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The Health Benefits of Paid Family Leave

November 17, 2011

By Lili Farhang, Human Impact Partners

In February, my partner and I had a baby. The pregnancy and birth went smoothly and our son was born healthy. And yet, life was turned on its head.  Breastfeeding was challenging, sleep was hard to come by, and I was exhausted physically.  Luckily, I had six months of job-protected leave to figure everything out – 12 weeks of which I received partial wage replacement through the California state disability insurance and paid family leave.  Over and over again, we said to ourselves: “How do people who have to work get through this?” I appreciated having space for mental and physical recuperation, and time to get to know my little one.

Intuitively, I knew that paid family leave was a lifesaver.  Little did I know that paid family leave has quantifiable impacts on the health of women, infants and children.  In fact, research on the health benefits of parental leave – leave for pregnant women, new parents and parents of seriously ill children – are clear and convincing. Various studies show that:

New mothers experience improved mental and physical health as a result of taking leave.

– Women who did not take leave prior to delivering were almost four times more likely to have a c-section than women who took leave before delivering.
– The longer the leave, the reduced depression among new mothers.

Parental leave results in better prenatal and postnatal care and strengthened parental bonding over a child’s life. This time provides long-term benefits that improve a child’s brain development, social development and overall well-being.

– Women without prenatal leave were more likely to give birth prematurely and have low birth weight babies – leading to a host of negative health outcomes.
– Parental leave policies are shown to increase the likelihood that infants will be immunized and, as a result, experience lower death rates.
– Mothers who took less than six weeks of leave after delivery were four times less likely to establish breastfeeding which provides well-known benefits to infants. Paid family leave doubled the duration of breastfeeding for all new mothers who used it.

Access to leave allows parents to care for children with serious long-term or intermittent health care needs.

– Parents with paid leave were over 5 times more likely to care for their sick children than those without leave.
– Hospitalized children are able to go home more quickly and suffer fewer complications when a parent is present during the hospital stay than when a parent is absent.

Certainly these findings resonate with my experience.  Today, my son is approaching nine months and he continues to thrive. I relish the time we had together and feel stronger in both mind and body after taking time off after his birth.

Unfortunately, despite the known health benefits, too many California workers forego or delay leave because of a series of complicating barriers. Public policy could promote the health of pregnant women and new parents in the workforce by making parental leave more accessible and affordable. Critical changes to federal and state laws to accomplish this include job protection for all workers on leave, increased leave length and access to wage replacement, and universal continuation of health insurance coverage. It is clear that denying pregnant workers and new parents the right to take leave and return to work also deprives their families of vital income and puts their health at risk.

Lili Farhang has a background in public health and works with Human Impact Partners in Oakland, CA.

The Human Impact Partners released a fact sheet on Parental Leave and the Health of Infants, Children, and Mothers in November 2011.

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