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Want to stay on the right side of the law? We support businesses and public authorities and help them to promote good practice.

Returning to work/ breastfeeding

pregnancy and maternity

What you need to know


Returning to work and breastfeeding

Can I ask an employee to return to work before she has used up her full maternity leave entitlement?

Employees are legally entitled to take up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave but they can return to work at any time after the compulsory leave period, (which is two weeks immediately after the birth or four weeks for factory workers) provided they give eight weeks’ notice (or less if you agree).

You can ask an employee if she will return to work before she has used her full maternity leave entitlement but you must not:
  • Put pressure on her to return earlier than she wants, by, for example, repeatedly asking her when she is going to return.
  • Tell or threaten her that she will be disadvantaged, if she does not return earlier.
  • Disadvantage her if she changes the date she intends to return – though she must give the appropriate notice.


Do I need to have a policy on breastfeeding?

It is good practice to have a policy on breastfeeding which sets out how requests will be considered. This can help you to make objective, correct and fair decisions. It will also help create a positive environment in which mothers feel  they can engage in breastfeeding related activities without being treated unfavorably.

Does my employee have a legal right to take time off to breastfeed during working hours?

No, there is no legal right to time off to breastfeed or for rest periods. However, a refusal to adapt working hours could be indirect sex discrimination unless you can show the refusal is justified by the needs of the business.

Is it sex discrimination if I refuse extra breaks for breastfeeding?

Refusal to allow a breastfeeding employee to express milk or to adjust her working conditions to enable her to continue to breastfeed may amount to unlawful sex discrimination. However, if you have considered the request, discussed the issue with your employee and still cannot allow extra breaks without there being an unacceptable impact on your business then this would help explain your decision and would be less likely to constitute indirect sex discrimination.

What facilities do I need to provide for breastfeeding employees?

You are legally required to provide somewhere for breastfeeding employees to rest. Where necessary, this should include somewhere for them to lie down. You should consider providing a private, healthy and safe environment for employees to express and store milk for example, it is not suitable for new mothers to use  toilets for expressing milk.

You are legally required to provide somewhere for breastfeeding employees to rest. Where necessary, this should include somewhere for them to lie down.

In addition, it is not suitable for new mothers to use toilets for expressing milk. You should consider providing a private, healthy and safe environment for employees to express and store milk.

Are there any workplace risks associated with breastfeeding?

There may be risks, other than those associated with pregnancy, to consider if an employee is still breastfeeding on their return to work. These will depend on her working conditions but could include:

  • Working with organic mercury.
  • Working with radioactive material.
  • Exposure to lead.

This list is not exhaustive. You will need to consider any other risks that could cause harm to the mother or child’s health and safety, for as long as she wishes to continue to breastfeed. If you have any doubts, you may wish to seek professional advice from an occupational health specialist.

What must I do to protect an employee’s health and safety on her return if she is still breastfeeding?

After an employee gives you written notice that she is breastfeeding you should consider any risks identified by the workplace risk assessment and take reasonable action to reduce or remove any risks. Less favourable treatment of a woman because she is breastfeeding may be sex discrimination.  A refusal to accommodate breastfeeding may be indirect sex discrimination if the refusal cannot be justified.

What must I do after identifying a health and safety risk for a breastfeeding mother?

You should:

  • Consider whether it is possible to remove the risk by, for example altering the employee’s working conditions or hours of work.
  • If this does not remove the risk, offer her suitable alternative work.
  • If there is no suitable alternative work, you must suspend her on full pay.
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