All too often, inflexible timetables and inadequate facilities for expressing mean that returning to school as a breastfeeding mother is a nightmare. But leaders can welcome staff back with open arms by making simple, practical changes and being responsive to their needs, writes Emma Sheppard
Staff toilets, classrooms, meeting rooms, science prep rooms, the principal’s office, the first-aid room: she did it here, she did it there. According to the Maternity Teacher/ Paternity Teacher Project community, breastfeeding mothers returning to work have been expected to express pretty much everywhere.
Sometimes they have been granted the appropriate breaks, timings and logistical planning to pump in peace. At other times, they have simply lactated – to everyone’s horrified surprise – in front of a Year 9 German class.
How have we ended up in a position where nursing mothers are so badly treated in the country’s schools?
Legally, after written notification from an employee who wishes to continue breastfeeding her child after returning to work, employers are required to conduct a risk assessment to find any barriers to this being able to take place. If a risk is identified, then the employer must “take action to remove, reduce or control the risk”. For details, see the Health and Safety Executive’s website (hse.gov.uk/mothers/law.htm).
The HSE guidance also states: “The Workplace Regulations require employers to provide suitable rest facilities for workers who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The facilities should be suitably located (eg, near to toilets) and, where necessary, should provide appropriate facilities for the new or expectant mother to lie down.”
But how well are these laws enforced? In reality, women are reliant on the attitudes of individual schools. This means that their experiences vary. A lot.
One senior leader, Tenaya*, found that expressing during the day took longer than she had anticipated. She needed to express twice a day to manage her supply but, in reality, found that she could pump only once a day. Because of her timetable and duties, there was one day a week when she couldn’t express at all, which she found “painful and upsetting” – an experience many breastfeeding mothers will empathise with.
Her verbal and written requests for adjustments were lost in the busy logistics of the school day, and – her confidence already knocked – Tenaya eventually stopped requesting support.
English teacher Roberta* went through an even more nightmarish situation. Her choice to breastfeed had been agreed by her local authority’s HR team before she returned, but an adjusted timetable at her school made it impossible to express at lunchtime. Despite the local authority suggesting timetabling Roberta’s planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) to allow her to express, the school leadership refused to make changes or communicate effectively with Roberta, or even the health and safety team.
Unfortunately, even schools that are accommodating can struggle with the potential challenges of breastfeeding and working. “Bottle refusal” – where a breastfed baby refuses to drink from a bottle teat and will feed only from the breast – is a well-known scenario.
Also common is mastitis – a painful and fever-inducing infection of the milk ducts that can sometimes be caused by skipping feeds or going too long without pumping. Research shows this affects between 10 and 33 per cent of lactating women.
The mother of a bottle refuser who is denied the flexibility to work hours that will accommodate their child’s feeding pattern has to wait until their baby self-weans before they return to the workforce, or suffer the emotional stress of watching their baby go on hunger strike.
For a school, this might mean waiting a year to regain an experienced member of staff, rather than the six months they had originally planned. Or, at the very least, having an emotional, distracted teacher wondering whether returning to work is worth the feeling that they are starving their own child.
Equally, a breastfeeding mother who cannot express at school because she has a six-period day, plus duty and a queue for the photocopier – which is on the other side of the school to the unlockable office without a fridge that has been offered as an expressing station – may develop mastitis, leading to days or weeks of sickness.
Clearly, women are being encouraged to remain out of the workforce for longer than they may otherwise choose; they are being forced to suffer emotionally and physically in silence, and they experience shame and being labelled as difficult if they speak up.
So, what does good practice look like?
Helen Mars, an associate assistant principal in Ripon, North Yorkshire, found that her school was “incredibly supportive” when she returned to work after two maternity leaves. She was offered a quiet room in the school’s boarding house, which was empty during the teaching day. Her line manager had spent time researching NHS guidance and another member of the senior leadership team provided her with his mini beer fridge.
Although Helen eventually decided to “reverse cycle” (breastfeeding in the evening, overnight and in the early morning), she says that this experience allowed her to normalise conversations about breastfeeding with colleagues and students.
Meanwhile, Charlie Kraig, a vice-principal in Alberta, Canada, where maternity conditions are similar to those in the UK, talks to each teacher returning from leave to see what they require for support, including scheduling preps (PPA) at useful times. And she offers her office and mini fridge if needed.
Essentially, schools should start with concrete commitments in a specific section of their pregnancy and maternity policy, outlining how they will do more than their legal requirements when it comes to breastfeeding. In 2000, the European Commission specified key criteria that would improve upon the UK workplace health and safety regulations: “flexible hours, time off and facilities for expressing and storing breast milk”.
In practical terms, this means arranging and clearly stating the designated room, with sink, lockable door and fridge, which is formally dedicated to expressing mothers. In your school’s policy, you should also include a warm invitation for parents to discuss individual needs with line managers. This might mean considering timetable and duty implications, offering creative flexible working opportunities or moving the expressing room to be closer to a teacher’s classroom. Schools should work with mothers to adapt and refine the policy so that it is a document made by mothers, for mothers.
A formalised policy gives individuals the confidence to request more humane working conditions, but a welcoming and listening ear will create an environment for real, exciting change to school cultures.
Emma Sheppard is founder of the Maternity Teacher/Paternity Teacher Project and a lead practitioner for English
*Mothers’ names have been changed.
Find full references for this article at tes.com
This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline “Breastfeeding as a teacher sucks – but it doesn’t have to be that way”