Mothers should be allowed to express breast milk at work

First, some background to the initiative: Lansley's aim is to encourage breastfeeding and longer-term breastfeeding, which improves babies' health. He's striving to narrow the gap between women in routine and manual jobs, 66% of whom breastfeed as new mothers, and those in professional occupations, of whom 88% breastfeed as new mothers.

The idea is to encourage businesses to provide a screened-off area for expressing milk, and asking them to provide fridges exclusively for pumped milk. He's also asking business owners to be 'flexible' over when mothers take breaks to express their milk, which takes 20 - 30 minutes.

His intentions make perfect sense for the nation's health, but they've drawn criticism from the Daily Mail along with spokespeople from the Forum of Private Business (Phil McCabe: "This has the potential for serious staffing and cost consequences"), Institute of Directors (economist Ruth Lea: "Inevitably this will lead to extra costs on business, and make it harder and harder for them when they are expected to be creating new jobs") and the Federation of Small Businesses (chief spokesman Stephen Alambritis criticised the cost factor for small businesses).

Our loyalty, as you know, will always be with small businesses. But we fear there has been a dangerous misinterpretation of the facts here, thanks in no small part to the rather inflammatory Daily Mail article (the source of all the lobby group quotes mentioned above).

Lansley has stated he intends for any new measures not to cause any additional costs for business owners. And as plans stand at the moment, only a few hundred businesses will be asked to trial new proposals. Besides which, the screened-off area for breastfeeding mothers could be as simple as using a desk divider in the corner of the room.

The way we read this, Lansley isn't, as some people seem to think, forcing small business owners to move into new premises with extra rooms for new mums, or saying new babies should be kept in a crib in a corner of the office all day. We don't think the Daily Mail has been all that helpful in suggesting (note the all-crucial 'could' here) that 'the plan could see babies being brought into work to be fed or women being allowed breaks during the working day to go home to breastfeed'. Lansley has not inferred that at all, from what we've read.

And look at the good this sensationalising of the facts has done - the 4Networking forum, for example, has been debating the following post all day:

Am I the only one that think that breastfeeding at work is totally stupid.

If a woman wants to work that much why have a baby in the first place... Isn't it time to call time on this overzealous behaviour of our social scientists to remodel the well structured practices of doing business.

"Excuse me, Mr Managing director, but I need to go and breastfeed my 2 week old baby..."

"That's fine Miss Secretary, I was getting a headache from is screaming and while you are there please change its nappy, the air is becoming a little strong in here.."

There is also the problem of who takes responsibility for babies in the workplace, after all the woman is employed not the family... are we going to see schoolchildren in the staff canteen next, so they can be taken care of after school...  Isn't there a legal and insurance issue here?

Women, if you want a baby, have a baby.... just don't take the piss and why not give up your job and become a proper Mother. Being a Mother is a full time job.. so why try to do it part-time and make a hash of it.

Now, despite the fact this post is sickeningly sexist and entirely wrong on many counts (resounding research has shown that whether a child receives full-time maternal care, or goes into childcare while its parents work, makes precisely zero difference to its welfare and development), the post above is mainly all frothed with anger at the thought of businesses having to accommodate new-borns on-site all day. Which is a far removed and obviously much more contentious concept than anything Lansley originally suggested.

In fact, we appreciate Lansley's suggestions. Anything that can make new mothers' working lives easier is fine by us, and anything that helps them get back to work when they want to, and feel welcome when they do, is positive.

You can buy mini fridges (for the pumped milk) for as little as £20. If that £20 makes a member of your team feel comfortable, and, crucially for you, gets her back working for you sooner after giving birth than if you hadn't bought a mini fridge, isn't that worth £20?

And let's not forget these are just preliminary proposals at the moment, outlined in a whitepaper, not in legislation. Small businesses will not be forced to do anything as it stands - these are just ideas being bounced around.

But when certain voices in the press, the public, and business lobby groups react so violently to any suggestion that small businesses could make micro changes to help new mums get back to work, it's no wonder there are still many mothers out there who feel stigmatised for returning to work after recently having a baby.

Yes, we all need to watch costs levied on small businesses by legislation, of course. But when the costs involved are this low, isn't it more important to make sure all members of the workforce feel equally welcome in the workplace? In my view, it's a real shame that a newspaper would go for the sensationalising of an issue as important as this rather than support some sensible proposals.

What do you think of the proposals to help mothers express their breast milk at work? Share your views below.

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