Maricar Santos via Working Mother

The state of maternity leave in the U.S. is — let's face it — a big mess. For a wealthy, industrialized nation, we're still one of just a few countries that doesn't guarantee new moms paid maternity leave. Yes, some people are lucky to have their companies offer it to them, but those with access to it tend to fit certain criteria: They work full-time, they're college-educated and they work for a corporation with many employees. If your company doesn't offer maternity leave, you're pretty much left on your own to figure out how much time you can afford to be away from work while ensuring you have sufficient time to bond with your new baby and take care of your recovering body — and for moms who can't afford to be gone too long, this dilemma forces them to return to work too soon. It's a tricky situation to navigate, but thanks to new research from New America, estimating just how much time you should be taking off to care for your new baby (should you have control over that) is about to get easier.

As reported by WTOP, think tank and civic enterprise New America recently went through hundreds of national and international studies to determine how time off affects a child's overall health, the mom's health, and gender equality and the economy. Based on their findings, they came up with these suggestions for the ideal amount of maternity leave, or for dads, paternity leave or paid time off, based on your priorities.

When infant health is the number one concern, New America recommends taking one year of paid time off, split between both parents, since their research has shown that longer parental leave:

  • can lower preterm births

  • decrease low birth-weight rates

  • decrease infant death rates

  • increase the rates of breastfeeding, which are linked to health benefits such as a lower risk of asthma and Type 2 diabetes.

They also cite a Norwegian study that found that extended parental leave during a child's early years can improve a child's cognitive development and lead to greater academic success and a higher income before age 30.

“So really, there are lifelong implications for having an adequate amount of paid family leave, right from the start, for infants and children,” said Brigid Schulte, a journalist, author and director at New America’s Better Life Lab.

For better maternal health outcomes, the magic number for maternity leave is six months paid time off. According to New America, even at six months, most women are still recovering from at least one symptom of childbirth, such as illness or urinary incontinence, so taking a maternity leave of at least that length of time is best. Maternity leave shorter than 12 weeks, on the other hand, puts moms at risk of maternal depression and anxiety, including postpartum depression.

If you place high importance on gender equality, you'll want to ensure both you and your partner get the same amount of paid time off. New America reports that when both Mom and Dad get the same amount of maternity and paternity leave, they're more likely to split childcare and household responsibilities and keep work hours. But when mom is the only one with access to paid family leave, that makes her family more likely to follow traditional gender roles regarding domestic duties and child-rearing.

To increase the likelihood you'll return to work, you'll want to allot nine months to one year of paid family leave. “It’s the best way to guarantee healthy development, healthy recovery, but also to give women the best opportunity to come back into the workforce at the same level and not [negatively impact] their career,” Schulte said. Back in February, we reported a similar number—six months to one year of maternity leave—if your priority is career progress.

Though these suggestions are helpful to those who have to plan their maternity leave on their own, it's something companies and state and federal governments should be taking into account too when deciding how much maternity, paternity or paid parental leave they give their workers or residents. 

Check out our maternity leave checklist for more help.


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