Can I breastfeed my child at work?

Yes. Find out more about breastfeeding and the law in this article.

Many women work during pregnancy and many return to work while they are still breastfeeding.

However, some women think that they need to give up their work in order to breastfeed their children. Others find it difficult to find a space to breastfeed in their workplace. And others think they should feed their baby formula, so they can go back to work more easily.

Breastfeeding women may make up only a small percentage of the workforce at any
one time, but protection for breastfeeding is important to all. Child-bearing and breastfeeding are roles that only women can carry out, yet they benefit everyone.

Working women need protection against discrimination and harassment because they often face difficulties when breastfeeding at their jobs.

How does breastfeeding benefit a family?

  • Replacements for breastmilk, such as formula, are expensive. The money that is saved by breastfeeding, instead of using formula, could be used for other things such as food for the household.
  • Breastfeeding also allows for longer spacing between pregnancies, which means better health for mother and child.
  • Breastfed babies have a lower risk of sickness. This saves money which might otherwise be spent on health care.

How does breastfeeding benefit a workplace?

  • If an employer is covering the cost of healthcare for workers and their families (through contributions to medical aid, for example), they will have lower costs when babies are breastfed, as breastfed children are generally healthier.
  • Healthy children also mean that parents won’t miss many work hours caring for them. Productivity will be better.
  • Additionally, if an employer supports breastfeeding in the workplace, women may come back to work sooner after maternity leave, thus reducing replacement and training costs.

Breastfeeding once back at work

Women can take a breastfeeding break whilst at the workplace. A breastfeeding break is a period that a breastfeeding mother takes during her work day for either breastfeeding her child or expressing her milk. Breastfeeding breaks are paid time.

In South Africa, in terms of the Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child (which forms part of the Codes of the BCEA), arrangements should be made for employees who are breast-feeding to have breaks of 30 minutes twice per day for breast-feeding or expressing milk each working day for the first six months of the child's life.

Why do women need a breastfeeding break?

Breaks enable mothers to keep up a good supply of breastmilk. A breastfeeding mother makes milk 24 hours a day.

If the mother is employed at a workplace where there are on-site child-care facilities, such as a creche, then she can easily use her break to feed her child.

However, many workplaces do not have onsite child-care facilities. When the mother’s job takes her away at a time the baby normally feeds, her baby can drink milk that she has expressed (by hand or with a breast pump) and left with the care-giver of the baby. To make enough milk for her baby’s needs, the mother must also express the milk that gathers in her breasts during the time that she and her baby are apart. Therefore, breastfeeding breaks are important.

Up to what age should breastfeeding breaks be taken?

Breastfeeding breaks are most important from birth until the child is six months old. This is also the legal amount of time that a mother can take breastfeeding breaks (the first six months of her child’s life).

Is 30 minutes twice a day enough time?

Obviously, every woman and her child are different. But on average, it should take about 15 - 20 minutes for a mother to express her milk. Then she still needs to wash her hands, and prepare the milk for storage, which brings the time up to 30 minutes.

If the mother has her child on-site, then 30 minutes should be ample time for a feed.

What if a mother would prefer to take the break in one session, to shorten work hours?

A woman may prefer to put her breastfeeding breaks together and take that time at the beginning or the end of her normal work day. This could be because she lives far from her job, or there are no proper facilities for childcare near her workplace. This allows her to work a shorter day and have an extra hour at home with her baby. She might still choose to express milk during her usual lunch break.

What kind of space or facilities are needed for breastfeeding breaks in the workplace?

The ILO Recommendation 191 says that “where practical, provision should be made for the establishment of facilities for breastfeeding under adequate hygienic conditions at or near the workplace.”

Basically, a clean space with room to sit down, privacy, access to clean water and a secure storage place for expressed milk is needed. Cleanliness, accessibility and security are key features.

Important note: A toilet is not suitable for this purpose!

What legislation and laws are there to protect pregnant and breastfeeding women?

As mentioned earlier, there is the Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child. This code is issued in terms of section 87(1)(b) of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) 75 of 1997.

The Code is intended to guide all employers and employees concerning the application of section 26(1) of the BCEA, which prohibits employers from requiring or permitting pregnant or breastfeeding employees to perform work that is hazardous to the health of the employee or that of her child. The Code also contains a section on the right to breastfeeding breaks.

What are some of the hazards that can affect pregnant and breastfeeding women in the workplace?

  • Physical hazards (including exposure to noise and work in extreme environments).
  • Ergonomic hazards (including heavy physical work, repetitive work, and standing for long periods).
  • Chemical hazards (contact with harmful chemical substances may cause infertility and fetal abnormalities. Some chemicals can be passed to a baby during breastfeeding and could possibly damage the health and development of the child).
  • Biological hazards (bacteria and viruses can affect the unborn child if the mother is infected during pregnancy. They may also be transferred through breastfeeding).

How can pregnant or breastfeeding women be protected from hazardous work?

Section 26(1) of the BCEA prohibits employers from requiring or allowing a pregnant or breastfeeding employee to perform work that is hazardous to her health or the health of her child. This means employers must assess and control risks to the health of pregnant or breastfeeding employees and that of the fetus or child.

Employers should identify, record and regularly review:

  • Potential risks to pregnant or breastfeeding employees within the workplace.
  • Protective measures for pregnant or breastfeeding employees.

Where appropriate, employers should also maintain a list of employment positions not involving risk to which pregnant or breastfeeding employees could be transferred.

Women should also notify their employer as soon as possible when they become pregnant, so that appropriate health and safety measures can be taken.

What are some of the obstacles facing breastfeeding women in the workplace?

  • Some women do not know that it is their right to take breastfeeding breaks.
  • Some employers do not know that breastfeeding breaks are legal.
  • Some trade unions do not see the breastfeeding break as an important issue to support.
  • Some workplaces do not provide a clean, private, appropriate space for women to breastfeed or express milk.
  • Some women are not sure how to express milk. Expressing should be painless, quick, hygienic and cost effective.
  • Some women don’t believe that they can feed their child only on breast milk for six months. They worry that they need to add formula or bought milk to the diet.

How can we protect the rights of women to breastfeed, particularly in their workplace?

We need to ensure that this right is known and defend it in order to allow more women to be able to breastfeed their babies for at least six months. Some of the ways include:

  • Form support groups to educate and inform about breastfeeding and women’s rights in the workplace.
  • Arrange meetings with shop stewards to discuss the importance of this issue.
  • Arrange meetings with HR in the workplace to discuss the importance of this issue.
  • Organize and motivate to have clean, accessible, safe and secure spaces for breastfeeding and expressing in the workplace.
  • Don’t accept spaces such as toilets for this purpose.

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