A Pediatrician Explains Why Paid Parental Leave Is So Important

by Megan Zander
Originally Published: 
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AAP president weighs in on the state of paid family leave in the U.S.

America may be on the cutting edge when it comes to things like the cronut or the fashion dream that are Lisa Frank leggings, but when it comes to our family leave polices for new parents, this country is as out of touch as a fanny pack.

Dr. Benard Dreyer, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the New York University School of Medicine and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. His suggestion? Take the current FMLA allotment of 12 weeks and double it — at least.” Frankly, if I were to suggest it, I’d say six to nine months should be the minimum,” he told NPR. “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.”

Currently, maternity and paternity leave in the U.S. is governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, otherwise known as FMLA or Fuck My Life, America. Under FMLA new parents can take up to 12 weeks off from work for the birth or adoption of a child without risk of losing their job. But FMLA only applies for employees who have worked at their job for over a year and for at least 1,250 hours. Plus your boss has to employ more than 50 employees in order to have to comply with the law. And even if you do somehow pass through all these hoops to qualify for those precious 12 weeks of maternity leave, don’t forget, they’re unpaid. Many families can’t even afford to have a parent out of work that long anyway, not to mention that unpaid maternity leave is zero help for single moms. Family leave is only truly helpful if it’s paid, and in many other countries, it is.

Compared to other industrialized countries, the United States has horrendous family leave. Sure, there are a few companies like eBay, Facebook and Google who offer their employees decent maternity and paternity leave packages. But in general, we suck at giving working parents paid time off to be with their babies. We might kick Romania’s ass every time our gymnastic teams square off against each other, but when it comes to who’s got the better maternity leave, with up to 24 months paid time off (and up to 36 months for parents with a child that has a disability), they’re slaying us.

Dr. Dreyer explains why twelve weeks of parental leave simply isn’t long enough. More family leave time helps increase the bond between parent and child. “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.”

Increasing family leave would also increase health benefits for both mother and child. “There’s very strong evidence that family leave decreases maternal depression,” he says, “This is key, because maternal depression prevents mother-infant bonding and has negative effects on a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.” More time off could also lead to more moms breastfeeding, which has benefits beyond saving the cost of formula. “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.” So sorry, anyone who thinks maternity leave is just a code word for “vacation.” Besides the whole healing from giving birth or having a c-section, there are real, concrete benefits to allowing parents an extended period of paid time off after having a baby.

“Without paid and job-protected family leave, most parents — especially low-income, working parents — will not take time off, ” says Dr. Dreyer. “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.”

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