By: Daphna Dror, PHD, RD
The lack of national, comprehensive, and paid family medical leave in the United States has significant consequences for low-income women, especially those who are pregnant or have recently given birth. Many women risk their own or their child’s health to continue working throughout pregnancy and the early postpartum period in order to pay bills and provide for dependents. Only seven states and the District of Columbia have passed their own paid leave programs, meaning far too many new mothers must choose between caring for themselves and bonding with their newborn or making ends meet.
- Supports healthier pregnancies. Financial concerns due to lost wages may prevent low-income women from seeking regular prenatal care, which itself is associated with better pregnancy and birth outcomes. Paid leave reduces the risk of preterm birth, low birthweight, and infant mortality (1).
- Increases breastfeeding initiation and duration. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months followed by a combination of complementary foods and breastmilk for at least 12 months (2), yet new mothers who plan to return to work before 12 weeks or to work full time are less likely to opt for exclusive breastfeeding (3). A recently published study of participants in the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) found that amongst women who had worked prenatally, returning to work within 3 months postpartum significantly decreased the odds of breastfeeding for the first year (4). Paid time off can alleviate the financial stress of combining work and breastfeeding (5,6).
- Improves the physical and mental health of mother and baby postpartum. While postpartum depression (PPD) occurs in approximately 11% of all US mothers, a qualitative study in low-income women found that 35% experienced PPD or sadness (1). Nearly one third of low-income mothers who returned to work reported that employers were not understanding of postpartum needs, most commonly requiring more time off (1). Mothers who have access to paid leave and other work accommodations can minimize financial strain and career disruptions while improving their own health, their baby’s health and their bond with their baby.
- Reduces maternal and infant racial and ethnic disparities. Women of color are disproportionately affected by lack of access to paid leave, exacerbating perinatal health disparities (7). Compared with Caucasians, African-American mothers in the United States are more than three times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes (8); infants born to African-American mothers have more than twice the mortality rate of infants born to Caucasian mothers (9). Women of color are overrepresented in part-time, seasonal, and low-wage jobs, employment categories least likely to offer paid leave (7).
Of 41 high- and middle-income countries, the U.S. is unique in lacking nationwide paid maternity leave, paternity leave, or parental leave (10). Only 19% of U.S. workers have access to paid family medical leave, with even lower access amongst those who work part-time, in low-wage industries, at small firms, or who are not unionized (11). Universal access to paid family leave is imperative to ensure that all families in the United States have a healthy first 1,000 days and a strong foundation to thrive.