The Issue - Breastfeeding

14th January 2011 at 00:00
Employers are being encouraged to make it easier for women to continue the practice once they return to work. But what does this mean for schools?

Breastfeeding carries significant health advantages and studies show that the longer women can continue breastfeeding, the greater the ongoing health benefits for them and for their baby. In a recent white paper, the Department of Health set out plans to encourage employers to make it easier for new mothers to continue breastfeeding once they return to work. So what does this mean for schools?

Obviously, if a mother is returning to work, the likelihood is their baby will be in some kind of childcare and they will be unable to breastfeed during the day. But mothers who want to continue breastfeeding may want to express milk during the day - either by hand or by using a breast pump - and store it for later use. This means schools will need to provide time and a private space.

To make sure this happens, if a teacher plans to breastfeed on their return to work it is important that their headteacher is informed in writing.

"The mother should approach the head as soon as she is aware that she will need to continue breastfeeding upon her return to work," says Christine Blower, general secretary of teaching union the NUT.

Employers are required to carry out a risk assessment if an employee is breastfeeding, says Alasdair Pratt, employment researcher for The Key, a support service for school leaders. This is to make sure the health of the employee and her child is protected.

"It is a legal requirement for employers to provide somewhere for breastfeeding mothers to rest," Mr Pratt says. The Health and Safety Executive also recommends that breastfeeding mothers should be provided with somewhere private and hygienic to express and store breast milk.

Identifying a place to express milk may be difficult in a busy school environment with few private spaces. Solutions could include hanging a curtain across a glass-panelled door, using a "Do not enter" notice on a room or being timetabled to use a meeting room or office. A toilet is not deemed a suitable place to express milk.

Helen, a secondary languages teacher, says her school ensured sure she could express milk in private. "There was nowhere suitable in my department, so I went to my deputy headteacher and she could not have been more helpful," Helen says. "Each morning break I would use her lockable office, while she went to get a coffee and speak to teachers in the staffroom."

Once milk has been expressed, it needs to be stored hygienically until it can be taken home. "I keep my milk in a fridge in the main school kitchen as that is cleaner and safer than keeping it in the staffroom," says Karen, who expresses milk in a feeding room in the children's centre attached to her primary school.

Another option is for a child-carer to bring the baby in to school to coincide with lunchtime or a non-contact period.

It is important to bear in mind that these are necessary workplace adjustments to meet an identified employee need.

What schools should do

The employer is responsible for providing:

- a place for breastfeeding mothers to rest;

- access to a private room for expressing milk or breastfeeding;

- secure, clean refrigerators for storing expressed breast milk;

- a sink for washing and sterilising equipment.

The employer must also carry out a risk assessment identifying any risks in the workplace for breastfeeding mothers and their babies.

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