Maternity leave important to well-being of mother and cognitive development of child

Staying home for a few months after birth helps parental and child health. From Flickr Commons

A new demographic analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has revealed that working doesn’t lower the quality of parenting or even worsen parental stress, as long as the right amount of leave is taken at birth.

Researchers Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn used data from the National Institute of Child Health And Human Development’s Study on Early Child Care (SECC) to study several traits, including maternal physical and mental health, parental stress, quality of parenting. They also observed parenting interactions in a laboratory setting to measure how well parents relatd to their children. They took into account several factors, including the mothers’ working hours, job flexibility, depression, stress, health and overall family well being.

Women who stayed at home with infants up to three months old (on maternity leave or with no job at all) reported feeling less depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were working full time.  Interestingly, six months after having a child, full time working moms no longer experienced a drop in parenting quality (although feelings of depression did increase). In fact, mothers actually experienced a reduction in parenting stress if they worked over the first four-and-a-half years of parenting.

The condition of te parent apparently directly affects the child. The authors of the study write that “Numerous studies show that clinical depression in mothers as well as self-reported depressive symptoms, anxiety, and psychological distress, are important risk factors for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes in their children, particularly during the first few years of life.” 

The researchers speculate that having time to transition into the parental role (during maternity leave) and to transition back into the workplace after is the key to controlling depression and stress. Parental leave, they say, is essential, but deciding not to return to work doesn’t ensure health for children or parents. The question is how long the leave should be. The authors say “These findings emphasize the need for parental leave policies that allow new parents to take longer leave, and/or work fewer hours in the first few months after childbirth.” It is believed that those policies can lead imprvove the health of children and parents.