Breastfeeding breaks and leave

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. But how do you do this if you have to go back to work?

In Belgium there are a few measures in place to help mothers breastfeed for as long as possible and to help those who go back to work while still breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding leave

In Belgium, while there is no paid breastfeeding leave (unless your work environment poses a risk to your breastfed baby – see below), you can ask to take unpaid breastfeeding leave, during which time your work contract remains valid.

This leave has to be agreed with your employer – note that employers are not obliged to allow this.

You can agree on the length of leave with your employer, but note that to ensure that you retain continuous mutuelle coverage, this leave needs to be taken within the first five months after the birth of your baby. 

No particular protection against being made redundant

When you are taking unpaid breastfeeding leave, you do not receive any particular protection against being made redundant (unlike when you are back at work and taking official breastfeeding breaks – see below).

What if my workplace is hazardous for a breastfeeding mother?

If you are still breastfeeding and your work environment would pose a health risk to your baby, via your breastmilk, e.g.

  • if you are exposed to dangerous substances
  • if you are in contact with people suffering from viral infections 

paid breastfeeding leave may be possible and necessary.

In this case, once you inform your employer that you are breastfeeding, your employer quickly contacts the ‘medecin du travail’ / ‘arbeidsgeneesheerdoctor’ (occupational health doctor), who will assess the situation and make a recommendation.

If it is not possible to adapt your work environment to remove the risk, or to assign you to different tasks where there is no risk to your breastfed baby, you will be put on paid leave, receiving 60% of your net salary.

Note that this is only possible until your baby reaches 5 months.

Who pays me?

It’s the INAMI-RIZIV (National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance) who, via the mutuelle, indemnifies a mother who needs to take breastfeeding leave due to hazardous work conditions.

Remember that fiscally speaking, these indemnities are considered as taxable ‘replacement salary’, and need to be declared on your annual tax return.  

Breastfeeding breaks

If you are an employee on a Belgian contract, and are still breastfeeding when you return to work after your maternity leave, you have the right to take ‘breastfeeding breaks’ to express milk.

You have the right to these breaks until your baby is nine months old, subject to fulfilling some requirements (see below).

In some cases, you may be able to discuss this with your employer and reach an agreement without having to follow the official procedure and involve your mutuelle.
However, if this is not possible, know that you are fully entitled to these breaks.

Your employer should provide you with a private space (that is appropriately lit and heated) where you can express your milk, as well as a fridge where you can store the expressed milk.
Note: placing your expressed milk in an opaque container may be advisable if the fridge is shared with other employees, just to avoid any unnecessary situations. 

How long can the breaks be?

  • If you work between 4 and 7.5 hours per day, you have the right to one breastfeeding break of 30 minutes.
  • If you work more than 7.5 hours per day, you have the right to one hour of breastfeeding breaks, broken into two 30-minute breaks if you like.

The timing of your breaks will hopefully be up to you. However, if you and your employer cannot come to an agreement, the break(s) will be on either side of your usual lunchbreak.

Do I get paid for breastfeeding breaks?

Breastfeeding breaks are not paid by your employer, but you receive a payment from the mutuelle of 82% of your salary.

Remember that fiscally speaking, these indemnities are considered as taxable ‘replacement salary’, and need to be declared on your annual tax return.  

What do I need to do to have breastfeeding breaks? 

  • Inform your employer: Two months before you go back to work, tell your employer that you want to take breastfeeding breaks – it’s best to do this via a recommended letter, or to ask written confirmation that they have received your request.

    Your employer may ask that you provide ‘proof’ each month that you are still breastfeeding – your doctor or midwife can provide this to you.

  • Inform your mutuelle: Your mutuelle will provide you with a document ‘attestation mensuelle portant sur l’indemnité pour les pauses d’allaitement’.

    You need to return this form each month to your mutuelle, filled in by yourself and by your employer. The form will state the number of breastfeeding breaks you took, and your net salary.

    You also sign that your request for payment for the breastfeeding breaks is truthful.

Protection against being made redundant

From the time you inform your employer that you will take breastfeeding breaks, until one month after your last ‘proof of breastfeeding/expressing’ expires, you are protected against being made redundant (unless for reasons unrelated to your situation).

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