I returned to work twice as a breastfeeding mum, when my first and second child (born 3 years apart) were both around 11 months old. Both times I returned to the same job, in the same office and to the same childcare arrangements – my babies were being looked after at the workplace nursery, so just a few doors away from my desk.
Of course having them on site felt good, and I was always grateful for it, but leaving the boys was never easy, despite knowing that they were only a few doors away from me. They both took a long time to settle, and by the time I started work after 2 weeks of settling in, I was leaving them screaming every morning, and I was often fighting tears back myself. Whenever I used to tell people that my children were in the nursery at my workplace, everyone assumed that I could just go and see them whenever I wanted, but in reality I couldn’t! In fact, if I needed to speak to the nursery manager or my sons’ key workers I had to phone up in advance and make sure my children were either asleep or somewhere where they couldn’t see me; otherwise, they’d get upset and it’d be harder for them to settle again.
This basically meant that with my first, I’d breastfeed him in the mornings and evenings, and he’d be happy to eat solids in the day while at nursery. As soon as he turned one, he could also join in when his little friends were having cow’s milk, and there were no issues there. There was no need for me to express or find ways to feed him breastmilk during the day. And in fact, a few months later, when he was 18 months old, I chose to stop breastfeeding, feeling that I needed ‘a break’ before starting to plan my second pregnancy.
With baby number 2, things were slightly different. By the time he started nursery at 11 months of age, he was dairy (and egg) intolerant, and although he was having solid foods, he was still very reliant on breastmilk, day and night. For this reason, I decided to only work 4 days a week, and, especially when he first started going to nursery, my son’s key worker and I worked very closely together to try and make him more comfortable and settled during the day. Some days were ok – he’d have the food I used to send in for him, and he seemed more settled. Other days he was hardly touching his food and seemed unsettled and upset, so I’d get a call from my key worker, and as soon as I could, I’d go downstairs, sit in the nursery black and white area with him and breastfeed him for 10-15 minutes. Although it was amazing to be able to do that, we soon realised that we couldn’t carry on that way – by the time he’d finish feeding I had to go back to work and he’d be heartbroken again. Plus my 4 year old was also at nursery, and he’d see me and become disengaged from the nursery activities once I had left, confused by the fact that I was there and not taking him and his brother home.
So we looked at other options. For a while I tried to express at night to send some milk with him the next day, but by then he was already about 14/15 months old, and my milk production was of course very much in synch with the amount he was drinking – there wasn’t much extra there, so it was difficult to express. I’d get between 1 and 2oz, which didn’t feel like enough for an afternoon milk feed for him. I’d still send whatever I had to nursery the next day, and he’d have it when the other children were having their milk too, but it was obvious that he wanted more.
So, reluctantly, I looked at yet another option – I went to the GP and asked for hypoallergenic formula. I had been a mum for more than 4 years and had 2 children, and this was the first time I had my hands on a formula tin. When I opened it at home to allow him to try it and get used to it, I found the smell really strong and overwhelming, so I wasn’t really surprised to find that my boy didn’t like it very much. In fact, the few times I tried giving it to him at home, he hardly ever touched it. I still gave a tin to the nursery, and they reported giving him a milk feed mid-afternoon, which proved to be a success, but in reality, we had to wait until he was about 18 months old and showing signs of outgrowing his intolerance, to really be able to increase his solid intake and slowly introduce cow’s milk as a drink during the day. I still breastfed him at home for another 8 months or so, meaning that he was weaned from the breast at the age of 2 years and 4 months, with feeds during the day having been dropped much earlier and with less struggle than night feeds.
When I reflect on my breastfeeding journeys as a working mum, and especially thinking about how things went with my second child, I am of course extremely grateful to have had the option to go and see him and breastfeed him during the day – not many working mums will have that, unless they work at home or very close to where their children are being cared for. So I feel that I was in a very unique and privileged position, and looking back I wish I had used it better. I certainly tried to do the best I could for my child, and I think that with the help of his key workers I did, but as a breastfeeding mum, I didn’t do myself or other breastfeeding mums any favours. My employer didn’t need to know that I was taking a 15 minute break nearly every day to go and breastfeed my son. By taking that short time off I wasn’t even eating into my working day – I was simply using some of my lunch time or my break time, and I was only going when I was free from meetings or calls and when it was ok to leave my desk. My line manager didn’t know or didn’t need to know, as I was simply taking what I was entitled to, like any other employee. So because my work wasn’t impacted, I managed this without asking for any favours or allowances. Was that right though?
I clearly remember filling in a form after returning to work as a ‘new mother’. The form is there to ensure that the new mum has everything she needs to be able to carry out her work – enough breaks, a good working station, any support she may need etc. Did I ever mention on that form that I was a breastfeeding mum, and, especially with my second child, that I was still heavily breastfeeding during the day and night? No. I never did. The form didn’t ask for it, and it just didn’t seem relevant.
It didn’t feel like there was anything I needed from work. I actually didn’t feel like a ‘new mum’ either – being a mum to a 4 year old and a 1 year old. The form wasn’t interested in whether I was breastfeeding or not. It didn’t ask whether I needed a private and clean place to express milk or whether I needed time off to go and breastfeed my child. So I wonder, if I’m a breastfeeding mum returning to work when my child is one year old, why is no specific support being offered?
In Italy, where I’m originally from, working mums have a 2 hour ‘breastfeeding allowance’ to be taken daily, until their child is one year old. Whether you breastfeed or not, you’re allowed to either have a 2 hour break during the day or to finish your shift 2 hours earlier to go and be with your child.
This means that most people who return to work before their child is one, only work shorter days and still get paid full time. I’ve always been quite jealous of that…
But maybe I had my chance. I filled in a form where my employer was asking me what support I needed as a new mother, and it didn’t even occur to me to mention that I was breastfeeding. Why?
Well, obviously there’s the fact that they didn’t ask, but I didn’t want to shout it from the rooftops either. Truth is, I can think of a few friends who encourage me and are proud of my choice to breastfeed past the age of 1 and even 2 years old, but I can also think of many people (including friends and close relatives) who don’t approve of that choice, and in fact think it’s wrong on the basis that a child of that age is too old to be breastfed. When it came to colleagues and co-workers it was a lot easier to not talk about whether my sons were still breastfed – I’d only talk about it with close friends or if someone asked direct questions. Otherwise I’d just let them think what they wanted – they probably just assumed that I has stopped a while back, so there was no need to talk about it really.
And that’s where I went wrong. I am proud to be a ‘long term breastfeeder’. I think I’m doing the best thing for me and my children. It makes me and them happy, and that’s all that matters. But not talking about it and not bringing it to my employer’s attention certainly didn’t help in making extended breastfeeding any more accepted. There’s a lot of talk about normalising breastfeeding and breastfeeding in public, but you don’t see a huge amount of mums breastfeeding older children in public, or asking for favours and special arrangements in the workplace. And I feel a lot of people are like me – they might be happy and proud of what they’re doing, but at the same time they don’t particularly enjoy judgemental comments or being in a position to defend their choices. (And of course there’s always the fact that older children breastfeed a lot less frequently, and their feeds can be very quick, so there isn’t often a real need to breastfeed in public).
Well, my third son is turning one this month, and I’m returning to work (to another employer) in about a month’s time. I’m yet again returning to work as a breastfeeding mum to a one year old who feeds day and night but who’s not dairy intolerant. I don’t feel the need to express milk for his feeds during the day once I return to work, and I won’t be able to go and see him to feed him either, as he’ll be cared for at home, while I’ll be in the office. He’ll probably be ok with solid food and cow’s milk until I get home in the evening, but should I be asked by my employer to travel to other sites and spend the night away from home (for example), we’d all be impacted – myself, my baby, my husband and my older children.
So maybe in the next month I should really think long and hard about what I should write this time on that ‘return to work as a new mum’ form. Maybe this time I should make it count…
Sara is a mum of three and BabyNatal teacher for West London.
Find out more about Sara and her classes, including the BabyNatal Practical Baby Care and Sleep Workshops, on our main website here.