Students Staff

01 May 2012

Breastfeeding facilities in the workplace are good for mothers and employers

Breastfeeding facilities in workplaces help women return to work earlier after giving birth as well as allowing babies to be breast fed for longer according to a new ISER study.

The study, part of a major Economic and Social Research Council funded programme of research into breastfeeding at ISER, found that mothers who could breastfeed at work were eight per cent more likely to have returned to work before their child was six months old and five per cent more likely to return before four months. However, this effect is only seen among better educated mothers (educated to age 19 and above). For less-well educated working mothers the availability of breast feeding facilities seem to have no bearing on when they return to work.

The Department of Health advises that children should be exclusively breastfed up to the age of at least six months. The benefits of breastfeeding range from lower incidence of asthma, allergies and lower rates of hospitalisation and better cognitive development. But many women are forced to stop breastfeeding when they return to work.

Dr Emilia Del Bono, from ISER, is co author of the research with Dr Chiara Pronzato at the Università di Torino. Dr Del Bono says:

“Lower educated mothers have shorter maternity leave periods due to income constraints, so the availability of breastfeeding facilities has little impact on their decision to return to work. More educated mothers, by contrast, have more choice in relation to the duration of their maternity leave and are also more likely to breastfeed longer, so the availability of breastfeeding facilities is more important in this group.”

The study is based on a sample of more than 3,000 mothers, who took part in the government’s nationwide 2005 Infant Feeding Survey and who had returned to work by the time their child was 8 to 10 months old. It found that 53 percent of better educated mothers were back at work when their child was six months old, compared to 46 percent of lower educated mothers. Of these working mothers, a third of higher educated women and approximately one in six less-educated mothers were still breastfeeding at six months. There was, however, only a small difference in access to breastfeeding facilities at work, with more educated mothers only 3.5 percent more likely to have such facilities in their workplace.

The research also looked at different family-friendly policies more commonly offered, such as part-time working, flexi-time and extended breaks, to analyse whether there is any correlation between these policies and the duration of breastfeeding or the duration of maternity leave. There was however some evidence that access to these policies varied according to mothers’ intentions to breastfeed. So, although the research did not find any significant positive association between breastfeeding and earlier return to work and the availability of these family-friendly policies, any direct link between these policies and breastfeeding or return to work is likely to be confounded by maternal characteristics.

Conversely, there is no evidence that mothers with stronger propensity to breastfeed choose firms or employers who offer access to breastfeeding facilities. What this indicates for the research findings is that the higher percentage of better-educated mothers who return to work by the time their child is six months old and continue to breastfeed can be directly attributed to the availability of breastfeeding facilities at work.

Dr Del Bono, co-author of the research, concludes:

“What these findings tell us is that there is an economic benefit to employers of providing breastfeeding facilities at work, such as facilities to express milk or actually breastfeed, as it can shorten the time taken off work by better-educated female employees.”

Dr Del Bono points out that a more comprehensive analysis of the effects of breastfeeding facilities on maternal labour supply cannot be conducted at present:

“Unfortunately, we are limited by the data available to us. Ideally, we would like to have information on breastfeeding facilities and family friendly policies availability for all mothers who are working during their pregnancy. This would allow us to analyse whether these workplace characteristics influence women’s likelihood to return to work after the birth of their child as well as the duration of their maternity leave. The IFS asks questions about the availability of breastfeeding facilities only of mothers who are back at work when their child is 8-10 months old so we do not know anything about the characteristics of the workplace for mothers who are still on maternity leave or who have left the workforce. There is no UK dataset at present which would allow us to answer these questions and this needs to be rectified.”

  • For further information or an interview with Dr Del Bono please contact Chris Garrington on 07546 11 76 73

Notes to Editors

  • The Infant Feeding Survey has been conducted every five years since 1975. The 2005 Infant Feeding Survey was the seventh national survey of infant feeding practices to be conducted. The main aim of the survey was to provide estimates on the incidence, prevalence, and duration of breastfeeding and other feeding practices adopted by mothers in the first eight to ten months after their baby was born. The 2005 survey is the first to provide separate estimates for all four countries in the United Kingdom, as well as for the UK as a whole. The survey is based on an initial representative sample of mothers who were selected from all births registered during August and September 2005 in the United Kingdom. Three stages of data collection were conducted with Stage 1 being carried out when babies were around four to ten weeks old, Stage 2 when they were around four to six months old, and Stage 3 when they were around eight to ten months old. A total of 9,416 mothers completed and returned all three questionnaires.
  • ISER is a Department of the University of Essex. Its world-class team of survey and research experts specialises in the production and analysis of longitudinal data – evidence which tracks changes in the lives of the same people over time. It houses the ESRC Centre on Micro-Social Change and the ESRC UK Longitudinal Studies Centre. It is responsible for the design and management of both the British Household Panel Survey and its successor, Understanding Society.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at

Photo credit: thekaymancom

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