I recently wrote a post about Maternity Leave Benefits Around the World. While researching the article, I was surprised to learn that only four countries in the world don’t have a national law mandating at least some paid maternity leave – Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and… the United States of America.
In America, the Family Medical Leave Act guarantees most women 12 weeks of unpaid leave. According to recent census numbers (summarized by a Slate article entitled “Is 40 Weeks the Ideal Maternity Leave Length?“), many American mothers don’t – or can’t – take advantage of the 12 weeks off and return to the workforce quickly. More than 25% are back within 8 weeks. And 10% go back after only four weeks or less.
Such short maternity leaves impact mothers; many studies have tied short leaves to depression. But perhaps the bigger issue is how miniature leaves effect the babies, causing developmental delays and sickness.
Longer leaves can even save babies’ lives, according to Slate:
Two studies, one published in the Economic Journal in 2005 and another five years earlier,examined the results of the steady climb in paid leave in 16 European countries, starting in 1969. By charting death rates against those historical changes, while controlling for health care spending, health insurance, and wealth, the authors were able to attribute a 20 percent dip in infant deaths to a 10-week extension in paid leave. The biggest drop was in deaths of babies between 2 and 12 months, but deaths between 1 and 5 years also went down as paid leave went up. So what was the optimal amount of time off, according to all this research? According to Christopher Ruhm, the author of the first European study, paid leave of about 40 weeks saved the most lives.
Studies in Europe countries – which offer significantly more generous paid maternity and paternity leave packages – show that longer leaves actually decreased the odds that the babies would become high school drop-outs. Military draft data in Norway illustrates that longer leaves are also tied to increased male IQ and – interestingly enough – height.
How can these issues possibly be connected to maternity leave? Well, studies in America have shown that moms with shorter leaves are less likely exclusively breastfeed (breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of illness such as bacterial meningitis and respiratory infections) and schedule their child for doctor’s appointments and immunizations.
Is more always better? Perhaps not, according to Slate. Studies in Sweden – which increased leave from 12 months to 18 months – show that longer leaves don’t have a dramatically positive impact on children. Such long leaves, in fact, may even hurt a woman’s professional career in the long run.
How long of a leave were you legally entitled to, and how long of a leave did you actually take?
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