Tommy's PregnancyHub

Returning to work after maternity or shared parental leave

Adjusting to going back to work after maternity or parental leave can be very emotional but it can be exciting to have freedom from the constant needs of a baby, spend more time with adults and engage your brain again on something outside of the family.

The information on this page is for you if you’re carrying the baby and are an ‘employee’ of your organisation. To find out whether you are defined as an employee or another type of worker, the ACAS website can help you work out your employee status

Going back to work after becoming a parent can be daunting, especially if this is your first baby. You may be feeling different about yourself, and about lots of other things in life too. It’s likely that you’ve been with your baby constantly for a long time and you’ll be used to a very different pace of life. 

The initial adjustment period after going back to work can be very emotional – especially in the early days and weeks – but it can be exciting to have freedom from the constant needs of a baby, spend more time with adults and engage your brain again on something outside of the family. 

If you are working from home, fully or partially, you may find this adjustment easier. Since Covid-19, many roles have moved to home-working and this may ease your transition back to work. But you still need to arrange childcare just as you would if you were travelling to work. It’s important to organise a space where you can work uninterrupted.

“I was in a new comfort zone after 7 months at home with my baby, so that was hard to think about breaking out of. My confidence had also taken a hit – I just couldn’t see myself managing the situations I’d taken in my stride before. But once I got back into it I moved very quickly back into my old role. My confidence came back and the break from all day at home with baby was a relief. It was a joy to have full conversations and lunch uninterrupted!” 
Mum of 2

Childcare options

Organising childcare that you trust and feel happy with is one of the first things you can do to make you feel comfortable about going back. You may have family to help and you and/or your partner may also be taking on some of the care, but for most people paid childcare is vital to returning to work. 

Take time in the months before going back to investigate options local to you. These may include 1 or more of the following:

  • informal care such as a friend or family member
  • a nanny or mother’s help (usually in your house)
  • a childminder (usually in their house)
  • a nursery. 

Your childcare needs to work for you. You need an option that your household income will cover and that fits around your working hours, while still making sure that your baby is in really good hands. 

Childcare in the early years is very expensive and you may find that a lot of your pay is going towards it. If this is the case for you, it’s easy to think that it might be better for everyone if you (or your partner, if you have one) gave up work. 

However, there are a few other things to think about:

  • The childcare costs should be paid by you and your partner, if you have one. Unless you are a single parent, don’t assume that your salary alone should cover childcare.
     
  • Right now, as a stay-at-home parent, you may think that giving up work sounds attractive. But keep in mind that you might find it hard to return to work later if you have a longer break. 
     
  • The first few years can be very expensive. But once children reach nursery-school age, the government provides some financial support towards childcare costs to people who are in work, such as tax-free childcare. So, you may decide that paying for childcare through a salary and being employed means you’ll be better off financially in the long term. 
     
  • You should not feel obligated to make any particular choice or worry about being judged for your childcare choices. The most important thing is to do what you think is best for yourself, your child and your family as a whole.
     
Tip

The government will help pay for approved childcare such as nursery, childminders or nannies. Find out more about government help with childcare at the government’s Childcare choices website.

Leaving your baby in childcare

Feeling as emotionally prepared as you can about leaving your baby in someone else’s care is just as important as coordinating your childcare schedule. Even if you can’t wait to see your colleagues and return to your job, leaving your baby for the first time can be difficult.

Here are some tips to help:

  • Make sure your baby has done a gradual handover to the person responsible for their childcare. Most will insist on this. A few hours a day in the weeks leading up to work can really help your baby adjust to the change.
     
  • Remember that they will adjust, even if they are tearful at first so try not to dwell on this. Many children cry at the start, but they get used to the new situation quickly and enjoy having playmates.
     
  • If they can, get your partner to do the drop-off or handover to the new childcare provider on the first few days (or every day) so you don’t have to deal with the tears.
     
  • Being organised is helpful. Know in advance what time you need to get up, how long it takes to get everyone to the right place and how long it will take you to get to work.

Breastfeeding and expressing at work

This section is anyone who will be breastfeeding when they return to work. 

WHO and UNICEF recommend breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and introducing solid foods at 6 months, ideally with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond. 

If you want to continue breastfeeding when you return to work, it’s a good idea to let your employer know in advance so they can make arrangements and do a risk assessment. Your employer needs to include any potential risks to you in their workplace risk assessment. If your work brings you into contact with any physical, chemical or biological agents that could affect you or your baby’s health while you are breastfeeding, talk to them about this.

If you’re working from home and have childcare at home, you might be able to continue breastfeeding in your breaks. If you work in an office and have childcare nearby, you might be able to manage feeds during the day – but you’re more likely to want to express milk.

There is no legal right for your employer to provide breastfeeding breaks at work but they should be flexible around your needs. For example, workplace regulations require employers to provide suitable facilities where anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding can rest. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also recommends that it's good practice for employers to provide a private, healthy and safe environment for expressing and storing milk. 

Phasing out breastfeeding

Lots of people who work away from home choose to phase out breastfeeding or move to combined feeding around the time they start work. This takes time. If you start doing it very close to your back-to-work date, you may need to express while you’re at work if your breasts become uncomfortably full, until your body adjusts. 

As you gradually reduce your breastfeeding, you may decide to continue with just 1 feed – for example, in the evening after work.

Different ways to return to work

Some employers offer a gradual return to work where you start doing fewer hours or days than usual – often called a ‘phased return’. If you’d like to do this, it’s a good idea to speak to your employer about this in advance so they know your plans. 

You can use your keeping in touch (KIT) or shared parental in touch (SPLIT) days to gradually settle back into working life and build up to your regular hours. But be aware that even if you use only a couple of hours, this still counts as a full KIT or SPLIT day.

Flexible working

Some people want to return to work in a more flexible way. If you’d like to do this, have a look at your organisation’s flexible working policy before applying. It’s a good idea to discuss your plans with your employer before your return-to-work date. 

If you’ve worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks, you’re entitled to ask your employer to consider flexible working. 

Options include:

  • annualised hours standard hours spread over the year but varying around your needs – for example, working longer hours during term time and shorter in the school holidays
  • compressed hours standard hours spread over fewer days
  • flexitime working pre-agreed core hours, such as 11am–3pm, with the remaining hours to suit you
  • job share dividing your role and hours with someone else
  • part-time – fewer hours or fewer days than full time
  • staggered hours working different hours to others, such as working 7am–3pm when most do 9–5pm
  • remote working such as working from home.

Your employer isn’t required to agree to your application if it will negatively affect business, but they are required to consider it in a ‘reasonable manner’. This means things like:

  • assessing the pros and cons
  • meeting you to discuss the application
  • if they say no, offering you an appeal process.

Make sure you’re familiar with your organisation’s flexible working policy and the ACAS Code of Practice on flexible working as if the request goes to tribunal, the judge will expect your employer to have followed this.

Tips: Making your flexible working application
  • Before you start, check your rights, your contract and your organisation’s policies.
  • Think about what would work for you in an ideal world.
  • Think about how this would affect your employer and pre-empt any concerns, questions or objections they might have with solutions.
  • Think about how your suggestion might benefit the organisation – for example, reducing costs or working shifts that other staff members are reluctant to do.
  • Put your proposal in writing (your organisation may have its own form for this).
  • State “This is a statutory request” and list any previous applications you’ve made for flexible working.

Your employer might agree to your proposal immediately. Otherwise, they may set a meeting to discuss it (you can bring someone along to this if you want). If they say no, they must have a good reason and need to give you information about how to appeal, if you want to.

Find out more about the process for applying for flexible working on the GOV.UK website.

Finding a work-family balance

When you first become a parent, you’ll probably find that juggling work and parenthood is a whole new way of life. 

If you have a partner, or live with friends or family, agree on a plan so that everyone’s clear who is doing what. 

Here are some tips:

  • Keep meals and shopping as simple as you can – for example, you might use online shopping or do batch cooking at the weekends.
     
  • If you can afford a cleaner, consider hiring one - even once a month would be helpful. If this is beyond your budget, it might help to adjust your expectations of how you want your house to look. Prioritise the things that bother you most.
     
  • Make an effort to befriend a network of other families in your local area (through playgroups) and stay close to them even when you go back to work. These are the people who you will be able to call on to help out if there’s a childcare breakdown. It’s tempting to think you have no time for this after you return to work but, as well as having the peer support and closer friendships, making the effort is likely to help you in the long term.
     
  • Work out the pick-up days with your partner. It might help for you to alternate so you aren’t under pressure after work every day to dash off. Having at least one day where your partner does it also means you have a chance to do something different, such as socialising with colleagues or doing some shopping.

Remember that as a parent, you and your partner are legally entitled to take up to 4 weeks’ parental leave each year – usually unpaid – to look after your child. You can find out more about parental leave on the GOV.UK website. 

Your career

The greatest asset a company has is its employees. That’s you. It’s likely that your employer will have spent time and money recruiting and training you, and you’ll have built up valuable experience in your role. Your happiness in your role and with your career progression is important to them.

After becoming a parent, you may not think of yourself as career focused anymore. Perhaps you’re too busy or just feel like your priorities have changed. It isn’t uncommon for people to take a step down in their careers or even change jobs after having a baby because they want less responsibility (perhaps as a compromise for greater flexibility). This is your decision. You may change your mind as your child gets older and find you start to feel ambitious again, or you may not. However you feel is fine and completely normal.

Many parents have highly rewarding and successful careers after having children. If you’re keen to progress your career, it’s a good idea to keep looking for opportunities and thinking about your progression and your future. It can help to set aside some time to think about what you want from your career and find a time to discuss it with your line manager. You can be honest and tell them what your ideal scenario is. You must still be included in all opportunities for promotion but if you can think of a goal you’d like to aim for, tell them that too. Letting them know openly that you are still ambitious and committed may counter any unconscious biases they may hold.

It's worth bearing in mind that many people make assumptions – even if it is unconscious – about people’s (particularly, women’s) commitment to the job once they become parents. This is sometimes called the ‘maternal wall bias’. For example, they may assume you’re not interested in promotions or extra responsibilities or even that you aren’t fully committed to your role. Some people find that taking time off work knocks their confidence and they need some support to get back on track. If this sounds like you, find out if your employer provides return-to-work coaching or consider having some counselling. 

Tips to help with self-doubt

  • Imagine your thoughts of self-doubt are being said by a good friend. What would you say to help them feel better? Now, try saying the same things to yourself.
     
  • ‘Act as if’. Hold your head up high, as if you were confident even if you don’t feel that way on the inside. Even when people are highly anxious, it is often not visible to others.
     
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. If you never fail, that means you never stretch yourself. We all need to stretch ourselves to develop and learn new skills.
     
  • Make a list of your successes. Save emails from anyone who praises you for your work and keep them to hand for when you need a boost.
  1. GOV.UK. Childcare. https://www.gov.uk/browse/childcare-parenting/childcare Accessed: 8/1/21
  2. WHO. Infant and young child feeding. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infant-and-young-child-feeding 
  3. HS. Breastfeeding and going back to work. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/breastfeeding-and-bottle-feeding/breastfeeding-and-lifestyle/back-to-work/ Page last reviewed: 1 May 2018, Next review due: 1 May 2021. Accessed: 14/06/21
  4. Health and Safety Executive. Protecting new and expectant mothers at work. https://www.hse.gov.uk/mothers/employer/rest-breastfeeding-at-work.htm Accessed: 14/06/21
  5. Acas. Accommodating breastfeeding employees in the workplace. 2016. https://archive.acas.org.uk/media/3924/Accommodating-breastfeeding-employees-in-the-workplace/pdf/Acas-guide-on-accommodating-breastfeeding-in-the-workplace.pdf Accessed: 15/01/21
  6. Acas. Managing your employee's maternity leave and pay. https://www.acas.org.uk/managing-your-employees-maternity-leave-and-pay/planning-maternity-leave Accessed: 15/01/21
  7. NI Direct. Flexible working and work-life balance. https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/flexible-working-and-work-life-balance Accessed: 8/1/21
  8. GOV.UK Flexible working. https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/types-of-flexible-working Accessed: 8/1/21
  9. Acas. Acas Code of Practice on flexible working requests. www.acas.org.uk/acas-code-of-practice-on-flexible-working-requests Accessed: 15/01/21
  10. GOV.UK. Unpaid parental leave. https://www.gov.uk/parental-leave/entitlement Accessed: 14/06/21
  11. Harvard Business Review. Joan C. Williams. 2004. The Maternal Wall. https://hbr.org/2004/10/the-maternal-wall 
Review dates

Last reviewed: 14 June 2021
Next review: 14 June 2024