Paternity leave can make a big difference in a dad's long-term engagement with the child, doctors find. Paid family leave also fosters breastfeeding and reduces the incidence of maternal depression.
As part of All Things Considered's series Stretched: Working Parents' Juggling Act, NPR talked with Dr. Benard Dreyer, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the New York University School of Medicine and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to get a better sense of what the scientific evidence says about the health benefits of paid family leave.
The AAP is the leading U.S. pediatricians' organization, with approximately 66,000 members, including pediatricians and other pediatric care providers. It's one of several medical groups calling on Congress to pass the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, which would create a nationwide social insurance program that enables eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for themselves or a family member.
Here are a few highlights from our interview, edited for length and clarity.
On the optimal length of family leave
We know that at least 12 weeks of parental leave does make a significant difference. Paid maternity leave of at least 12 weeks increases early childhood checkups and immunizations.
But there is research that shows parental leave is better the longer it is. There's no cutoff for the increased benefits of longer leave. Frankly, if I were to suggest it, I'd say six to nine months should be the minimum. I know we're so far away from that, that it's hard to even speak about, but by six months the parent is really in a different place with their child. Leaving them part of the day and finding child care is also easier at that point.
When it comes to family leave, America's an outlier among high-income countries. In most of Europe and Canada, there's paid maternity leave of six to 12 months, and paid paternity leave.
We've focused primarily on the needs of newborn children and their parents, but paid family leave for a child's illness is also very important. It's especially critical for parents of children with chronic or complex diseases who need their parents' care. Parents often lose their jobs because they have to stay home with their kids. Or, if they know they can't afford to lose their jobs, they can't stay home with their kids and provide them with the care a child needs when sick.
On the ways paid leave benefits the whole family
There's very strong evidence that family leave decreases maternal depression. This is key, because maternal depression prevents mother-infant bonding and has negative effects on a child's cognitive, social and emotional development.
This is true for fathers, too. When fathers take some time from work around the time the child is born they're more likely to spend time with their children in the months following. This decreases stress on the family and contributes to father-infant bonding. Just two weeks or so of paternity leave can make a big difference in fathers' long-term engagement with their children.
How family leave increases breastfeeding and the child's health
Studies from California and Canada show that family leave increases breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has many known positive effects, including bonding between the mother and child. It stimulates positive neurological and psychosocial development. It strengthens the baby's immune system. It also decreases the risk of many health problems such as acute diarrhea, respiratory illness, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome and obesity.
Why the early months matter most
Research tells us that infancy is a critical period for health and child development. In the first year or two of life, 700 new synapses are forming every second in the child's brain. As a developmental and behavioral pediatrician I know firsthand that the first six to nine months of life is a critical bonding time for the parents and the child, and bonding is the basis of the parent responding to the child's needs.
Without paid and job-protected family leave, most parents — especially low-income, working parents — will not take time off. They just can't afford it. But I don't think we, as a society, can afford to not have them nurture their child during this critical period.