National Breastfeeding Week

By Clare Livingstone, Professional Policy Advisor on 27 June 2022 NHS MSWs - Maternity Support Workers NHS Unions Trade Unions Breastfeeding

For National Breastfeeding Week (27 June to 3 July) the Royal College of Midwives (RCM)'s Professional Policy Advisor Clare Livingstone shares the importance of supporting women to breastfeed in the workplace.  

I would like to start by thanking all the midwives and MSWs for the wonderful support they have continued to provide during the pandemic, finding innovative ways to reach out to mothers, resolve issues and encourage breastfeeding during times of isolation and anxiety. You will have been a lifeline to many families and will always be remembered for your kindness and commitment.

Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the for the first six months of the baby's life, and to be continued in combination with other food and drinks for up to two years. Unfortunately the UK still has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates among high income countries.

What we have not been able to overcome yet, are some of the systemic barriers to breastfeeding that exist beyond maternity services. From evidence we are aware that one of the major influences on women’s infant feeding decisions is the need to return to work. This is a financial necessity for many and often happens before mothers and babies are ready to stop breastfeeding.

As midwives, we know that women always want the best for their babies, but there are other factors to also consider, not least of these being the need to put food on the table for their families and to pay the bills.

So welcome back to work. Your job is just as it was, but we’re afraid there are no facilities for you to express your milk, no separate fridge to store the bottles and no flexibility to your working hours.

I have heard grim accounts of women being advised to use breast pumps in workplace toilets, feeling humiliated when spotted by colleagues with this equipment in the staffroom, finding different excuses to start late or leave early, to make it home in time for a feed. This is completely unacceptable and things have to change.

ACAS guidance on accommodating breastfeeding in the workplace offers recommendations for good practice, but very little protection is enforceable in law. For example, there is no obligation for employers to provide a separate private environment for safely expressing and storing milk.  Published in 2014, there is no mention of home working. Clearly the world had moved on and the RCM believes an overhaul of this guidance is long overdue.

Mothers in all the UK’s workplaces deserve proper protection when returning to work.