Breastfeeding at work - what's the right policy?

Recently, the airline KLM came under the media spotlight when the company shared its ‘on board breastfeeding policy.’ It was shared by the airline following a complaint made on social media from a passenger who was breastfeeding on a flight. They were approached by a member of staff with a blanket to cover up.


Following the complaint, the airline confirmed in a Tweet that the member of staff had been “in line with company policy” which was in place to “ensure that all our passengers of all backgrounds feel comfortable on board.”


Whether this policy is right or wrong, is irrelevant. What we wanted to highlight were the legal considerations an employer would need to be aware of, if a member of staff wanted to continue to breastfeed once they returned to work. So here they are:

There are three key legal protections in place for breastfeeding mothers:

  1. The employer is legally obliged to protect the health and safety at work of all employees and to carry out a workplace risk assessment – this includes staff who are pregnant, have recently given birth or are breastfeeding.

  2. The employer must not unlawfully discriminate against an employee who is breastfeeding.

  3. The employer must not unlawfully harassment an employee who is breastfeeding.

So what do these legal protections actually look like in the workplace?


Discrimination and harassment are easily understood given the wording. There are a number of protected characteristics under The Equality Act 2010, for which pregnancy and maternity is one of them.


Any employer must be mindful that they do not discriminate against any employee who is breastfeeding and do what they can to accommodate any necessary adjustments to working conditions to support this. Adjustments could include shortening the working day or additional breaks in order to feed a baby or express milk.


Understandably a breastfeeding mother does not want to be the topic of conversation, gossip or ‘office banter’ – such comments could cause distress and upset. Whether the employer believes the team are being playful is irrelevant – the ‘office banter’ could be seen as unlawful harassment as per The Equality Act 2010.


When it comes to health and safety, every employee should have a workplace risk assessment carried out to assess their needs. If a mother returning from maternity leave wishes to continue to breastfeed when at work, then a risk assessment is required to identify any risks to the health of the mother and the baby and remove them as appropriate.


They must also make any reasonable changes to working conditions, which could be the number of hours they work or slightly longer breaks to feed or express.


These reasonable adjustments may be more straightforward to implement in some workplaces than others. Where risks can’t be removed via such adjustments then the employer will have to consider alternative work on the same terms. If that’s not an option then the employer will need to suspend the employee on full pay, for as long as required to allow them to breastfeed away from the risks identified.

The legal obligation for breastfeeding facilities


Bizarrely, there is a legal obligation for employers to provide suitable facilities for a breastfeeding mother to rest, including the facility to lie down, however there isn’t a legal obligation to provide facilities for breastfeeding.


If you’re concerned that your organisation isn’t set up to support breastfeeding mothers at work, here’s our top tips:


1. Discuss what facilities and support breastfeeding mothers would like – gather insight from your teams so you understand a bit about their expectations of you. It doesn’t mean you need to act on research immediately, but it may give you some ideas and possibly some good answers.


2. Consider how technology could be a help – working remotely is now extremely secure and much more responsive. With mobiles, laptops, video calls… your teams can still interact with each other without being physically in the same place.


3. Understand the law! As always, employment law is there to protect everyone. Make sure your actions are informed and inline with the latest legislation. If you’re unsure about your decisions, recruit the guidance of an expert to remove the doubt and minimise your risk.


The team at HJS Human Resources are here to help - speak with us today on 01722 325833 or email hr@hjssolutions.co.uk


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