Flexible working is essential for staff retention – schools must be breastfeeding-friendly
Even in the female-dominated profession of teaching, breastfeeding mothers lack support in the workplace, says Ann Mroz
For a female-dominated profession, it never ceases to amaze how backwards teaching can be.
Who would have thought 20 years ago that we would still be grappling with breastfeeding in the workplace in 2020? In the male-dominated House of Commons, maybe. But even there, the new speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, recently told journalists that he would overturn a 20-year ban on female MPs breastfeeding in the Commons.
Quite sensibly, he told the reporters: “I’m of the view there isn’t a policy. My view is that it is up to a mother. I think it would be wrong for me as a male to dictate on that policy.”
In schools, especially secondary ones, many males in leadership positions do dictate on policy. But it would be unfair to say that it’s only men who don’t understand the complexity of the issues involved; many female leaders can struggle, too. Not everyone is understanding or sympathetic. And let’s not forget that the ban in the Commons was imposed by a woman, Baroness Boothroyd.
As for all workplaces, there are regulations covering schools that require a risk assessment and suitable facilities to enable women to continue breastfeeding after they return to work. However, enforcement can be patchy, so nursing mothers are reliant on individual schools and leaders to support them. And the level of support can be very mixed, according to the Maternity Teacher/Paternity Teacher Project.
It’s often left to breastfeeding mothers to make the best of a bad situation. Up and down the country, lactating mothers are forced to huddle in corners or in toilets to express milk to feed to their babies on their return home. Pumping is stressful even in peaceful conditions; trying to pump in a short break time or with someone banging on a toilet door raises stress to another level.
There are other complications that arise, such as “bottle refusal”: even after all that desperate pumping, a baby will refuse to drink from a teat. What then? Wait until the baby is weaned before returning to work or feel those stress levels rocket as the baby basically goes on hunger strike?
And there are medical complications. Skipping feeds and going for long periods without feeding or pumping can result in mastitis, a painful infection of the milk ducts that causes fever. This affects between 10 and 33 per cent of lactating mothers and it is why making necessary adjustments to timetables and planning and assessment is so important.
Some women find these stresses and strains too much and will choose to “reverse cycle” – feeding in the evening, night and early morning – which, on top of a demanding job, can be totally exhausting. And others are just left with a stark choice: quit breastfeeding or quit their jobs.
There is a strong moral case for supporting breastfeeding women in the workplace: it’s the right thing to do in any decent society that values women and families. It results in healthier and happier employees and babies.
But it’s also good economic sense to make it easy for highly trained women to return to work. And it makes even more sense in teaching, where almost three-quarters of the profession are female. When there’s a retention crisis, in which the sector sees a peak in female teachers fleeing the profession in their mid-thirties, we should be doing everything in our power to stop this haemorrhaging of staff. Schools should be falling over themselves to lure back women after maternity leave, making it as easy as possible for them to breastfeed at work.
The choice is stark: make a few timetable adjustments and provide a private room and a fridge or lose valuable, experienced teachers.
If the notoriously sexist green chamber can make breastfeeding mothers welcome, there’s no reason why schools shouldn’t do so, too.
This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline “Many working mothers need to breastfeed – they deserve support”