Two New Studies Suggest That Maternity Leave Benefits Health of Moms and Babies

January 29, 2009

It’s no secret that the United States has parental leave policies that are far less generous than most other nations, standing almost alone in offering no paid leave during or after a pregnancy.

Two new studies of maternity leave suggest reduced odds of a c-section and higher rates of breastfeeding when women take leave before and after birth. From the Juggling Work and Life During Pregnancy study of maternity leave and pregnancy outcomes, pregnant adult women from three counties in Southern California were interviewed at some point after delivery about work and family stress, maternity leave, birth outcomes, breastfeeding, and other details.

The first paper, from the Jan/Feb issue of the journal Women’s Health Issues, looks at women from the larger study population who worked full time and were eligible for California’s antenatal leave benefit after 35 weeks of pregnancy. The authors found that only 15% of workers took the paid pre-delivery leave for which they were eligible, and that women who took leave prior to delivery “had almost 4 times lower odds of a primary cesarean delivery as women who continued working.”

The authors note that further investigation is required to explain this different in outcomes. They looked at factors such as adequate sleep, occupation, income, and education, but did not find differences there that would explain their findings.

The second study, in the January issue of Pediatrics, reports on women’s responses to questions about whether they ever breastfed or pumped breast milk and when they stopped, if they had. The authors attempted to determine whether antenatal or postnatal leave was associated with establishing breastfeeding.

Not surprisingly, the authors found that “Mothers who returned to work within 12 weeks after delivery, and especially within 6 weeks, were less likely to establish breastfeeding than those who took longer leaves or who had not returned to work at time of the interview.” They also report that “having a manager position, autonomous position, or flexible work schedule was associated with longer breastfeeding duration.” Given the barriers to breastfeeding that working women face, especially in certain types of jobs, these findings are not terribly unexpected.

The design and statistics of these two studies are a bit complicated and perhaps worthy of additional critique – the authors themselves suggest cautious interpretation and further study. However, they certainly point in an interesting direction with regard to potential benefits – expected and unexpected – of maternity leave.

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