Implications of brief maternity leave for American children and mothers

Posted on Posted in Health, Human Rights

More than a century ago, American women advocated for paid maternity leave, yet the American government fell short. Today, the absence of comprehensive maternity leave policies in the U.S. continues to impact the well-being of both mothers and children. Despite recent amendments, the issue of maternal leave remains a work in progress. Many working mothers still confront the challenge of juggling work and family responsibilities due to the limited scope of these policies.

Historical advocacy for maternity leave

During the aftermath of the First World War, women in the U.S. played a crucial role in the workforce as men were deployed to the front lines. The female trade unionists advocated for fair labor standards, including paid maternity leave, as a matter of social justice and international security (Siegel L. M, 2019).

Despite their efforts, the International Labor Organization adopted only 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, falling short of the envisioned provisions, including free medical care during and after pregnancy, job guarantees upon returning to work, and breaks for nursing infant children (Siegel L. M, 2019).

Despite advancements in women’s roles in the workforce, such as longer working hours and significant economic contributions, legal regulations like the Maternity Protection Convention of 1919 have undergone limited changes over the past century. Nowadays, only employers have the authority to provide paid maternity leave voluntarily (Paycor, n.d.)

Contemporary challenges in the U.S. maternity leave policies

Even with recent amendments, like the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) in 2020, which expanded eligibility for federal employees, the pursuit of comprehensive maternity and parental leave policies remains ongoing (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.). Many working mothers still encounter difficulties when trying to balance their work and family responsibilities.

To make matters worse, the law extends to federal employees, state workers, and private companies under certain conditions. For example, the eligibility hinges on working for companies with a minimum of 50 employees and having completed at least 1,250 work hours in the preceding year (Paycor, n.d.). Yet, according to the research, 40% of women don’t qualify for maternity leave (Dishman K, 2023).

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, even eligible mothers face difficulties with household expenses and unpaid medical bills. This situation makes taking time off financially unviable for them. As a result, many American mothers face tough decisions during pregnancy: they have to choose between risking their health or forgoing pay and possibly losing their jobs. (Bryant M, 2019).

The impact on children’s and mother’s well-being

The absence of a federal maternity leave policy in the United States raises concerning implications for the well-being of both women and children. This is evident in the country’s highest infant mortality rate among 28 wealthy nations, with 6.1 infant deaths for every 1,000 births (Bryant M, 2023). It is clear that the current maternity leave policies fall short, and it is imperative to recognize that these issues affect all mothers, regardless of their economic status. 

A 2023 study by Abt Associates found that nearly 25% of women returned to work only two weeks after giving birth due to financial challenges. Recent research indicates that having access to paid parental leave reduces the risk of postpartum depression, lowers psychological distress, and improves mothers’ mood. Moreover, paid maternity leave is linked to better mother-child interactions and positively affects infant attachment, which can also reduce stress for the baby (Gallant K, 2023).

The impact on mother-child bonding and infant development

A review from Harvard’s psychology department highlights the significant advantages of paid maternity leave. It’s associated with improved mental health for mothers and children, fostering infant attachment, and supporting child development. It also encourages both the initiation and prolonged duration of breastfeeding (Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 2019).

Infants are born highly reliant on their parents, and their brains undergo substantial development in the first two years. This development, along with their social, emotional, and cognitive growth, hinges on a strong bond with their mothers (Winston R. et al., 2016).

Leaving very young babies, as young as three months old, for extended periods during 8-hour shifts or longer can potentially lead to a lack of the emotional connection they need. This, in turn, may result in long-term mental health issues and hinder their overall well-being and potential (Winston R. et al., 2016).

Solutions for enhanced maternity leave policies

The United States‘ maternity leave policy has not kept pace with many other industrialized nations, including, for instance, Australia. While the U.S. enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), it provides only unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks to eligible employees for specific family and medical reasons (Vahratian A. et al., 2014).

In comparison, countries like France, and Spain offer extensive protected job leave, but only a small percentage is paid. In Sweden and Germany, paid maternity leave with substantial wage replacement is available. However, in the U.S., only 26 percent of eligible employees took advantage of the FMLA, often because they couldn’t afford unpaid leave (Vahratian A. et al., 2014).

Efforts at the state level have sought to improve the situation, with some states offering paid family and medical leave through temporary disability programs. Nonetheless, the challenging economic climate may still hinder women from taking advantage of these benefits. 

To effectively extend maternity leave, policymakers should introduce a new comprehensive strategy to promote women’s and children’s rights and welfare. They should collaborate with national-level implementing agencies and healthcare personnel, along with the government, as well as non-governmental organizations (Payan D. D. et al., 2022).

Executive leaders should also increase public awareness through educational interventions and expanding maternity protections to cover all working women and their children, including those in the informal labor sector and rural areas. Finally, involving international organizations can provide valuable support and expertise (Payan D. D. et al., 2022).

At Humanium, we are dedicated to advocating for policies that benefit children, and one such crucial policy is extending maternity leave. If you believe in giving children the best possible foundation, we encourage you to support our cause. Your support can make a significant difference – whether it’s through donating, volunteering, or becoming a member

Written by Lidija Misic


Bryant Miranda (2019), The US doesn’t offer paid family leave – but will that change in 2020? Retrieved from The Guardian at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Dishman Kimberly (2023), Maternity Leave in the United States: Facts You Need to Know. Retrieved from Healthline at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Gallant Kristin (2023), The Heart-Shattering Feeling of Going Back to Work After Having a Baby. Retrieved from Time at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Harvard Review of Psychiatry (2019), The Impact of Paid Maternity Leave on the Mental and Physical Health of Mothers and Children: A Review of the Literature and Policy Implications. Retrieved from Harvard Review of Psychiatry at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Payan D. Densie (2022), Implementation of two policies to extend maternity leave and further restrict marketing of breast milk substitutes in Vietnam: a qualitative study. Retrieved from Oxford Academic at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Paycor (n.d.), Maternity Leave Laws by State. Retrieved from Paycor at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Siegel L. Mona (2019), The Forgotten Origins of Paid Family Leave. Retrieved from The New York Times at Accessed on November 13, 2023..

U.S. Department of Labor (n.d.), Paid Parental Leave. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Labor at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Vahratian Anjel et al. (2014), Maternity Leave Benefits in the United States: Today’s Economic Climate Underlines Deficiencies. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine at Accessed on November 13, 2023.

Winston Robert et al. (2016) The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine at,primary%20caregiver%2C%20usually%20a%20parent. Accessed on November 13, 2023.