Breastfeeding and working

The women we spoke to faced a number of general decisions about going back to work, including whether or not to go back to work at all; when to go back; how many hours they would work; what kind of work they would do and where; and what childcare options were available to them. All of these decisions were in turn affected by the financial position of their family and government provisions for maternity leave. Because they were breastfeeding, they faced further difficult decisions about whether or not to combine continued breastfeeding and working outside the home, and if so how to manage the practicalities of this. Some women felt under pressure to stop breastfeeding before they and their baby were ready or to give up their right to return to work.

In 2001, the World Health Organization issued a global public health recommendation which said that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.

Returning to work does not mean that you have to stop breastfeeding. The NHS has produced a leaflet that answers common questions about working while pregnant and breastfeedingIn other European countries, breastfeeding breaks or shorter working days are available to women who are breastfeeding.

Returning to work was an emotive topic for everyone. Many of the women we spoke to went back to work not by choice but through necessity. However, some clearly enjoyed their job and intended to return and some changed their mind after their baby was born. Many, who could afford to, extended their maternity leave or changed their working arrangements (for example to part-time, self-employed or outside normal hours) so that they could stay at home with their baby for longer. A few said that they could not leave their baby because they needed to know what and how much he/she was eating and drinking.

Nearly all of the women said that returning to work was stressful and talked about how hard it was to be separated from their baby. Trying to combine work and breastfeeding was also stressful for many people. Women talked about having to get up early to fit everything in before going to work. Many said that they became tired and their social life suffered. A few managed it without too much trouble through a combination of part-time work, advanced preparation such as expressing and storing breast milk, and just generally being very organised.

The women employed a variety of feeding arrangements to accommodate their work situation. Some weaned their baby before the date of their return to work or waited to return until their baby was on solids and not breastfeeding so frequently during the day. Some continued to breastfeed when they were at home and provided a bottle of expressed breast milk or infant formula for their baby while they were apart. Many women expressed and stored breast milk in preparation for their return to work. Some women found expressing breast milk came fairly easily, especially if they had a good electric pump, but some found it difficult and tiring (see 'Variations of the breastfeeding experience'). Several women did not like expressing or were unable to express breast milk.

A few women expressed during their work breaks, stored their milk in a refrigerator at work and then transported it in a cool bag. This maintained their supply and prevented problems with engorgement and leaking. Expressing at work raised practical issues such as finding a quiet, private room, having sufficient breaks and being able to refrigerate the milk*. Some employers were more supportive than others. One woman described how she had to explain her rights to her employers. They were willing to help but the woman had to take the lead (see 'Thinking about the breastfeeding environment').

A few women were able to breastfeed during breaks if their baby was in a crèche nearby or they could get home. One was able to take her baby with her to work, and another mentioned a friend who had done this.

Some women decided to introduce bottles of either expressed breast milk or infant formula to their babies in preparation for their return to work. In some cases, this went smoothly but several women said that they had great difficulty getting their baby to accept a bottle. Some said that their baby would take a bottle from someone else if they were not there but preferred to breastfeed if they were.

One woman spoke of a difficult situation when trying to cope with her lactating breasts in a working environment.

*Footnote:  Expressed breast milk should be refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible after expressing or kept in a cool bag until it can be refrigerated. It can be kept in the refrigerator for up to five days and in the freezer for up to six months. Further practical information on breastfeeding and working, and storing and transporting breast milk can be found via our pregnancy resources.

Last reviewed November 2018.
Last updated September 2015.


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