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Returning to work

There are many factors to consider when returning to work after maternity leave.

Combining breastfeeding and work can be done in a number of ways. Whether you will express and / or breastfeed your baby during your workday, or even spend some days working from home will depend on your work situation and childcare arrangements. 

Different mums combine breastfeeding and working in different ways. Here are some options for you to consider. 

Expressing at work   

You’ll need a private room with:   

  • a comfortable chair,   
  • a refrigerator where you can store expressed breastmilk,   
  • somewhere to store an electric breast pump or manual breast pump, and   
  • time to express milk during lunch break and other breaks if necessary.  

Breastfeeding at work 

You may be able to have your baby brought to you at work. Discuss the possibility of breastfeeding during breaks and lunchtime, as well as flexible work hours and breaks.

Going to your baby to breastfeed

Some mums are fortunate enough to have childcare onsite or very close to their workplace. Breaks are for breastfeeding rather than pumping.  

Lactation breaks   

When you negotiate with your employer, you should be given time for one or more breaks. You can use these breaks to: 

  • express (including labelling and storing of milk and cleaning of equipment) 
  • feed your baby if they are brought to you  
  • take your expressed milk to your baby  
  • go to feed your baby if child care is on-site or nearby.  

Practical considerations for expressing at work  

You will need a place to store your breast pump and other equipment and a good quality cooler bag with ice bricks for transporting expressed milk home.

Many mums find that expressing while at work can take getting used to. If the space you use to express isn’t a lockable room, you may be anxious about privacy. If your break is short, you may be anxious that there isn’t enough time. Feeling stressed may mean your let-down reflex takes a little longer to kick in. Read more about helping your let-down while expressing.

Combining breastfeeding with other options  

If your baby is older than 12 months, you can replace feeds with milk from a cup and continue to breastfeed when you are together. This way you have no need for bottles. 

If your baby is younger, you may decide to go with formula feeds while you’re at work and then breastfeed for the rest of the day, at night and on days when you aren’t working etc.  Breastfeeding certainly doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’.

Your returning to work toolkit

All the resources you'll need to prepare for your return to work. 

Returning to work toolkit

Stories from working mums

Amanda's story

"Before going on maternity leave in 2013 I approached my employer, as small not-for-profit organisation, about a flexible return to work.They were happy to negotiate an approach that worked for both of us which was a relief as I have three young children to juggle." Read more

Rebecca's story

"I returned to work when my son was 5 months old. I invested in a quality electric breast pump and combined expressing and going to feed him in my lunch break. It was tricky but I found people were very understanding and encouraging. Sometimes, it was incredibly tiring, but I knew it wasn't going to be forever and it was worth the hard work." Read more

Katherine's story

"I looked into returning to work when I was offered a part time position. It was a bit of a spontaneous decision and I was lucky enough to grab a childcare spot about 5 minutes from work."  Read more

Commonly asked questions

What do I need to do to continue breastfeeding as I return to work?

In short, the confidence and belief that you can do it! With the right planning, information and support, combining breastfeeding with work is easily achievable.

Being prepared and organised can make the transition to your return to work smoother and having a supportive workplace can make a significant difference.

You can start your preparation for returning to work right now. Read more about making a Breastfeeding and Work Plan. 

What are my legal rights around breastfeeding when returning to work?

All states have legislation that protects your right to combine breastfeeding and paid work. Under both the Federal and all State legislation it is unlawful to treat a woman less favourably because she is breastfeeding or to treat a person less favourably based on their status as a parent.

This means it may be against the law for an employer to refuse to make arrangements to assist an employee to breastfeed at work or accommodate an employee’s breastfeeding needs (including expressing). Read more about equal opportunity and workplace diversity.

Does my employer have to give me paid lactation breaks?

Australian employers are not legally obliged to provide lactation breaks to their employees, however the International Labor Organization (ILO) recommends that breastfeeding women be entitled to at least one break per day for lactation, and that can also be accessed as a reduction in hours. The ILO further recommends that these breaks should be treated as paid working time.

Many Australian employers are recognising that the needs of a breastfeeding employee are short lived, and that providing lactation breaks is a simple way to support them. While lactation breaks are becoming more common, access to breaks and breastfeeding support is still being negotiated on an individual basis in many non-accredited workplaces. 

Read more about approaching your employer to discuss your return to work needs. 

Does my employer have to provide a breastfeeding/expressing room?

It is generally against the law to refuse to make arrangements to assist you to breastfeed at work, if these are reasonable. For example, it may be discrimination if: 

  • your employer does not provide you with suitable facilities for breastfeeding or expressing milk 
  • you are not allowed to organise your work breaks to facilitate breastfeeding or expressing milk 
  • you are told that you must wean your baby before you can return to work.

Some workplaces have a dedicated room for expressing or breastfeeding. Other alternatives can include sharing along with a First Aid room or a prayer room. An unused office or meeting room area are also alternatives.

Your needs as a breastfeeding mother to feed and/or express your milk are small and generally short-lived so most workplaces should be able to come up with something suitable. Read more about approaching your employer. 

How will I manage expressing and storing my milk at work?

There are 3 things that make it easier for mums to express while at work:

  • A private space that is not a toilet or shower and is easily accessible to you. You need to be able to lock the door and know that you aren't going to be disturbed. Your space needs a comfortable chair, access to a power outlet. You will need fridge space and somewhere to store your electric breast pump. 
  • Time to express. Lactation breaks which allow you enough time to get to the room, set up, express and return your milk to the fridge. 
  • A workplace culture that is supportive of breastfeeding women. 

Read more about the Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace initiative, a way for your workplace to support you. 

Read more about effective expressingusing a breast pumpstoring your expressed breastmilk and cleaning expressing equipment.

How will I transport my breastmilk from work?

The climate and the length of your travel from work to home will influence your requirements for transporting your breastmilk. Freshly expressed breastmilk is safe for use for 6 to 8 hours when stored below room temperature (<26 degrees C) or for 72 hours when stored in the refrigerator. In the cooler months or if you only live a short distance from your workplace you may not need to take any special measures. Just remove your expressed breastmilk from workplace fridge on your departure and place in your home fridge or freezer when you arrive home. 

When the temperature rises or for those who have a longer commute, you may need to use a small cooler with freezer bricks or similar in it to keep your milk cool during transport.  Read more

How can I approach my workplace or organisation to become breastfeeding friendly?

Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace (BFW) accreditation is awarded by ABA to organisations that provide 3 simple criteria to support their breastfeeding employees: Space, Time and Support. Together these three elements demonstrate to new and existing employees that their workplace and employer is supportive of their potential needs as a breastfeeding employee. Read more about these requirements and how you can approach your employer. 

When you discuss your plans for returning to work, you can direct your employer or HR personnel to the  Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace pages. There they will find the information and resources they need to put in place to demonstrate their support for you as you return to work.

They can start the process of becoming an employer of choice as an accredited Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace. 

© Australian Breastfeeding Association April 2022