Breastfeeding and your return to work
There are many well-documented benefits associated with breastfeeding and for many women their return to work after maternity leave coincides with plans to continue breastfeeding.
State and federal anti-discrimination legislation requires employers to ‘reasonably accommodate’ breastfeeding mothers. However, the generality of this term necessitates the negotiation of specific employer support for women who choose to continue breastfeeding upon returning to work.
Research indicates that breastfed children receive better nutrition and protection from illness/infections. Parents benefit where children are healthy, as well as appreciating the overall convenience of breastfeeding including financial benefits.
The employer and community also benefit because breastfeeding can be seen as a contributor to lowering parental absenteeism due to infant illnesses. In fact, ‘time to establish successful breastfeeding’ was one of the reasons underpinning the former federal government’s establishment of the national paid parental leave scheme which came into effect in 2011.
Family-friendly policies and conditions, including support to continue to breastfeed and express when returning to paid work, also assist employers in the recruitment and retention of women workers.
Breastfeeding as an industrial issue
Employers must come to terms with the reality of breastfeeding as a workplace issue because:
- Women make up nearly half the Australian workforce, and more than 70 per cent of school employees;
- Many women combine paid work with mothering;
- On average, those who take time out to start a family already have 10 years experience in paid work;
- More than one in four return to paid work in the first 12 months of their child’s life;
- For breastfeeding to be maintained, mothers need to either breastfeed their baby or express breast milk if separated from their baby; and
- While more women are choosing to breastfeed, studies show that return to work is a major reason for early weaning.
Breastfeeding should be supported by employers because it:
- Reduces staff turnover, since mothers are more likely to return to work and may even return sooner;
- Requires less recruiting costs by retaining experienced, skilled staff;
- Increases productivity through enhanced employee-employer relations. Women feel valued and are therefore more motivated, committed and productive;
- Presents a positive corporate image; and
- Reduces staff absenteeism, due to reduction of child illness and infection.
Employers can support a woman’s choice to continue breastfeeding upon return to work by providing any or all of these provisions:
- Adequate timetabled lactation breaks (paid or unpaid) attached to scheduled morning tea and lunch breaks, and exemption from duties at morning tea and lunch, to enable time to breastfeed or express, seal and store expressed breast milk, and sterilise equipment where necessary;
- Use of a clean, private room (not the toilet area) with a power point, lockable door, comfortable chair and small table;
- Use of a small refrigerator, separate to communal staff facilities, where expressed breast milk and expressing equipment can be hygienically stored;
- Use of a clean space to sterilise and dry expressing equipment; and
- Permission for a carer to bring the child to work to be breastfed during lactation breaks.
Next steps towards more family friendly workplaces
While many agreements negotiated by our union already contain specific provisions to support women wishing to continue breastfeeding on their return to work, there is more to be done in assisting women to successfully combine breastfeeding and paid work
Our union is actively promoting the widespread negotiation of a comprehensive industrial provision supporting breastfeeding and expressing through collective agreements. When collective bargaining negotiations occur at your workplace, members are encouraged to prioritise a specific industrial provision to support mothers who chose to continue to breastfeed upon returning to paid work.
What you can do to ease the transition
If you choose to breastfeed upon return to work you should:
- Advise your employer of your intention to continue breastfeeding upon return to work, and the specific considerations you may require of your employer to enable them to do this, ahead of returning to work so that the necessary arrangements can be made;
- Organise feeding times to breastfeed just before leaving home in the morning and again as soon as you return in the afternoon;
- Consider the purchase of an electric breast pump to make expressing sessions at work quicker and easier;
- Wear clothes that allow easier expressing at work. Take along tissues or a small towel and extra breast pads;
- Learn some relaxation techniques to reduce stress and make expressing easier and faster;
- Contact a trained Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor for support and advice on expressing at work.
Contact our union for advice and legal/industrial representation if your workplace is unsupportive, or if you think you have been discriminated against in seeking to breastfeed at work.