Australian Senator Larissa Waters made headlines this week by becoming the first politician to breastfeed in the Australian Parliament during a vote on Tuesday.
Waters is the first politician to actually breastfeed in the Australian Parliament, but Spanish MP Carolina Benscansa breastfed her son in parliament last year. A conservative parliamentarian accused her of taking a “lamentable” action, and a socialist MP called it “unnecessary.”
In October 2016, Icelandic Parliamentary member Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir not only fed her child in parliament — she brought the infant, still feeding, up to the podium and spoke. Her colleagues didn’t seem to mind one bit. Later she said that her daughter “was hungry, and I wasn’t expecting to speak, so I started feeding her.” Taking her off the breast, she said, would have made the child cry — and thus been far more disruptive.
The publicity has again raised the issue of how we accommodate breastfeeding Mums in the workplace – because like it or not, when politicians step into Parliament, they are only doing their job.
Should women breastfeed at work?
81% of babies born in the UK are exclusively breastfed at birth, although this drops significantly down to only 12% at the age of four months.
Few would argue against the benefits for babies of breast feeding. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of babies having asthma or allergies, and babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, without any formula, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea.
With many Mums choosing to go back to work early, often due to financial pressures, many will wish to continue to breastfeed.
Should employers offer breastfeeding friendly employment policies?
Workingmums.co.uk did a recent survey on the issue of Breastfeeding Friendly Employment Policies, with mixed results. It showed that some women still worry that have breastfeeding friendly policies will just result in less women being hired.
Mandy Garner, Editor told HR News:
” Breastfeeding is not nearly as big an issue for women as things like flexible working and affordable childcare, but we did do a poll a while ago which showed mixed results.
“Nearly a third were in favour because they felt the benefits of breastfeeding should always be promoted. A fifth thought it was good that women were being offered the choice and just over a quarter felt the plans were impractical, even if they supported the idea of breastfeeding.
“However, just over one in 10 (11%) women felt mums may feel pressure to return to work too early if breastfeeding friendly policies were in operation, and the rest were worried breastfeeding policies could lead to a backlash against hiring women.”
What legal rights do breastfeeding Mums have?
Actually breastfeeding Mums are protected under the 2010 Equality Act and their employers have to accommodate them. Maternity law experts Gorvins Solicitors told HR News:
“In the UK, breastfeeding mothers have some legal protection under health and safety and sex discrimination laws. Employers have legal obligations to provide:
- Health and safety protection
- Flexible working hours and protection from indirect sex discrimination
- Rest facilities
- Protection from harassment
Breastfeeding mums should be allowed to take breaks when they need them, but you can ask that your staff fit these around existing breaks or around the demands of the job. Employers also have a duty to arrange “suitable facilities” for a breastfeeding employee to “rest”. These facilities should, where necessary, include the facility to lie down and should be a suitable place for breastfeeding or expressing. There has been recent debate about whether a ladies’ toilet was an appropriate place in which to collect milk.”
How can employers help Mums carry on breastfeeding when they return to work?
There are many ways in which staff can combine breastfeeding with going back to work. If there is a workplace nursery or alternative childcare very close to your workplace, your staff may be able to visit the baby during the working day and breastfeed normally. If they can’t visit their baby, they can continue to express.
You may need to have a conversation about where and when it is possible for breastfeeding Mums to express milk – which will obviously depend on the facilities in your workplace. A large employer may have a ‘mother and baby room’. In other workplaces you may be able to offer use of a first aid room, spare office or any private room, preferably with a lockable door.
As an employer, you should as a minimum:
- Allow access to an isolated room where women can breastfeed or express breast milk;
- Allow the use of secure, clean refrigerators for storing expressed breast milk while at work, and
- Have facilities for washing, sterilising and storing receptacles.
So in a modern society, should we seriously be making world headlines with something done at some point by 81% of Mums? We’ll leave the last word to Ms Waters herself:
“It’s frankly ridiculous, really, that feeding one’s baby is international news. Women have been breastfeeding for as long as time immemorial.”
Vox.com put it more simply:
“She has a new baby, the baby was hungry, she fed her. She has a job, the job required her to be in office to vote, she voted.”