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Parenting Leave Policy in America

by , 6th Mar 2016

Research has shown that paid parental leave has countless health and economic benefits and that forcing parents to go back to work takes a serious toll on families.

Between learning how to change diapers, baby-proofing everything within reach, and of course, feeding, clothing, and caring for the newest member of the family, new parents can have a lot to worry about. For many parents, particularly in the United States, concerns over money, careers, and returning to work also begin to creep in. Currently, only the United States and Papua New Guinea do not require paid maternity leave.

Parenting Leave: America vs. Europe

For Americans, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables qualified employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for either having or adopting a child. Unfortunately, less than 60% of women qualify for leave under the FMLA leaving 40% of new moms to the own devices. Moreover, paid parental leave is even scarcer in the United States; estimates suggest that only 12% of Americans have access to paid parental leave and only 5% of low-wage earners receive paid maternity leave.

In contrast, nations across the globe are putting America to shame with their wealth of support for new parents. In Europe, paid maternity leave can reach up to 62 weeks. Countries like Sweden offer flexible plans for the whole family: social security funding allows new Swedish mothers to take 18 weeks and fathers to take 2 weeks of leave at 80% pay. After that time period, new parents can decide how they want to split 80 more weeks of partially paid leave. Even Oman, which only recently implemented any form of required parental leave, now guarantees women 14 weeks of leave at 100% pay.

Copyright: Monkey Business Images

Copyright: Monkey Business Images

So what is America missing? Why have all of these other countries legally required parental leave?

Maternity Leave Benefits

Research has shown that paid parental leave has countless health and economic benefits and that forcing parents to go back to work takes a serious toll on families.

Maternity leave, taken both before and after childbirth, does wonders for the new mom and baby. Women who did not take leave before delivery were four-times more likely to have a cesarean (c-) section compared to women who did take leave, potentially leading to other more serious complications during birth as well. Leaving the workplace at the later stages of pregnancy is also associate with a decrease in premature births and low birth weights, both of which can be indicators of later health issues for the child ranging from developmental issues to death.

The association between longer maternity leave and improved health for continues to grow stronger. Longer maternity leaves reduce the incidence of depression and anxiety in new moms by 5 to 10%. New moms with over 12 weeks of leave also reported more energy and a lack of fatigue, making them less prone to stress-related illness and more effective in the workplace when they ultimately return.

Copyright: Gladskikh Tatiana

Copyright: Gladskikh Tatiana

During these weeks at home, the newborn baby is also receiving essential benefits from close contact with their mom. Moms who remained at home with newborns for longer than six weeks were four-times more likely to establish and continue breastfeeding schedules. Countless research studies have confirmed the universal benefits of regular breastfeeding for infants. Breastfeeding provides a key time when the mother and child can uniquely bond, and many mothers describe a sense of extremely closeness with newborns after feeding.

Breast milk is not only extremely well suited to provide the critical nutrients that are needed by infants, but it also provides unparalleled immunological support to protect against a host of diseases. Babies who are fed formula instead of breast milk are significantly more likely to experience ear infections, eczema, diarrhea and vomiting, and to be hospitalized for lower respiratory tract diseases. Later in life, infants that did not receive breast milk are also more prone to serious, life-threatening illnesses including asthma, obesity, type II diabetes, and leukemia. At the same time, moms are gleaning some of these essential health benefits as well. Breastfeeding their newborns is linked to a 27% reduction in risk of developing ovarian cancer and an 8% drop in the risk of developing breast cancer.

Supporting New Families

Beyond the importance of protecting the health of parents and children, supporting new families promotes positive changes for the economy. In the home, new parents can significantly reduce the financial burden of a newborn by staying at home later. Being available to breastfeed instead of buying formula can save new families around $2,000 in the first year alone. In California, one of the four States that has funded paid parental leave, 91% of businesses said the new law either had no effect or a positive one in profitability, suggesting there are no disadvantageous. Without paid parental leave, 43% of women with children will leave the workforce voluntarily, leading to higher turnover and consequently decreased efficiency in profits for companies. By eliminating the departure of women with families from the workforce, companies maintain more consistent personnel and greater profits.

As a result, some companies are taking parental leave into their own hands to attract and retain employees. At Google, new moms are granted a minimum of 18 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, and other primary caregivers are eligible for 12 weeks of paid “baby-bonding” time. To further support the bonding of new families, Google also provides new parents with $500 in baby-bonding bucks and other perks like priority placement at select childcare centers. Similarly, Facebook overs $4,000 in baby cash to employees for each new child, including adoptions.

Copyright: Katsiaryna Pakhomava

Copyright: Katsiaryna Pakhomava

Although many of these more progressive stances on parental leave are only in their infancy in the United States, hopefully the growing understanding of the importance of supporting new families will continue to expand and provide support for new families everywhere.

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