeks (nine months), many mothers go back to work before their child turns one, and some of those will return to work whilst breastfeeding. But what are their rights when it comes to continuing breastfeeding when they go back to work? Can they take time off to express or pump? Are they entitled to a private space?

In this blog, our employment law solicitors look at what an employee’s rights are when it comes to returning to work while breastfeeding.

Can I continue to breastfeed when I return to work?

Yes. Many mums want to continue to feed their baby after their maternity leave ends; whether it’s for health benefits or simply out of convenience. With WHO recommending that mothers continue to breastfeed for up to two years of age or beyond, it should not come as a surprise to employers that returning employees may wish to continue feeding in this way.

Some mothers have childcare at their place of work or nearby and will be able to breastfeed their baby as and when necessary. Some even ask their baby’s caregiver, e.g. their partner, family member or childminder, to bring their baby to their workplace to feed them. For the majority of mums, however, this is not an option and they will need to pump milk to maintain their supply and/or to provide expressed milk for their baby.

What does the law say about returning to work while breastfeeding?

As an employee, you must let your employer know in writing that you are breastfeeding so that they can ensure the workplace is suitable and safe.

Employers also have certain obligations, including carrying out a risk assessment, providing suitable facilities and offering flexible working hours.

Employers are not legally required to have a policy, however, it is good practice, and this should be shared with pregnant employees before they start their maternity leave.

Maternity is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, however, there is no specific protection for breastfeeding in the workplace (yet). There are, however, provisions in the Act and other legislation, plus guidance by ACAS, HSE, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Breastfeeding employees are legally entitled under health and safety, flexible working and discrimination laws to:

  • Flexible working hours
  • A suitable area to rest or breastfeed (more on this below)

Does my employer have to provide a private space to pump or express milk?

One of the main things that working mothers worry about is where they can pump or express breastmilk. Breastfeeding and pumping is an intimate experience, and so it is no wonder that mums feel self-conscious about doing so in a professional environment.

Your employer is legally obligated to provide a suitable area to breastfeed or express. This should be hygienic and private (toilets are not suitable) and include somewhere to store your milk, e.g. a fridge. The storage does not have to be in the same room; for example, an employee may have a meeting room for expressing milk, and then store it in the fridge in the communal kitchen.

Do I need to complete a risk assessment?

Your employer should carry out a risk assessment ahead of your return to work. There are not many direct risks to breastfeeding but if you work with dangerous substances, this should be considered and the necessary adjustments made to accommodate you.

Employers may also wish to carry out an assessment or ask questions at least, about any equipment used, e.g. breast pumps. This is especially the case if your equipment is mains powered, or you need to charge it whilst at work.

Will I get paid for time off to breastfeed?

Whilst the law the law doesn’t require an employer to grant additional paid breaks from a job, or time off, to breastfeed or to express milk, it is generally thought it may be reasonable, unless there is an unacceptable impact on the business.

A blanket refusal from the employer could amount to unlawful sex discrimination, so it is important they consider the request objectively, and that the issue is discussed and explored to decide whether additional rest breaks are possible (or not).

My employer is not supportive of my request to breastfeed at work; what are my rights?

If your employer is refusing to accommodate your request to breastfeed at work, this may count as unlawful sex discrimination.

If your employer fails or refuses to provide a suitable place for breastfeeding, they could be at risk of a harassment claim on the basis that this potentially violates your dignity. If they refuse to give you time off to feed or express, this could count as indirect discrimination.

If your employer has carried out a risk assessment and has concluded that your work is incompatible with breastfeeding, e.g. if your role involves extensive travelling, you should, in general, be transferred to a different role, without loss of pay and conditions.

The law surrounding discrimination and harassment is complex. If you believe that your employer is refusing to accommodate you, it’s important to seek legal advice from an employment law solicitor as soon as possible.

Further information

If you are planning your return to work while breastfeeding and are concerned that your employer is not complying with their legal obligations, our employment lawyers can help. Call our expert team on 0117 325 2929 or get in touch here.


    How can we help you?

    We’re here to help. Please fill in the form and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Or call us on 0117 325 2929.