Alex Jones stopped breastfeeding her son after encountering difficulties expressing at work. The ‘One Show’ presenter said her employers “talk a good game”, but have provided no private space at the BBC’s central London offices for mothers to breastfeed or express, no fridge to store their milk in, nor even a crèche.
“The truth is, the facilities still aren’t there,” she said at the Hay Festival this weekend. “I work in quite a male-dominated environment and it’s hard to be doing a meeting and trying to express breast milk. It just didn’t work and so I had to throw in the towel.”
Jones is far from alone in feeling she had to choose between breastfeeding and her career. Joeli Brearley from Pregnant Then Screwed, an organisation that supports women facing maternity discrimination, told HuffPost UK she has heard from many mums who have felt humiliated because they have been forced to express in the toilets when at work.
Hannah Martin, 46, from Worthing, is one such mum. She went back to work when her son Ollie was four months old and breastfed him exclusively until he was eighteen months.
“I worked in an all-male department and no allowance was made for me at all (I didn’t even think or know to ask for it),” she says. “I expressed in my lunch break in a toilet cubicle. It was a nightmare and I was often engorged.
“I remember (with embarrassment) one summer’s day getting onto the train to commute home and realising I had leaked so had two large wet patches on my top - and nothing to cover them with. So I had to brazen it out for the 90 minute journey home.”
Hannah wishes that her employers had provided her with a place to go (in their open plan office) so she wasn’t forced to hide in the toilets for privacy. With her second child she freelanced from home so didn’t have the same issues.
Michelle* who has a three-year-old daughter and is currently pregnant with her second baby was told by her employers that she could express either in a janitor’s store room or meeting room (it had glass walls looking on to an open-plan office.) “Nothing was put in place for me and I just had to sort it myself.
“The store room they’d said I could use was where the office fridge was where everyone kept their lunch (so wasn’t that private and I didn’t feel comfortable locking myself in there for half an hour at a time), had no seat and was where all the cleaning products were kept as well as people’s changes of coats.”
Alex Jones said “companies say all the right things” but fail to deliver on lots of their promises to mums and Brearley believes that if companies really want to look after mothers returning to work they need to show they are considering their needs and give them resources to work and feed their baby.
“Returning to work after having a baby comes with many complexities that some companies do not take into consideration,” she explains. “If you do not provide a comfortable, clean, private room and fridge to store milk in then the pressure to provide nourishment for your child whilst maintaining a career can be needlessly exacerbated.”
According to charity Maternity Action, in many European countries breastfeeding mothers have a statutory right to paid breastfeeding breaks or a shorter working day, but that is not currently the case in the UK.
However, breastfeeding mothers do have some protection under health and safety laws. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends that it’s good practice for employers to provide a private, healthy and safe environment for breastfeeding mothers to express and store milk. The toilets are not considered a suitable place to express breast milk.
What are a mother’s options if she wants to return to work while breastfeeding?
NHS Choices says there are several options:
1) Arrange for childcare close to work or college so that you can visit your baby and breastfeed during breaks, or before and after work.
2) Express breast milk (taking milk from the breast by hand or using a pump) so that someone else can feed your baby while you’re at work.
3) Asking your employer or college for flexible working hours arranged around your breastfeeding needs.
Before a mother returns to work, the HSE advises she should give her employer written notification that she is breastfeeding. Her employer must then conduct a specific risk assessment and they can discuss options around flexible working.