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Breastfeeding at work

To mark World Breastfeeding Week (1–7 Aug), Simone Girdham, Biomedical Scientist and member of the IBMS Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Group, looks at the issues.

WHO and UNICEF recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months as it is linked to better health outcomes. However, information regarding the rights of mothers to breastfeed or express milk at work is confusing, particularly around what must (absolute obligation, covered by law) and what should (best practice) be provided.

The law

In the UK, there are two legal requirements. Firstly, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (25–4) state: “Suitable facilities shall be provided for any person at work who is a pregnant woman or nursing mother to rest.” Secondly, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (18–1) state that a risk assessment must be undertaken once the employee “has notified the employer in writing that she is pregnant, has given birth within the previous six months, or is breastfeeding”.

If a risk cannot be controlled or removed, then either the working conditions are amended, or suitable alternative work is offered (Employment Rights Act 1996).

Best practice

The Health and Safety Executive suggests that suitable facilities should be hygienic, private, have provision to lie down and provide a fridge for expressed milk. Also, pregnant workers and breastfeeding mothers are entitled to more frequent breaks. (Note: the law does not require employers to provide specific facilities to breastfeed or express milk, nor to grant paid breaks to do so). Clear communication between the employer and the employee is key to success.

Top tips for employees

Inform your employer in writing that you intend to breastfeed or express milk when you return to work. Be clear about what you require and why (e.g. electric outlet for the pump). If there are medical issues, provide supporting information from your medical team so that your employer can understand what adjustments you need.

Top tips for employers

A policy on breastfeeding is advisable, outlining the support available and the procedure for requesting breastfeeding breaks to ensure fairness. Discuss with your employee what support is available to facilitate their return to work, before their maternity leave ends.


Numerous IBMS members were canvassed, with an overwhelming response that mothers felt uncomfortable, or avoided, approaching management for support. Reasons cited included that suitable facilities were not available to previous mothers who had their requests refused or thought that it would impact negatively on their career so didn’t ask. Managers were generally not aware of the legal requirements (must) versus best practice (should). 

Support and advice

Recent legal cases have highlighted the need for employers to be mindful of indirect sex discrimination or harassment, under the Equality Act 2010. If in doubt, free advice is offered by organisations, with some offering advice in a variety of languages.


Employees who choose to breastfeed or express milk whilst at work should be treated with dignity and respect. A good employer, who values their staff, will work with the new mother to find solutions that benefit her, her child and the service.

For links to more information, guidance and further support, email mc@ibms

Image credit | Shutterstock

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