Help Create New Rights for Mothers Returning to Work
Mothers returning to work in the UK face serious difficulties when trying to breastfeed their babies for long periods, as recommended by the WHO and the NHS. Labour law does not provide for breastfeeding breaks at work for mothers with young children, which can lead to milk starvation. Laura Fay is one of these mothers who faced this legal anomaly on returning to work. After her own struggles, she decided to start a petition for mothers’ rights. In the following article, we describe the current situation and possible solutions. Laura Fay’s article follows.
Norway, France, Portugal, Italy, and Germany are just a few examples of countries that allow paid breastfeeding breaks up to 1 hour per day until their baby is 12 months old. Sweden offers this until the baby is 18 months old. Women in the UK are ‘more entitled to frequent breaks’ when returning to work (hse.gov.uk). However, ‘the law does not currently allow a simple straightforward right to breastfeeding breaks’ (maternityaction.org.uk).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for ‘up to 2 years’ (nhs.uk). This is advised by the NHS, but it doesn’t have any weight unless it has some statutory backing when mums return to work. The Department of Health recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for six months and then breastfed in conjunction with solid food. Below you can see that while this is guaranteed to be supported in the workplace in many other countries, in the UK it is not.
Upon my return to work from maternity leave when my son Rory was 9 months old, I had limited knowledge of my rights regarding breastfeeding. I did my own research, and I couldn’t believe what I found. I have created a petition to help to change this.
Currently, mothers have some legal protection under the health and safety and sex discrimination laws. However, the law does not allow for a straightforward right to have breaks. Employers are only ‘encouraged’ to give them. This means that to get a break, you may have to prove that not doing so will negatively affect your or your baby’s health. In the UK, maternity leave can be up to 52 weeks, but only 39 weeks are paid. Lots of mums go back before their child turns a year old.
I’ve spoken to lots of women online about their journeys. I was happy to see that some experiences were positive. While some employers are incredibly supportive, others are not and will do the bare minimum. Some mothers are having to bring their breastfeeding journey to an end because they feel their employers simply aren’t supporting their need to express milk. Others have had to fight to be able to do so. This has meant them having to get unions involved to argue their case which has caused them a great deal of stress. Going back to work is a challenge without having to worry about this. Others can’t afford to lose their pay. Why should they be put at a disadvantage for following NHS advice?
The law does not currently allow a simple straightforward right to breastfeeding breaks.
Some employees are asked to use their existing breaks. While this may work for some, It may not for others. Employees in the UK are entitled to a 20-minute rest break during their working day if they work more than 6 hours a day. The NHS advises that ‘you’ll probably need to express your breast milk at least every 3 hours when your first away from your baby’ (nhs.uk). If you follow this advice, a 20-minute break over a minimum of 6 hours is not enough time to feed or express. Additionally, I imagine employees would struggle to eat their lunch, grab a drink, and go to the toilet all while sitting and pumping, which for some takes longer than 20 minutes anyway.
The NHS advises that ‘you’ll probably need to express your breast milk at least every 3 hours when you are first away from your baby. Their breasts will become engorged, and this can lead to clogged ducts, mastitis and even abscesses.
If women can’t express or feed regularly it can be very uncomfortable and painful. Their breasts will become engorged, and this can lead to clogged ducts, mastitis and even abscesses, sometimes requiring hospitalization and antibiotics. Mothers need to keep up their milk supply to feed their babies. Mums should be able to make a choice about their body and their baby without worrying about whether their work will allow breaks or if they will lose pay because of it. Having the legal right to a straightforward breastfeeding or pumping break may encourage breastfeeding mums to go back to work making it easier for them to succeed in their careers. It sends a message that they are valued by their employers and care about their well-being.
Some mothers are having to bring their breastfeeding journey to an end.
There is no one size fits all solution for the varying workplaces however, many other countries make this work so that shows it’s possible. Employers must remember that this is a temporary situation. Everyone’s situation is different, people continue to breastfeed or express themselves at work for different reasons.
Mothers should be able to do what they feel is best for them and their baby without worrying about their work will allow breaks or if they will lose pay to do so.
Let’s come together to help raise awareness, inform mums of their rights, and make a change by signing and sharing the petition below:
Create new rights to paid breastfeeding breaks for mothers – Petitions (parliament.uk).
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