Another Reason Paid Maternity Leave Matters

by Emma Cueto

Paid maternity leave offers obvious benefits for women, but it turns out it's also beneficial for babies, too, in a big way. A new study, in fact, says that paid maternity leave decreases the rate of infant mortality. In other words, paid maternity leave literally saves babies' lives. Which makes it doubly depressing that paid maternity leave is not guaranteed in the United States.

In a study conducted by McGill University and UCLA Fielding School of Public Health looking at middle- and low-income countries (LMICs), researchers found that in countries where paid maternity leave was available, the infant mortality rate is lower. In fact, for each month of maternity leave available, infant mortality declined 13 percent... which is huge enough that it bears repeating: Infant mortality dropped 13 percent for every month of paid leave available.

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 lead author Arijit Nandi, an Assistant Professor at McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health. “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.”

Of course, it's unclear if paid maternity leave directly causes the infant mortality rate to drop (because, as always, correlation is not causation); it's also possible that countries with paid maternity leave are also more likely to have better health care systems in place to care for infants, which might explain much of the gap. Researchers note that more investigation is needed to fully understand this phenomenon. Even so, though, this is potentially a very big deal.

So what does this mean for the United States? Well, we're not a low- or middle- income country, so it's unclear if we would see a similarly sharp decrease in infant mortality if we were to adopt paid maternity leave, especially since the country already has a relatively low infant mortality rate. However, our infant mortality rate is still higher than that of many, many other nations, including places like Canada, the U.K., Japan, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, and Cuba. Introducing paid maternity leave might be one way to help lower infant mortality even further, to be more in line with other developed nations.

Obviously, paid parental leave is important for many reasons, not just infant mortality rate. But the fact that having it might literally save children's lives makes it all the more ridiculous that the United States is one of the only countries on Earth without any federally mandated paid maternity leave at all. It also makes it strange that politicians who don't support abortion are often the ones opposing laws requiring paid maternity leave.

And interestingly enough, if we ever do get paid maternity leave guaranteed for every woman in this country (and hopefully paternity leave guaranteed for dads, too), it will probably be because we manage to shift the debate such that the policy is seen as good for children, maybe even saving children's lives. This is obviously incredibly important, but while I'm happy to get a reasonable paid maternity leave policy however it happens, it's a little frustrating that the fact that this policy is good for women obviously hasn't been enough to push it through. Especially since this study suggests that without it, we're failing kids in a way that's totally avoidable.

Images:; Giphy