The NHS Infant Feeding Survey (carried out every 5 years) consistently shows that the majority of women stop breastfeeding by the time their child is 6 months old (just 1% of women are still breastfeeding exclusively by this time, although 34% are partially breastfeeding). Of those who continue beyond 6 months, this will naturally decrease in frequency as many babies will have replaced at least some milk feeds with solid food by around 9 months.
As the default period of maternity leave is 12 months (of which 9 attract statutory maternity pay), it will be relatively rare to encounter a mother who is still fully breastfeeding when she returns to work. Women who choose or are compelled for financial reasons to return to work after just a few months are those most likely to be doing so.
How can they possibly continue? There may be a handful of women whose work allows them to keep their child with them (those in childcare being the obvious example), but for most women, work is no place to take a baby! Their options are to leave work for a time to feed the baby, or to express milk whilst at work for the baby to be fed with at a later stage. Both of these will involve time away from their duties.
There is no specific employment law entitlement for a woman to take time off to breastfeed their baby or express milk. However, it is common ground between the Health & Safety Executive and the Equality and Human Rights Commission that a breastfeeding employee should be provided with suitable facilities to express and store milk. Suitable facilities would be likely to include a fridge to store milk safely and a private room in which to express it (which does not mean the toilets!).
What is less clear, is whether a woman who is refused time off to express milk or feed their baby is able to take any action. It is possible that she would have an “indirect” sex discrimination claim (although it would be possible for the employer to justify their actions if they have a good reason for their refusal). The case of MOD v Williams * touched on this area, and suggests the possible formulation of the argument for women who feel they have not been treated appropriately.
As with so many of these matters, an understanding of the employee’s perspective will help inform the employer’s approach and avoid misunderstanding or mismatched expectations. In particular the employer should bear in mind that any allowances made are likely only to be for a relatively short period of time. The employee should equally appreciate that they don’t have an absolute entitlement and co-operate with their employer to reach an agreeable solution.
*Many thanks to Darren Newman (a.k.a “the ukemplaw oracle”)for pointing me in the direction of this judgment.