Breastfeeding at work

06 June 2017

The reality and what needs to improve...

Senator Larissa Waters: Credit - Jeremy Buckingham

"I breastfed my daughter in the Australian parliament because she was hungry"

That was the simple statement Senator Larissa Waters chose to start an article responding to the international furore that erupted after she was caught on camera feeding her eight-week-old daughter at work.

The fact that pictures of her doing so made headlines around the globe, and spawned a plethora of analysis and comment pieces, and wave after wave of reaction on social media, throws into relief just how controversial a subject this still is.

It is widely accepted that breastmilk offers health benefits to mothers and babies over formula feeding. The WHO (2016) recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months. While most women now return to work after having children, breastfeeding or expressing in the workplace is still far from accepted.

Consider the Houses of Parliament. Breastfeeding is not allowed in the chamber of the House of Commons. The matter was clarified in 2000 when Labour MP Julia Drown asked if she would be allowed to breastfeed her baby in a committee room during a sitting of a standing committee.

In a letter issued on behalf of the then speaker, Betty Boothroyd, Sir Alan Haselhurst instructed that babies should not be taken into the Chamber or committee rooms on the grounds that ‘bringing refreshment into the [committee] room and the presence of persons other than members of the committee and specified officers and officials are prohibited’.

Mixed messages

In 2015 SNP MP Alison Thewliss again raised the subject in a Commons debate calling for members to ‘gently challenge’ the rules that ban breastfeeding in the Commons.

She pointed out that breastfeeding is allowed in the Scottish parliament, adding: ‘Over five years I have fed my children while fully participating in meetings of Glasgow City Council and was made very welcome in doing by my colleagues.’

Such a variety in policies is all too common in UK workplaces, with no legislation that specifically protects a woman’s right to breastfeed or express milk while at work.

Instead employers are bound by health and safety law, flexible working law and discrimination law. Workplace regulations require employers to provide suitable facilities where pregnant and breastfeeding mothers can rest – but not specifically a place where they can feed or express.

A woman should give her employer written notification that she’s breastfeeding, and employers must assess any risks to new and expectant mothers arising from their work or workplace and ‘take reasonable action’, which could include, for example, adjusting the hours they work.

Under the Equality Act 2010, it is sex discrimination to fail to assess and take action on health and safety risks for a breastfeeding woman where it could have serious consequences for mother or baby. It is also illegal to harass a breastfeeding employee or to fail to take action to stop other staff members from doing so.

Global variation

The law is far from explicit, but a refusal to allow a breastfeeding employee to express milk or to adjust her working conditions to enable her to continue to breastfeed may amount to unlawful sex discrimination. But an employer can make the case that it cannot allow extra breaks without creating an unacceptable impact on the business.

And while the Health and Safety Executive recommends that it is good practice for employers to provide a private, healthy and safe environment for breastfeeding mothers – including a clean, private room, washing facilities, and a clean, secure fridge to store milk – it is not a statutory requirement. Ultimately it is up to the employer how far it is willing to go in supporting employees.

However, the UK is one of the few countries where that is the case. In the US, for example, a federal law was introduced in 2010 requiring employers to provide ‘a reasonable amount’ of break time and a private place – other than a bathroom – for women to express milk up until their babies turn one.

A 2013 WHO analysis of United Nations member states found breastfeeding breaks with pay were guaranteed in 130 countries, unpaid breaks were guaranteed in seven, and 45 countries had no policy on breastfeeding breaks.

The study then tested the association between national policy and rates of exclusive breastfeeding. The guarantee of paid breastfeeding breaks for at least six months was associated with an increase of 8.86 percentage points in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding.

The authors conclude that a greater percentage of women practise exclusive breastfeeding in countries where laws guarantee breastfeeding breaks at work.

Rosalind Bragg, director of charity Maternity Action, says: ‘There is no doubt that difficulties associated with breastfeeding on return to work force many women to stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like.

‘Many women don’t even seek advice on this issue because there is the widespread understanding that there is no legal entitlement to breastfeeding breaks.’

Maternity Action has prepared a manifesto to protect maternity rights, and is asking the next government to ‘introduce a proper legal right to breastfeed in the workplace,’ allowing ‘all women…a real choice about how long they breastfeed their babies.’

‘Changing the law is essential to changing the culture which surrounds breastfeeding,’ says Rosalind. ‘If in the workplace women have the right to have paid breaks to breastfeed or express and there is a designated place, it prompts other groups of employees to consider that question, and take that awareness from the workplace out into the community.

Work to be done

‘Normalising breastfeeding is a major task,’ adds Rosalind. ‘We have laws in place in relation to public places which make it illegal to treat a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding. That has empowered women to challenge cafes or shops when they have encountered difficulties with staff or other customers.

‘We need to empower women in the workplace similarly to exercise their right to continue breastfeeding after they return to work if that’s what they want to do.’

Not only has the charity pointed out that such legislation is ‘long overdue’, it has also highlighted the need to ensure that existing maternity rights are not eroded by the advent of Brexit.

‘The EU pregnant workers directive provides the basis for the maternity rights in the workplace in the UK. We are very concerned that Brexit will open up these rights for debate, and there is a real risk that they will be wound back for particular groups of women,’ says Rosalind.

‘We need to be vigilant to ensure that these rights are protected in the years following Brexit.’


WHO. (2013) Breastfeeding policy: a globally comparative analysis. See: who.int/bulletin/volumes/91/6/12-109363/en (accessed 24 May 2017).

WHO. (2016) Infant and young child feeding. See: who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs342/en (accessed 24 May 2017).

Further reading

  • ‘Facilitating working mothers’ ability to breastfeed’ research: bit.ly/ncbi_1
  • ‘Breastfeeding policy: a globally comparative analysis’ research: bit.ly/ncbi_2
  • Maternity Action guidance for employers on breastfeeding at work: bit.ly/matact_2014
  • Acas guide to breastfeeding for employers and employees: bit.ly/acas_guide
  • Health and Safety Executive summary of the regulations covering new and expectant mothers at work: bit.ly/hse_law
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