While regulation in India specifically governing lactating mothers aims at indirect facilitation through crèche services, the West often focuses on direct breastfeeding or pumping facilities, law experts say.

DevOps engineer Mudita Chauhan* has to travel to her home to breastfeed her baby on a daily basis. It’s not that her workplace doesn’t provide a crèche facility. But the poor infrastructure and sheer discomfort makes it almost impossible for Chauhan to visit it daily.

However, when Chauhan and a few colleagues facing a similar situation requested their human resources business partner (HRBP) for the establishment of a lactation room at the workplace, the reply never came.

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act of 2017 mandates that every establishment with 50 or more employees should provide a crèche facility within a prescribed distance. This indirectly facilitates breastfeeding mothers to ensure their infants receive adequate nourishment. The act also permits women to visit the crèche four times daily, which includes her interval for rest.

But Western countries, like the US under the Fair Labor Standards Act, require employers to provide reasonable break time and a private non-bathroom space for nursing mothers to express breast milk for a year after the child’s birth, according to Sonal Alagh, partner at Alagh & Kapoor Law Offices.

The key takeaway is that while India’s law aims at indirect facilitation through crèche services, the West often focuses on direct breastfeeding or pumping facilities.

The challenges

Setting up breastfeeding rooms in the workplace in India can be a challenging endeavour for many companies due to various social, cultural and logistical factors. While there has been some progress in recent years in recognising the importance of supporting working mothers, numerous hurdles persist.

A 2023 Avtar & Seramount BCWI-MICI study of 350 Indian companies found that 86 percent of them provide pumping rooms but only 30 percent offer lactation support programmes—resource and referral support via lactation consultants and agencies for guidance on the breastfeeding journey.

A pumping room is primarily for expressing breast milk using a pump, while a breastfeeding room is designed for direct breastfeeding but can also accommodate pumping if necessary.

While citing a 2018 Medela study that stated only 33 percent of companies offer a designated nursing room for women to express breast milk, HR firm KelpHR said this number is still reflective of the current number of companies that offer breastfeeding facilities/rooms at the workplace.

Setting up a breastfeeding room requires financial investment and sufficient space. Smaller or financially constrained companies may find it challenging to allocate resources for this purpose.

“It has to be a room with a comfortable seating facility for one or two breastfeeding mothers at a time, and a refrigerator to store the breast milk. That is the basic minimum organisations can do and this is doable even in the smallest of companies,” said Smita Shetty Kapoor, CEO and co-founder of KelpHR, adding that in the event that the firm doesn’t have any employees who are pregnant/breastfeeding, the room can be used as a multipurpose room.

However, post-Covid implications have their play in this matter. With remote and hybrid working models becoming a norm, many employees themselves have opted for a crèche facility closer to their residence than one at the office. As a result, many organisations that had crèche facilities in their offices have wound them down.

“But not having a crèche does not negate breastfeeding. However, now with the number of offices with crèches dwindling, breastfeeding support is also negligible,” said Sonica Aron, founder and managing partner of HR consultancy Marching Sheep.

Cultural issue

India has a conservative cultural background, and breastfeeding in public or at the workplace is often seen as taboo. Some employees and employers may still hold traditional views, making it difficult for women to openly discuss their needs for a breastfeeding room.

The workplace culture plays a significant role in supporting breastfeeding mothers. An unsupportive or judgemental work environment can discourage women from utilising the breastfeeding room or expressing milk during work hours.

Without a proper space to express milk, working mothers may have to take breaks in less-than-ideal locations or times, disrupting their work. This can lead to reduced productivity and efficiency, creating a lose-lose situation for both the employee and the employer.

Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president of Avtar Group, a diversity solutions firm, said it is important for organisations to activate forums/channels through which such needs can be raised. This may include employee resource groups (ERGs) or women’s networks/councils.

“Women leaders have a crucial role to play in this. They can ensure that spotlight on the need for support is communicated at the leadership level, which will work towards normalising support around breastfeeding,” she said.

Know your rights

Mothers who are unable to breastfeed or express milk at work may face the difficult decision of either leaving their jobs or taking extended leaves of absence. This can result in talent loss for companies and increased absenteeism.

However, industry experts say women should have to know their rights and ask for it. For instance, the breastfeeding facilities at the workplace mandated under the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act.

Moreover, employees have to determine which state laws and provisions apply to the workplace as different states in India may have additional rules and regulations related to breastfeeding facilities.

As a start, employees must collect information about the company’s policies and practices regarding breastfeeding facilities, if available. This can include reviewing the employee handbook, speaking with HR, or consulting with colleagues who may have faced similar situations.
More important is to put the request in writing.

“Formalise your request by drafting a well-structured letter addressed to your employer. Outline your lactation plan, including the frequency and duration of breastfeeding breaks required. Specify any facilities or accommodations you need, such as a private lactation room with proper amenities,” KelpHR’s Kapoor said.

Working mothers must brainstorm with their colleagues and offer potential solutions that make it easier for the company to comply with the request. For example, suggest the use of an existing room that can be converted into a breastfeeding room with minimal cost.

“If your employer is unresponsive or unwilling to provide the necessary facilities, you may seek assistance from labour authorities or relevant government departments responsible for enforcing labour laws,” said Kritika Seth, founding partner at Victoriam Legalis.

Read More