Extending paid maternity leave for new mothers significantly reduces infant mortality, according to a groundbreaking international study. Research examining the effect of maternity leave policies on child health outcomes in 18 industrialized countries from 1969 to 2000 found that every 10 weeks of extra maternity leave cut the infant mortality rate -- deaths of babies up to a year old -- by 2.6 percent.
Boosting paid leave for new mothers in the U.K. from the current six months to a full year would cut the infant death rate by 6.8 percent, according to the study. The infant mortality rate in England and Wales was 5.2 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 2002, according to the Office for National Statistics, with 563,000 babies delivered in England in 2002-03.
The cause of the apparent connection between leave and deaths is unknown, but may be connected to longer periods of breast-feeding and better healthcare.
The research, conducted by academic Sakiko Tanaka of Columbia University in the United States and published Monday, underlines the importance of moves to extend statutory maternity leave. The British government has pledged to increase paid leave to nine months beginning in 2007, and aims to pay a full year's leave entitlement by the end of the next Parliament -- promises the Conservatives have not matched.
The issue is expected to be prominent in the forthcoming general election. Debate on maternity leave has centered on child development and parents' desire for work-life balance, but the study will add the issue of child health.
The study, published in the Economic Journal, the journal of the Royal Economic Society, found the effects of extra maternity leave on infant mortality were only significant if the leave was paid. Where the leave is unpaid, or paid only at a low flat rate, mothers may well go back to work early anyway, so the beneficial infant health effects of leave do not occur, according to the paper.
The research was controlled to eliminate the effects of other variables between countries, such as differing levels of spending on family cash benefits, maternity and paternity leave, and family services.
While these policies do have significant effects on cutting neonatal infant mortality rates (after the first month of life), the influence of paid parental leave remains when they are removed from the equation.
The study, which examined leave policies in 18 OECD countries, including the U.K., the U.S. -- where maternity leave is unpaid and lasts 12 weeks at most -- and Japan, concludes: "These results support the hypothesis that an extension in the length of leave enhances child health through increasing parental time with the child."
A related study published Monday, based on U.S. data, found that longer leave improved other health outcomes in addition to cutting mortality rates.
Joint author Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, a research associate at the London School of Economics and a co-editor of both reports, said the cross-country parental leave findings were "striking."