Saturday, 6 November 2010

Yes, you can go back to work AND continue to breastfeed!

Some of us work to live, and others live to work.  Work is just a fact of life for most of us.  Unless you're really lucky one of the bridges you'll eventually have to cross once you've established breastfeeding is the management of your return to work.

Although the formula manufacturers would like you to think you need to combine feed at this point, it's often not necessary at all - but only if you know how to work the system and demand your rights.

If you don't want to stop breastfeeding (and many mums find they really do not!) but are worried about your return to work, this post is for you.

If you live in the UK your right to continue to breastfeed is protected by law.  There is no 'time limit' put on it - you are protected whether your baby is 6 months, or 6 years old.  You might have your own time limit in mind, but if you do let that be decided by you and your child and not by anything else.

Perhaps surprisingly in Northern Ireland (where we have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the whole UK), we have some of the tightest regulations when it comes to breastfeeding rights in the workplace.  Presumably this is because of our appalling record on human rights and the subsequent tightening up of the discrimination laws here.  However, wherever you live in the UK your breastfeeding rights are protected by Health and Safety law.

In order to ensure your employer understands their legal obligations there are procedures you will need to ask them to follow.

1/  You must inform them in writing before you return to work that you intend to continue breastfeeding.  Because you are a breastfeeding mother and this raises additional Health and Safety questions, they are required to carry out a Health and Safety Assessment.
(This might sound a bit OTT but if, for example, your work involved dealing with chemicals or infection risks then you can see why it becomes relevant).  You can include a letter from your GP or midwife in your risk assessment.

2/  If risks are identifed then your employers are required either to remove the risk (by adjusting your working environment to allow you to continue to work), or, where suitable, reassign you (with the same terms and conditions).  If neither of these things are possible then they must suspend you (with pay) for as long as is necessary to protect you and your child from the risk.

3/  Your employer must provide you with a space in which to rest (and in NI express milk) but they are not legally obliged to provide you with a fridge/ storage facility for any expressed breastmilk.  Many people find that a cool bag is sufficient to allow them to keep milk cold until they get home.  The rest space must not be a toilet.

4/  Employers are not legally obliged to have a 'breastfeeding policy' of their own but many do.  This can include things like information about rest-breaks, and milk storage facilities etc.  If your employer does not have one yet, by approaching them and discussing your situation you may find they decide to implement such a policy.  This would be a great service to other mothers coming after you.  

But what's in it for them?
How can you convince your employer to make it work for you?

Tell them why it makes good business sense.

  • Breastfed babies are sick less often.  This means parents take less time off to look after them.  A study done in 1995 showed that mums of formula fed babies take twice as many one-day absences as breastfeeding mums do. (Cohen R, Mrtek MB &; Mrtek RG; American Journal of Health Promotion, 10 (2), 148-153.)
  • Employees who feel valued and supported are more productive and report higher morale than those who are not.  Supportive breastfeeding policies ease a mother's return to work and enable a breastfeeding mother to return sooner than she otherwise might.  (Galtry J. (1997). Lactation and the labor market)
  • An earlier return to work by a satisfied employee reduces the costs of recruting, hiring, and training temporary staff.  If the company is a small one and the position has not been covered, other staff are likely to experience greater stress affecting their productivity, morale and health the longer the employee is off work. 
  • Family-friendly policies in the workplace improve a companies public image and this has a positive effect on recruitment.
  • Lactating mothers report lower levels of stress (Mezzacappa ES, Katlin ES Health Psychol. 2002 Mar;21(2):187-93).  Stress is thought to supress the immune system making you more succeptible to illness.

What else can you do?
  • If you're in a union, you can request their help in approaching your employers.  If you're not, you might consider joining one
  • Prior to returning to work begin to express and store breastmilk to give to your child.
  • Find childcare close to your work so you can breastfeed just before work and just after.
  • Work out how you will provide your baby with breastmilk when you're not around - you might need to get them used to using a bottle.  This website has great advice about doing this.
  • Consider in advance how you will express and store milk at work.
  • Explain to your employer that you need to be able to express milk in privacy during your rest breaks.  In NI this is already a legal requirement.  Although in other parts of the UK it is not yet a legal requirement, it is considered 'best practice' by the Health and Safety Executive (see links below). You can also argue that your employer is putting you at increased risk of blocked ducts and mastitis if they do not provide you with this facility.  A toilet is not considered a suitable facility.
  • If your employer doesn't understand that nursing mothers need rest breaks, explain to them that breastfeeding burns up to 500 calories per day.  Other examples of ways to burn 500 calories include the following:  1 hour of rowing, 1 hour of running up stairs, 1 hour of cycling, 1 hour of rock climbing. 
  • Remember that if your employer is unhelpful and seems to be forcing you to curtail or end your breastfeeding then they are putting you at an increased risk of some illnesses including breast and ovarian cancer, as well as osteporosis. They are also putting your child at increased risk of illness whatever their age. The longer you breastfeed, the lower the risks to you and to your child.  
  • If you do not feel that your employer is being sympathetic there are a number of things you can do. 1/ speak to your human resources department or union;  2/ contact your occupational health department (if you have one); 3/ contact the Health and Safety Executive; 4/ contact one of the other organisations listed below; 5/ discuss your situation with an employment lawyer.
Most employers will see the good sense in supporting your desire to breastfeed.  Some will be less helpful!  However, they are legally obliged to carry out a risk assessment and act upon it, and they must provide you with a suitable rest area. 

You might feel intimidated if you're the first person in your workplace to approach your employer about breastfeeding rights at work.  It is understandable to be anxious about this, but remember - the law is there to protect you.

In order to normalise breastfeeding for our sons and daughters we all need to play our part in breaking down these barriers and demanding our rights at work.

Useful links:

Useful addresses:

HSE Information Services
Caerphilly Business Park
CF83 3GG

Infoline: 0845 345 0055
Fax: 0845 408 9566
Textphone: 0845 408 9577

Department for Work and Pensions

Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
Enquiry Unit: 020 7215 5000
Fax: 020 7215 0105
Textphone: 020 7215 6740

Equality and Human Rights Commission
Helplines: 0845 604 6610 (England) 0845 604 5510 (Scotland)
0845 604 8810 (Wales)

Maternity Action
The Grayston Centre
28 Charles Square
London N1 6HT
Tel: 020 7324 4740

Tommy’s, the Baby Charity
Nicholas House
3 Laurence Pountney Hill

Tel: 0870 777 7676
Fax: 0870 770 7075

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