Last week was a big week in the Davies-Jones household: we celebrated reaching 10 months of breastfeeding my son. Sadly this anniversary didn’t involve any cake, but I did celebrate in Parliament by joining the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding. I certainly hope to learn more about what I can do to help working families like mine across the country in what has been a fantastic experience for my son and I.
Like many others, my own breastfeeding journey has not been an easy one and has been made even more challenging since my election to Parliament only a few months ago. However, I know that I am much more fortunate than most. We all know that my new workplace – the House of Commons – has a lot of work to do to improve its equality practices, and we are only just at the beginning of a long journey ahead for a 50:50 gender equal Parliament.
Yet I’ve found the House to be accommodating, helpful, and overwhelmingly supportive with my decision to continue breastfeeding my son for the foreseeable future. The reality for many mothers returning to work following maternity leave is sadly not as positive.
Breastfeeding my son and the ability to continue to do so is something that is very important to me and I knew that I had to have a conversation with the House staff about the practicalities as soon as I became elected. I also knew that if I was to make real change, I needed to start at the top – with the Speaker of the House. I was keen to have a meeting with Mr Speaker early on to discuss the practicalities of feeding if I was in the Chamber or in a Committee meeting.
These are similar conversations that will be had by breastfeeding employees and their managers or HR departments right across the country before the employee returns to work. It is down to each individual employer to decide what adjustments they will make for breastfeeding mums returning to the workplace, though there is guidance in place from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and European Commission, as well as organisations such as ACAS. Current advice from the HSE states that employers do have certain obligations to employees once they have been notified that she is a new or expectant mother, and this should include a risk assessment.
If any risks are identified, the guidance suggests changing the mothers’ working conditions, offering suitable work alternatives (at the same rate of pay) or agreeing a suspension from work for as long as necessary. When I first began to breastfeed I was shocked to read that an employer would be within their rights to suspend me from working if they deemed me to be ‘at risk’ while working. Surely the onus should be on an employer to sufficiently adjust a mothers’ working conditions to allow her to breastfeed? I firmly believe that a new mother shouldn’t be at risk of suspension for conditions that are out of her control.
Knowing my rights before returning to work was vital to ensure that I had all the information necessary should I have encountered any difficulties or opposition in supporting my choice to continue to breastfeed and I would encourage all new breastfeeding families to do their research too.
We have a long way to go until employers across the country – big and small – have the resources and understanding of how best to support breastfeeding mums. There is also plenty of work to do to remove any stigma or awkwardness around breastfeeding and I’ll be doing all I can in my new role to show that breastfeeding can fit into a busy work schedule, if there is enough support available.
I’m hoping that by doing my bit and raising my voice that other Mums will feel they can have similar conversations with their own employers and know that they aren’t unjustified.
Breastfeeding has been the most incredible bonding experience for me and my son, and I would encourage any Mum to seek the support that they need if they are struggling. I’m particularly proud to support The Breastfeeding Network (BfN) and their ‘Making It Work’ campaign which helps breastfeeding mothers returning to work and can recommend their fantastic resources and information which I regularly referred to in the early days. I hope that we’ll see progress soon in what is an issue that impacts many but is spoken rarely in mainstream politics.
If it means that my son is happy, bonded and well-fed then I’ll happily continue breastfeeding at work and I’ll always support the needs of mothers everywhere who want to be able to peacefully do the same.
Alex Davies-Jones is Labour MP for Pontypridd.