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Navigating UK Parental Employment Law: Maternity Leave Return.

October 16, 2023

Empower your workforce! Discover the essential UK Law and recommendations for supporting parents returning to work after parental leave.
Employers - guiding parental leave

How Employers can Best Support Breastfeeding Mothers in the Workplace.

Hello! If you’ve found your way here, it’s probably because you’re looking for information on the complex legal and recommended guidelines in the UK regarding supporting parents returning to work. Specifically, you might be interested in how workplaces can accommodate mothers who want to continue breastfeeding their child.

Great news! The United Kingdom is taking significant steps to support new mothers in the workplace. Laws about maternity leave and helping breastfeeding mothers are crucial not just for employees’ rights but also for creating an inclusive and supportive work atmosphere.

In this article, we’ll cover the important UK laws about parents coming back to work after maternity leave and the support given to mothers breastfeeding. We’ll specifically focus on how employers can follow these rules for the best outcomes. If you want information on supporting non-breastfeeding mothers, fathers, or same-sex partners returning to work, check out our other article here.

The article covers:  

  • Eligibility for Maternity Leave 
    • Maternity Leave Entitlement 
  • Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP)
  • Enhanced Maternity Pay 
  • Return to Work After Maternity Leave 
    • Notification of Return 
    • Flexible Working 
    • Protection Against Discrimination 
  • Support for Breastfeeding Mothers in the Workplace 
    • Breastfeeding Breaks 
    • Health and Safety Considerations 
    • Discrimination and Harassment 
  • Best Practices for Employers 
    • Flexible Return-to-Work Policies 
    • Educating Staff 
    • Providing Lactation Facilities 
    • Storing Expressed Breastmilk at Work 
    • Creating a Supportive Culture 
    • Reviewing and Update Policies 
  • Conclusion 

Maternity Leave in the UK: A Brief Overview 

In the UK, maternity leave is a statutory entitlement that provides eligible employees with the right to take time off work to have a baby and care for their child. The purpose of maternity leave is to ensure the well-being of both the mother and the child during the early stages of life, while also affording job protection for the new mother. 

Eligibility for Maternity Leave: 

To be eligible for maternity leave, an employee must meet certain criteria: 

1. Employee Status: The individual must be an employee, which means they have a contract of employment with their employer. 

2. Notification: The employee must inform their employer of their pregnancy and the expected due date at least 15 weeks before the baby is due. 

The UK Government states that the number of contracted hours, pay or length of service, do not affect an employee’s rights to Statutory Maternity Leave.  

There are different policies for parents who have a child through surrogacy, its best to familiarise yourself.  

Maternity Leave Entitlement 

Once eligible, an employee is entitled to the following maternity leave rights in the UK: 

1. Ordinary Maternity Leave (OML): This consists of the first 26 weeks of maternity leave. During OML, the employee continues to accrue benefits such as paid annual leave and contractual benefits except for wages. 

2. Additional Maternity Leave (AML): Following OML, an employee is entitled to an additional 26 weeks of leave. However, during AML, the employee’s employment rights are limited, and they do not receive any payment unless specified in their contract. 

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) 

In addition to maternity leave, eligible employees are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) to help support them financially during their time away from work. To qualify for SMP, employees must have: 

  • Worked for their employer continuously for at least 26 weeks leading up to the 15th week before the expected due date. 
  • Earned an average of at least £123 per week (before tax) during the eight weeks leading up to the 15th week before the expected due date. 

SMP is payable for up to 39 weeks. For the first six weeks, it is paid at 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings, followed by 33 weeks at the standard rate (or 90% of the average weekly earnings, whichever is lower). 

Enhanced Maternity Pay  

Several employers provide maternity benefits that go beyond the legally mandated maternity pay. This additional benefit is often referred to as ‘enhanced’ or ‘contractual’ maternity pay. 

For instance, a maternity package might include 26 weeks of full pay followed by 13 weeks of statutory maternity pay. 

To determine: 

1. Whether an employee qualifies for enhanced maternity pay 

2. The precise amount of additional pay the employee is eligible for 

3. The duration for which the employee will receive these benefits 

Employees should review their employment contracts or engage in a conversation with their employer if they have queries.

In situations where your organisation extends enhanced maternity pay, it’s essential to be aware that the employee may be required to reimburse a portion or the entire extra amount (anything beyond the statutory maternity pay) if they: 

  • Choose not to return to work 
  • Depart shortly after their maternity leave period 

These conditions should be clearly outlined in the employment contract or employee handbook. 

Return to Work After Maternity Leave 

Returning to work after maternity leave can be a significant transition for both the employee and the employer. It’s crucial for employers to understand their obligations and responsibilities in facilitating a smooth return. 

Notification of Return 

Employees are required to notify their employer at least 8 weeks before they intend to return to work after maternity leave. The notice should include the date of return and whether they plan to return full-time or part-time. This notice period allows employers to plan accordingly and ensure a seamless transition.  

A mother may not know herself what her arrangements with her child will be before she returns, and even if her decision is set, things may change – allow a level of flexibility and understanding knowing that she may not immediately know what the plan is. Open and frequent communication is extremely valuable here to ensure both parties are comfortable with the arrangement and prepared.  

Flexible Working 

Returning mothers have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements. This could include part-time hours, remote work, or adjusted schedules. While employers can decline these requests if there are legitimate business reasons, it’s essential to consider the request carefully and explore reasonable alternatives. 

Protection Against Discrimination 

UK law strictly prohibits discrimination against employees due to their pregnancy or maternity leave. Employers must ensure that returning mothers are treated fairly and without bias. Discrimination can take various forms, including unequal pay, unfair treatment, or even dismissal on the grounds of maternity. Employers found guilty of such discrimination can face serious legal consequences. 

Support for Breastfeeding Mothers in the Workplace 

Breastfeeding is highly recommended for infant health, and many mothers choose to continue breastfeeding upon their return to work. The UK has established policies and laws to support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace

Mothers should notify the employer in writing that they are choosing to breastfeed upon returning to work so that suitable arrangements can be made.  

Breastfeeding Breaks 

There is no legal obligation for employers to provide facilities for breastfeeding mothers to express milk, however they are legally required to provide suitable facilities where pregnant and breastfeeding mothers can rest (Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992). This could include a private and comfortable room with a chair – it must not be a bathroom. It is beneficial for employers to provide access to a power source, and refrigeration for milk storage if possible but there is no legal obligation.  

Mothers are not legally obligated to take paid breaks to express milk, but they are entitled to request reasonable adjustments and receive a considered response. A refusal to allow a breastfeeding employee to express milk or to adjust their working conditions to enable her to continue to breastfeed may amount to unlawful sex discrimination without a justifiable reason from the organisation. These breaks can be unpaid, or paid depending on the organisation, but employees cannot be penalised for taking them if they are granted. Open communication is crucial to meet a suitable agreement for both parties. 

Breastfeeding Policy

Organisations should consider having a breastfeeding policy to support employees. Although this is not mandatory, it can be helpful in larger organisations in helping managers to receive and consider requests fairly, and for employees to be aware that they may make a request. It may not be required in smaller organisations with open channels of communication.

Health and Safety Considerations

While employers are legally obligated to frequently assess overall workplace hazards (as stipulated in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999), there is no requirement for employers to perform a distinct, separate risk assessment for an employee returning from maternity leave who has expressed her intention to breastfeed. It is however good practice to do so anyway.

Employers should work with the mother to implement any necessary accommodations, such as adjustments to her work environment or schedule. 

Discrimination and Harassment

Discrimination or harassment of breastfeeding mothers is strictly prohibited under UK law. Employers must ensure that breastfeeding mothers are not subjected to unfair treatment, negative comments, or any form of discrimination in the workplace. It is illegal to ask a woman to stop breastfeeding in public, but breastfeeding in the workplace should be pre-discussed and agreed with your employee during their Keeping in Touch (KIT) days before returning to work. This can help employers to put things in place to protect the employee. Be aware that your employee may not know how long she wishes to breastfeed for, or when she will decide to stop – flexibility and on-going communication is key. 

Best Practices for Employers 

While understanding the legal requirements is essential, going above and beyond compliance can create a more supportive and inclusive workplace for new mothers. Here are some best practices for employers: 

Flexible Return-to-Work Policies 

Parents have the right to request flexible working. Flexibility can support breastfeeding parent-infant relationships and all employers are required to consider all requests. Offering flexible return-to-work policies could allow new mothers to ease back into their roles gradually. This could involve part-time hours initially, telecommuting options, or job-sharing arrangements. 

Educate and Train Staff 

Educate all employees about the rights and needs of new mothers returning from maternity leave. Encourage a culture of understanding and support. 

Just as any request from an employee to temporarily modify their work conditions due to personal or domestic situations, a request for breastfeeding accommodations at the workplace should be treated similarly. It is advisable for employers to engage in discussions with relevant colleagues about the potential impacts of these requests on the organisation and how their roles might adjust temporarily. 

By involving other employees in these conversations, the employer can effectively communicate the business necessity behind these short-term adjustments. Gathering input from employees can also assist the employer in identifying any issues that could affect business operations and determining whether the request can be granted. 

When such requests are approved, employers must also take measures to prevent any inappropriate conduct (or ‘banter’) towards an employee who is breastfeeding. This entails ensuring appropriate facilities are available (refer to details below) and proactively discouraging any teasing or remarks that could be offensive or degrading to the breastfeeding employee. 

Such remarks have the potential to constitute unlawful harassment according to the Equality Act 2010 (for more information, consult the Acas guide on ‘Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace’). 

Providing an education and understanding to other employees, can help to support the person returning to work from both a management and colleague perspective. 

Provide Lactation Facilities 

While the law doesn’t mandate that employers must offer facilities for breastfeeding or expressing milk, a breastfeeding employee has the right to request a secure and private space for milk expression and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that it is best practice for employers to offer a private, safe and secure space for breastfeeding mothers to express and safely store breast milk. 

If your organisation opts to undertake this, the space should be comfortable and should not be a bathroom or a sick room, as using such areas could pose hygiene concerns. Ensuring that lactation facilities are easily accessible and well-equipped can really support employees. These spaces should be private, clean, and comfortable, allowing mothers to express milk comfortably. 

Storing Expressed Breastmilk at Work 

Employers do have a crucial role to play in supporting breastfeeding mothers as they return to work. One essential aspect of this support is providing a safe and convenient facility for the storage of breastmilk within the office environment. Employers are not legally obligated to provide storage for breastmilk, but by addressing these practical aspects of breastfeeding support, employers contribute to a more accommodating and nurturing workplace for new mothers. 

Employers could provide access to a clean and hygienic refrigerator where breastfeeding employees can store their expressed milk during working hours. This helps maintain the quality and safety of breastmilk, ensuring that it remains suitable for the baby when the mother returns home. 

Create a Supportive Culture 

Foster a workplace culture that values work-life balance and supports the needs of new parents. This can include encouraging employees to use flexible working arrangements and providing resources for parental support. 

Review and Update Policies 

Regularly review and update policies related to maternity leave, breastfeeding support, and flexible working to ensure they remain effective and meet the changing needs of your workforce. 


The UK has made significant strides in supporting new mothers in the workplace through maternity leave and breastfeeding support legislation. Employers play a critical role in ensuring that these rights are upheld and that returning mothers are provided with the necessary support and accommodations to thrive both personally and professionally. By understanding and implementing these laws and best practices, employers can create a more inclusive and supportive work environment for all employees, regardless of their parental status. 

Anya can empower your working parents, enhance your employer value proposition and help you to achieve diversity and inclusivity objectives. Download our whitepaper to read more about this.

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