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Study: Longer maternity leave linked to better infant health

Each additional month of paid leave is linked to a 13 percent decline in infant mortality.
By Stephen Feller   |   March 30, 2016 at 4:20 PM

MONTREAL, March 30 (UPI) -- For each additional month a woman has paid maternity leave, infant mortality decreases by more than 10 percent, according to a new study of births in 20 countries.

Researchers at McGill University and the University of California Los Angeles found paid maternity leave has a significant impact on infant mortality in low- and high-income countries, echoing previous research that has shown the same.

Paid maternity leave reduces stress, increases the chances for breastfeeding and other infant care, and allows a mother to seek more medical attention for herself after having a baby.

Although 188 countries have guaranteed paid leave for new mothers, though how much varies greatly from country to country -- in Canada and some European countries, women get one year of paid time off, while countries such as Papua New Guinea, Suriname and the United States have no guaranteed paid maternity leave.

"While this study focuses on low- and middle-income countries, the impact in high-income countries is also well demonstrated," Dr. Jody Heymann, a former researcher at McGill and dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California Los Angeles, in a press release. "For the health of our children and the well-being of families, the U.S. needs to catch up with most of the world and ensure all new parents have paid parental leave."

For the study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, researchers analyzed data on 300,000 live births in 20 countries between 2000 and 2008 collected as part of the Demographic and Health Surveys.

The researchers found that during the study period, the average rates for infant, neonatal and post-neonatal mortality were 55.2, 30.7 and 23.0 per 1,000 live births. Each additional month of paid maternity leave was linked to 7.9 fewer infant deaths per 1,000 live births, a 13 percent reduction in infant death.

The study suggests additional paid maternity leave decreases stress for mothers because of the guarantee of income and job security, the researchers said. Paid maternity leave also offers mothers a chance to pay more complete attention to the health of themselves and their babies, including more time spent breastfeeding and a better chance that a child will be fully vaccinated, they said.

"A significant number of countries where the vast majority of maternal and child deaths occur provide less than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers," said Arijit Nandi, an assistant professor at McGill University's Institute for Health and Social Policy. "Our findings suggest that paid maternity leave policies are a potential instrument for reducing preventable child deaths, even in countries where women are less likely to be working in the formal economy."

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