Almost 68% of mothers in the UK breastfeed, yet research continues to show that breastfeeding in public remains a controversial issue.
With International Breastfeeding Awareness Week taking place in August, Victoria Weir, Campus Programme and Student Lead at The University of Law, has explained the laws which protect breastfeeding mothers in the UK.
Victoria says, “Thanks to many campaigns helping to normalise it, breastfeeding in public has thankfully become more accepted in recent years. However, that isn’t to say that it is universally accepted by all. Unfortunately, there are still people who oppose public breastfeeding. The good news is, anyone choosing to breastfeed in public or in the workplace is firmly protected by UK law.”
Breastfeeding and The Equality Act 2020
According to the law, it is discrimination to treat a breastfeeding mother unfavourably. This law covers most places you would find yourself in public, including shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as public transport, parks, leisure facilities and cinemas.
What’s more, discrimination doesn’t just mean extreme acts of ill treatment towards the mother. Any refusal to provide a service, providing poor quality of service, or providing a service on different terms will all sit under this law. This means, for example, that it is illegal for a restaurant owner to ask you to cover up while at the table, while being asked to leave a public place would also be considered discrimination under this Act.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you have been asked to stop breastfeeding, its recommended you make a complaint directly to the company using its official complaints process[i]. If an appropriate outcome can’t be met, you may wish to seek legal action to pursue a case against the individual or business.
Breastfeeding and employment law
Statutory employment law in the UK does not set out any specific laws which give a right to paid breastfeeding breaks or time off. However, that isn’t to say breastfeeding mothers who return to work aren’t protected.
Again, under the Equality Act 2010, “Employers should try to accommodate workers who wish to [breastfeed]”, while breastfeeding mothers at work are also protected by “The right not to suffer direct or indirect discrimination, or harassment, because of sex”.
Some protections may also exist under the Employment Rights Act 1996. Under the Act, employees may have a right to be offered suitable alternatives to their work, or suspension with remuneration[ii].
There are also various health and safety directives which are relevant to those returning to work who are breastfeeding, for example the right to a clean and private space to breastfeed or express milk. While the law doesn’t necessarily demand this of businesses, it is generally good practice and worth speaking to your employer about.
Victoria continues: “Being a new mum brings a whole host of challenges and defending your right to feed your child shouldn’t be one. Thankfully, there are lots of businesses now which proudly advertise themselves as safe spaces for breastfeeding mums, so these can be a great place to head if you’re not 100% confident.
“If you do run into problems, it’s good to bear in mind that anyone asking or demanding that you stop feeding can face legal action under the Equality Act, which could result in prosecution. If you feel you have been discriminated against, always seek appropriate legal action for support.”
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