Paid parental leave benefits moms and babies

California’s paid parental leave law appears to have improved the mental health of mothers and the overall welfare of their infant children, according to new research.

The study is the first to assess the impact of paid family leave on maternal well-being.

Using data from the National Survey of Children’s Health and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the study finds a 5.5 percent to 9 percent improvement in self-reported ratings of mental health among California mothers after the 2004 implementation of paid family leave, as compared to women who gave birth in California before the law went into effect and to those who live in other states.

The study also found improvements in overall infant health and reduced rates of asthma among children born after the law’s implementation, according to study author Lindsey Bullinger, an assistant professor in Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy.

“So much of the focus on paid family leave is on the employment implications. But paid time off to recover from childbirth and bond with a child could also have effects on the health of both parents and children. Some research has explored the health effects for children, but nearly no research has looked at the health of those who take the leave in the US,” Bullinger says.

The study did not find any improvement as a result of the law in how new fathers reported their mental health status, or in measures of respiratory or food allergies in children. But it did find improvements in how parents felt like they were coping with the day-to-day demands of parenting.

The improvements in maternal mental health and overall child well-being may be the result of children spending more time at home after birth instead of in daycare, increased opportunities for parents to care for their children, reductions in parental stress and anxiety, and improved economic outcomes, all of which have been shown to have a positive effect on child health, according to the study.

The results were particularly strong in low-income households, Bullinger says.

“Many families do not have paid leave through their employers and cannot afford to take unpaid leave after the birth of a child,” Bullinger says. “Relative to higher-income families who can, paid family leave could be more impactful for poorer families, since the jump between what leave they could afford to take before the law compared to after the law is larger. And that’s what we see in the study. Paid leave in California had stronger effects for children and parents from lower income families.”

Paid family leave is a perennial issue across the United States, and the results contained in the new paper could prove useful to state and federal lawmakers considering implementation of such policies, Bullinger says.

“Most of the research on paid family leave is from Europe and Canada. But there, leave lengths are much longer, in the range of 25 to 52 weeks, so it is not clear if that research is helpful in the US where leaves are typically much shorter. These findings can help policymakers in both designing programs and evaluating the costs and benefits of those programs in the US.”

The study appears in the Journal of Health Economics.

Source: Georgia Tech