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How Much Time Off After Childbirth is Best?

Every year in the U.S., more than half a million women go back to their jobs within a month of giving birth. The reason is usually economic, as paid maternity leave is not required by law. Short leaves may have harmful effects on both mother and baby, but the research in America is inconclusive, because the length of time off is complicated by other factors, such as poverty and education.
By looking to Europe, which has meticulous data collection practices and a history of paid leave stretching back to the 19th century, researchers have been getting a better and better handle on the extent to which varying amounts of paid leave can save kids’ lives. Two studies, one published in the Economic Journal in 2005 and another five years earlier, examined the results of the steady climb in paid leave in 16 European countries, starting in 1969. By charting death rates against those historical changes, while controlling for health care spending, health insurance, and wealth, the authors were able to attribute a 20 percent dip in infant deaths to a 10-week extension in paid leave. The biggest drop was in deaths of babies between 2 and 12 months, but deaths between 1 and 5 years also went down as paid leave went up. So what was the optimal amount of time off, according to all this research? According to Christopher Ruhm, the author of the first European study, paid leave of about 40 weeks saved the most lives. (After that point, according to Ruhm, “there may even be some partial reversal of those gains.”)

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(Image credit: Chad Baker/Ryan McVay)

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