How (and why) to support breastfeeding mothers at work

 This week is World Breastfeeding Week 2023, and the theme is “Let’s Make Breastfeeding and work, work!”

When a parent returns to work while still breastfeeding a baby or toddler, there’s a lot going on. The experience of returning to work while still sleep deprived, chock full of postpartum hormones, and feeling like your body is literally being pulled from pillar-to-post on an hourly basis is a challenge in itself (I liken it to suffering from chaos brain). Knowing that your employer is supportive of your efforts to breastfeed provides a soft landing and a much easier transition back to work.

I’ve spent the better part of the last three years breastfeeding two babies, and I love it. However, I also really value my work and professional development. It was never an option for me to compromise either my choice to breastfeed or work.

(It’s at this point that I’d like to pause and reflect that everyone has their own parenting and feeding journey. Breastfeeding worked for and my family, and every family should be encouraged to pursue whatever feeding option works best for them.)

I have worked for two different companies while breastfeeding, and have been fortunate enough to have had incredibly supportive experiences in both instances.

When I returned to work when my first baby was six months old, the management team moved me from the open plan work-space area and into an office where I was able to close and secure the door. They were accepting of the fact that I occasionally had to re-schedule meetings and calls around my pumping breaks. They even installed a mini fridge in the office for me to store expressed milk and a jar of trail mix because, as the office manager pointed out at the time, breastfeeding is hungry work.

Two years’ later I again returned to work post-baby, again after a six-month break, but this time to ATC Events & Media. Again, I was blessed with overwhelming levels of support in my choice to breastfeed, but this time there was more to it than the logistical support.

One of the core tenants of ATC’s working structure is flexibility; we don’t have an office, we’re a company made up of permanent part-timers, and the general philosophy is that it doesn’t really matter when the job gets done provided it’s done when it needs to be. This meant that I was able to return to work in my own home-office and either feed my daughter at regular intervals between work, or discretely pump from the comfort of my own home (and in comfortable nursing friendly clothes!).

In fact, ATC were so supporting of my desire to keep in touch with my work while continuing my breastfeeding journey, they made allowances and provisions for me to bring my then 4-month old daughter AND my mother with my to our annual conference ATC2022, so I could still be a part of the event. My mum ferried my baby into Luna Park every couple of hours for a feed, and a secure room was arranged at the venue for private feedings. I was also assigned an on-site role that allowed me to duck away at certain intervals during the event for feeds, and no-one seemed to mind when they occasionally bumped into a baby in the exhibition hall. These allocations not only supported me in my breastfeeding journey, but also reinforced my value as a team member; the actions said both “we think you’re great at your job, we want to help you be great!” and “we value and support your family” at the same time.

Allocations were made for me at #ATC2022 so that I could breastfeed while working, including access to a secure room to feed, and ongoing support from the on-site team and event director, Jo Vohland (pictured right).

Unfortunately, my experience is far from universal.  Many women still face barriers in balancing their breastfeeding journey with their career.  A recent study by study by the University of South Australia’s Centre for Workplace Excellence found that a quarter of women surveyed did not have appropriate facilities in their workplace for breastfeeding.

Why should companies support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace?

Aside from the fact that it’s ethically the right thing to do, there are a number of economic drivers to promote the idea of supporting your working staff who breastfeed.

We are living in an incredibly tight labour market. The participation rate (that is, people currently either in work or looking for work) is incredibly high and the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low.

On top of that (and putting end to the myth that “people never want to stay in the same job these days”) job mobility is slowing down. Only about 10% of today’s current labour force will have changed jobs in the last year, meaning there’s a lot less labour mobility than there historically has been.

Now more than ever, companies need to look to internal mobility, workforce planning, and professional development to make the most of the talent that they currently have. And part of that means taking practical steps to support your workers to do their best work while making allowances for other life factors, be they breastfeeding, caring responsibilities, special needs, hobbies, or side gigs.

There is also an element of health and safety to consider. Breastfeeding is not only about feeding a child. It can be dangerous for a lactating mother to delay feeding or expressing; at best it can lead to physical discomfort and pain, and at worst infections such as mastitis or other medical complications. As an employer, it’s important for everyone involved to have a safe and reliable breastfeeding plan for employees.

4 things companies can do to make breastfeeding and work, work.

The Fair Work Act 2009 includes provisions that entitle breastfeeding employees to reasonable accommodations to support them in maintaining their breastfeeding routines, but what that support looks like may differ from company to company.

As someone who has experienced super supportive working environments, here’s my suggestions of 4 things that companies can do to support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace.

1. Normalise it

Breastfeeding is not a dirty word. It’s ok to say out loud. When talking with employees who are breastfeeding, using the word in conversation so they in turn feel supported to use the appropriate vocabulary to communicate their needs and requirements.

2. Respect people’s calendars and time to feed or pump

When I first returned to work, I would set up recurring, daily events of 30-minuts blocked out in my Outlook calendar. This meant I could allocate specific times to pumping, have a forward view of my week’s availability, and let others in the team know when I’d be unavailable. As babies get older, the amount of time spent feeding or pumping will naturally decrease, but the only person who knows how much time should be spent expressing or feeding is the parent, not their employer. If your employee or team member tells you they need a half hour break, believe them, and pick up your conversations at a later time.

3. Provide private spaces for expressing

And no, I don’t mean the toilet. Breastfeeding employees don’t need overly technical, state of the art facilities, but we do need the basics:

    1. a private room with no windows (or curtains, if it does have windows),
    2. a door that locks, and
    3. preferably not a multi-use space that others need to access, or will knock on the door

(Side note: I recently heard a story where an employee was pumping in a storage room that didn’t lock and a male colleague ignored the sign on the door, entered and said “don’t mind me, I think breastfeeding is great! I just need to grab some things from storage.”  Meanwhile the employee was hooked up to a breast pump and very exposed. Needless to say, NOT OK!)

4. Promote a culture of flexibility

This one is particularly important if you don’t work in an environment where you can provide appropriate spaces for pumping. Does your employee really need to be in the office every single day from 9-5? Providing allowances around working from home, shifting hours around to accommodate morning or evening feeds with babies, and then allowing employees to log back on to complete work in the evenings once their baby is asleep for the night is often a much more productive and effective way to work.

And if you’re not sure you’re doing it right? Just check in with your breastfeeding employees every so often. We want to be able to succeed at work, and everything an employer does to help us to do goes a long way.

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