Northern Ireland teacher's mental health struggle after school refused her room to breast pump

A teacher from Northern Ireland has said she was forced to breast pump in her car after her principal said there was nowhere for her to express milk in school.

The new mum wishes to remain anonymous but wanted to tell her story to highlight the difficulties breastfeeding women face when they return to work.

We have called her 'Sarah' to protect her identity.

Sarah returned to her teaching job at the start of 2023 but was still breastfeeding her baby and needed to express milk during working hours.

She had a conversation with her head teacher about changing her work hours so that she could breastfeed at home but this was denied.

Sarah told UTV her mental health was impacted because the same thing happened to her before at the school following her first pregnancy.

"I had asked for somewhere to express at lunchtime but was told there was nowhere and I just accepted that and used the car," said Sarah.

"I loved that breastfeeding journey, I fed her beyond a year, it was really lovely. But yeah, I just accepted it and I suppose thinking back now I shouldn't have accepted that there was nowhere and I would just sit in my car at lunchtime."

Sarah found herself not eating lunch and feeling cut-off from her colleagues.

"It was really isolating. I suppose it didn't help going back to work and leaving the baby at home either... a lot of time by yourself to think and to miss them. But yeah, really isolating and I just wasn't myself - it made me not be myself because I was lonely."

Sarah believes there were private spaces for her to express in school.

She said: "There would be places available if blinds had been shut and doors could be locked. A bit of work might have gone in to blocking windows. I think at one stage a store was mentioned but it wasn't lockable and it was in a classroom where kids were in and out all the time and I wasn't comfortable with the thought of a child walking in.

"Something could have been done but it wasn't even thought about."

After returning to work in 2023, Sarah said she felt like there was no point in bringing up the issue of having no private space to breast pump with her boss.

She did have a meeting to let the head teacher know she was still breast feeding and asked for a change to her work hours.

"To get home a few minutes earlier every day would make a massive difference. I wouldn't have necessarily had to have expressed at lunchtime then but that was all kind of denied," said Sarah.

"It mentally hasn't been good for me."

Sarah told UTV that she felt like she had to pick her battles in work.

"It wasn't worth the fight and it wasn't worth the push and the anxiety - I just was like, it's fine, I'll express in my car."

However, this time round after a few weeks of breast pumping in her car, Sarah decided to reach out to the Ulster Teachers' Union for advice.

Only then did she realise that employers should follow a set of guidelines to support breastfeeding women when they return to work.

The Health and Safety Executive NI recommends to employers that it's good practice to provide a private, healthy and safe environment for breastfeeding mothers to express and store milk - although this isn't a legal requirement.

However, there are laws that indirectly protect women's rights in the workplace; Health & Safety legislation and the Equality legislation.

Paul Oakes from the Equality Commission told UTV: "They have a right to breastfeed and express milk in a safe environment and in a safe way, they have a right to have their job altered or their activities altered if it impinges on their ability to breastfeed or express milk and the employer must conduct a health and safety assessment for the mum who's returning and breastfeeding.

"If for example anything prohibits the mum from breastfeeding, that can be regarded as a risk against the child. So there are provisions under the Health and Safety Legislation, which are quite extensive, that provide these rights.

"Second of all, there's the Equality Legislation and it's the Sex Discrimination Order in Northern Ireland of 1976 and under that legislation, where an employer has a policy or an arrangement that indirectly affects on any group, and in this case women who are breastfeeding or expressing milk, then the employer has to justify those arrangements."

UTV asked Mr Oakes if an employer refused to provide at least a safe and private space for a breastfeeding mum, could this be indirect sex discrimination?

"The short answer to that is yes," said Mr Oakes.

"If you don't put in place for example, a safe, comfortable, room with electric facilities, with running water, with confidentiality, with privacy, it's likely to contravene the Equality legislation and more than that, it's likely to contravene Health and Safety legislation."

Sarah told UTV she does not wish to take a sex discrimination case against the school at this time.

Instead, she wants to highlight the issues breastfeeding mums face when they return to work and to empower them to know their rights.

Sarah said: "Don't let anything hold you back. And I think if more people are aware of what you're entitled to, it might push them to ask the question... I would maybe have pushed myself if I'd known everything.. to just ask the question a few more times, to enable the journey to be a little easier."

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