Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Maternity Leave in the US is Pitiful Compared to Other Countries.

Did you know the United States is the only "high-income nation" without a nationwide paid maternity leave policy?  178 other countries around the world offer some sort of paid parental leave.  By not offering paid maternity leave, we are listed among countries such as Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.  The only nationwide leave policy available to Americans is the Family and Medial Leave Act (FMLA).  FMLA allows "eligible employees of covered employers to take UNPAID, JOB-PROTECTED leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave."  This act only allows 12 work weeks of leave in a 12 month period for "the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth."  This, unfortunately, is only available if you work for a business with more than 50 employes and are not part-time (worked fewer than 1250 hours within the 12 months preceding the leave and a paid vacation).

12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave is all that is allowed under US federal law.  This is in stark contrast to other countries like Canada which has paid maternity benefits (mother only) for 15 weeks, then shared benefits (for mother and father) for 25 weeks.  Since there is a 2 week waiting period, a family can have up to 52 weeks of "maternity leave."  That is an entire year!  European leave policies are even more generous with the Czech Republic and Slovakia allowing 3 years with every child.  The Swedish are entitled to 18 months paid maternity leave and in the UK, females are entitled to 52 weeks of paid maternity leave.

I have been reading a lot of message boards online and have read horror stories of mothers in the United States who had to return to work essentially from the moment they were released from the hospital.  Without a nationwide paid maternity leave, many women are faced with having to go back to work shortly after their children are born.  I was even told by my employer after the birth of my first child, that I had to go back to work after four weeks!  They're based on the east coast and didn't realize that California has their own set of maternity leave policies.  In the state of California, you are allowed up to 18 weeks of maternity leave.  While all of it is not paid, it does extend job protected leave for 6 weeks beyond the federal FMLA.  The National Partnership for Women and Family has a great website with an interactive chart showing how "family friendly" your state is.

I'm not a "stay-at-home" kind of person.  I have a lot of admiration for mother's that are able to do that.  I honestly just do not have the patience for it and I enjoy the interaction that I get with adults when I am at work.  However, I firmly believe that a new mother should be able to take at a minimum of six months of maternity leave after having a child.  It will facilitate bonding with the baby and will encourage breastfeeding.  Mothers will have time to establish breastfeeding and pump and store extra milk to use when the mother returns to work.  I am still unsure about more time beyond that since there have been some downsides to extended leaves.

A study published in June 2011 Issue of Pediatrics found that women who took at least 13 weeks of maternity leave had the highest rate of breastfeeding initiation than mothers that only took 1 to 6 weeks of leave.  "Women on longer maternity leaves breastfeed longer." If women are faced with the prospect of having to return to work shortly after having a baby, many do not even attempt to breastfeed.  In fact, "a maternity leave of six weeks or less, or between six and 12 weeks, was associated with a fourfold and twofold higher risk, respectively, of non-established breastfeeding."  Another study looked at "The Effect of Maternity Leave Length and Time of Return to Work on Breastfeeding."  This study found that "women who returned to work at or after 13 weeks postpartum had higher odds of predominantly breastfeeding beyond 3 months."  Keep in mind that FMLA only allows 12 weeks of unpaid protected leave.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends "exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant."   This position is also supported by the World Health Organization which advocates breastfeeding until the age of two and beyond.  Exclusive breastfeeding means the mother is providing the only source of nutrition for her child.  This is difficult to do when a mother is forced to return to work after only a few weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a "breastfeeding report card."  In this report card, which is broken down by state, mothers are surveyed to determine if they have ever breastfed, breastfeeding at 6 months, breastfeeding at 12 months, exclusive breastfeeding at 3 months and exclusive breastfeeding at 6 months.  The results of the survey are shocking.  The percentage of women who are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months range from 5.9% (Alabama) to 25.7% (California).  I think that it is no coincidence that the state with the highest rate of exclusive breastfeeding is California.  California is one of the few states that offer job protected leave that is more generous than the federal FMLA.  What is also shocking is that only a quarter of mothers are able to meet the recommendations set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I think we as a country need to do a better job advocating for better leave policies for new mothers.  I will use another post to discuss why we should support and encourage breastfeeding when a mother returns to work.

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