Returning to work while breastfeeding
Last updated: 29 Dec 2022
UK statutory employment law does not give a right to paid breastfeeding breaks, or other specific rights around arrangements which might be needed to facilitate breastfeeding (or expressing milk) during work.
However, the Equality Act 2010 Code of Practice states that, “…wherever possible, employers should try to accommodate workers who wish to [breastfeed]”.
Breastfeeding mothers also have the following potential protections under UK law:
- The right not to suffer direct or indirect discrimination, or harassment, because of sex. (See sections 19, 26 and 39 of the Equality Act 2010). There have been some decisions in the Employment Tribunal, and the Employment Appeals Tribunal, where employers have been found to have breached the employment rights of breastfeeding mothers, following a legal challenge by the mother in those cases – see further below.
- The right to be offered temporary suitable alternative work or paid suspension – see “suspension on maternity grounds”. (See section 66-68 of the Employment Rights Act 1996).
- If you work in the public sector you can rely on the Pregnant Worker’s Directive which states that your work must not affect “the breastfeeding of a worker”. However, there have not been any cases that have established the extent of the protection available.
- There is health and safety guidance which employers and employees should be aware of in relation to any staff who may be pregnant or breastfeeding.
You should inform your employer in writing that you are breastfeeding in order to benefit from legal protections.
Health and safety protections
Employers have specific obligations to protect the health and safety of pregnant women and women who have recently given birth.
Specific risks in relation to breastfeeding:
- If there are risks to the breast milk itself or the mother’s ability to continue breastfeeding (e.g. contamination or drying up), or your working conditions are stopping you from breastfeeding, your employer should carry out a risk assessment as above and remove the risks. This could include temporarily changing your working conditions, or your hours of work, or giving you breaks for expressing milk.
- If you need to change your working hours in order to continue breastfeeding, and you can show that your baby’s health would suffer if you cannot continue to breastfeed, it may be indirect sex discrimination if your employer refuses to make this possible for you during working hours without a good business reason.
Breaks for breastfeeding mothers
UK Health and Safety guidance states that breastfeeding mothers are entitled to more frequent rest breaks. The employer should talk to the breastfeeding mother so that they can agree on the timing and frequency of such breaks.
Suitable rest facilities
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations specify that breastfeeding women must have suitable facilities to rest. The regulations do not state what this includes, but you should talk to your employer about finding somewhere suitable. Toilets are not regarded as suitable.
The failure to provide somewhere suitable can lead to potential legal claims – see further below.
European Commission guidelines (2000) recommend that breastfeeding workers should have:
- Access to a private room in which to express milk.
- Use of secure, clean refrigerators for storing expressed milk, and facilities for washing, sterilising and storing receptacles.
- And time off (without loss of pay or benefits, and without fear of penalty) to express milk or breastfeed.
It may be a health and safety risk if your employer is unable to provide these facilities.
If you are an agency worker, you have the same rights to access facilities that are available to other employees who work where you do. For example, if employees where you work have access to a nursing room, you should be able to access that too.
Potential legal claims
If you are dismissed or treated less well because you are breastfeeding you may have a claim for sex discrimination. Sex discrimination could take the form of direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, or harassment.
See our article on what to do if you are having problems at work.
There have been a number of successful Employment Tribunal claims for indirect sex discrimination where employers have been found to have a practice of not providing suitable facilities for women who are breastfeeding, or who want to express milk. For example:
McFarlane and another v Easyjet Airline Company Ltd ET/1401496/15 & ET/3401933/15
In some circumstances, unwanted treatment of a woman who is breastfeeding, which amounts to having the purpose or effect of violating the woman’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her, can amount to harassment on the grounds of sex. See for example: Mellor v MFG Academies Trust ET/1802133/21.
The Equality Act 2010 Statutory Code of Practice gives the following example of unlawful discrimination against a mother who is breastfeeding:
“Example: An employer refused a request from a woman to return from maternity leave part-time to enable her to continue breastfeeding her child who suffered from eczema. The woman told her employer that her GP had advised that continued breastfeeding would benefit the child’s medical condition. The employer refused the request without explanation. Unless the employer’s refusal can be objectively justified, this is likely to be indirect sex discrimination”.
The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.
We cannot provide advice on employment rights in Northern Ireland as the law is different. You can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.