Academic Study Shows the Importance of Paid Maternity Leave for Mothers, Babies, and the Economy

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides qualifying parents with 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection after the birth or adoption of a child. The law applies only to employers with 50 or more workers and for employees who have worked for the employer for 12 months. As a result, only 59 percent of U.S. workers are eligible for unpaid leave. Only 16 percent of American workers have access to paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Many other industrial countries mandate paid leave of at least 12 weeks. Due to the fact the paid maternity leave is available to so few, nearly one in four new mothers who are not eligible for paid leave return to work within 10 days of giving birth.

A new study states that “for decades, national paid maternity leave policies of 12 weeks or more have existed in every industrialized country except the United States. We recommend that the United States develop a national paid policy that would allow all mothers sufficient time to be home with their infants, regardless of their employer or socioeconomic status.” The authors claim that the adoption of such policies would offer “substantial individual and societal benefits, notably labor force attachment, wage stability and decreased use of public assistance.”

Simha Ravven, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of the study, stated that “for the child, the first three to four months are an important period for regulation of physiology, behavior, and emotional development, as well as intense bonding and attachment between mother and child. In addition, the mother needs that time to recover physically and psychologically, to attend to her own doctor appointments, and to attend the well-baby visits every two weeks.”

Senior author Christina Mangurian, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco also notes that there are substantial inequities on who does and does not receive paid leave. She states that “in the U.S., women in higher-paid households are often able to stay home with their infants for 12 weeks or more because many of them have access to paid maternity leave, or are able to take unpaid leave without significantly impacting their families. On the other hand, lower-income women frequently need to return to work earlier because they can’t afford to take unpaid leave. This is a problem because data suggest that at least 12 weeks of paid maternity leave has a beneficial effect on the mental and physical health of both the mother and baby.”

The full study, “The Impact of Paid Maternity Leave on the Mental and Physical Health of Mothers and Children: A Review of the Literature and Policy Implications,” was published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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