Paid Maternity Leave is Safer for Babies

A new study shows that paid time off for new parents is linked with a reduction in cases of abusive head trauma in infants. Another reason for paid maternity leave.

Paid Maternity Leave is Safer for Babies Halfpoint/Shutterstock

As if we needed another reason to advocate for government-mandated paid maternity leave, how about this one: Research published in the journal Injury Prevention has actually proven that paid family leave is linked with fewer cases of abusive head trauma (AHT) in infants. AHT, which includes shaken baby syndrome, was shown to occur less in California, a state with a paid parental leave policy. Can the rest of the country learn from this?

Paid leave reduces parental stress

Researchers looked at whether paid time off could actually reduce hospital admissions for AHT by comparing California, which enacted a paid family leave policy in 2004, and seven other states without such a policy—and discovered that it could. When taken consecutively with the state's disability insurance, Californians have up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave. "We found that California's 2004 paid family leave policy was associated with decreased rates of AHT admissions in children under two years old compared to the states without this policy," Joanne Klevens, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tells Fit Pregnancy. The policy was associated with a fall of 5.1 cases per 100,000 children under one (the national average is 50 per 100,000 children, according to Dr. Klevens). "This is important because AHT is a leading cause of fatal child maltreatment among young children, and current prevention efforts have not been proven to be consistently effective," she says.

What's the connection between paid maternity leave and AHT? Not a shocker—paid leave reduces stress and maternal depression. "Both of these are associated with increased risk of child abuse, so perhaps the reductions in AHT may be the result of reductions in these two risk factors," Dr. Klevens says. AHT is often a reaction to baby's incessant crying, which leads a parent to "lose it" and shake, slam or cause harm to their baby's head, resulting in long-term damage and even death.

New parents should focus on baby, not work

It sounds unfathomable that someone could hurt their baby like that, but when you're sleep deprived and delirious, especially if you're already back at work and have to get up the next morning, it may become easier to reach your breaking point. New moms need to focus on their baby, not on finances or their performance at work a mere six or eight weeks after giving birth. "Also, paid family leave might increase the likelihood that mothers are able to breastfeed their infants—breastfeeding stimulates release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates mother-child bonding," Dr. Klevens says.

Something else that would help new moms out is if new dads could take paid time off as well—especially since, for unknown reasons, men are more often the perpetrators of AHT. "Another way paid family leave may have affected AHT is by making it easier for new mothers to care for their infants instead of or alongside male caregivers," Dr. Klevens says. Giving new moms more support—and families more options for how to care for their children—is critical.

Only up to 38 percent of eligible parents took advantage of California's paid leave program, so imagine the impact if everyone had reaped the benefit. Those at higher risk for perpetrating AHT, including younger, lower-income and less educated parents, were even less likely to opt in. "Because the policy [only] pays up to 55 percent of employees' wages, it is possible that low wage workers cannot afford to take advantage of the policy," Dr. Klevens says. "Research is needed to know if the impact of California's paid family leave policy on AHT would be improved if more parents at high risk were aware of the law, could afford to take advantage of it, or used the full 12 weeks allowable."

But even despite its shortcomings, paid family leave was linked with AHT reduction in California while the other states' numbers actually rose during 2007-2009, the period of the so-called "Great Recession." It's clear that the stress of financial worries can lead to a negative family environment, and increase the likelihood of AHT. "Research is also needed to know whether extending paid leave to cover the full period of increased infant crying and peak AHT incidence—20 weeks—has greater effects on AHT," Dr. Klevens says.

More support for federally-mandated paid leave

Currently, only three states have paid family leave policies (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island), which still just pay a portion of parents' salaries, and for a short time. Compared with the rest of the world, the U.S. is sorely lacking federally mandated paid benefits for new parents. Plus, workplace culture in the U.S. has been to take as little leave as possible, to not be a "burden" on your employer. Dads who want to take parental leave face even stronger opposition. But instead, we are shifting the burden onto our children, especially infants who are victims of AHT.

It's time the U.S. catches up a with the rest of the world in recognizing the value of parents having the time and support to care for their newborn babies—if not for anything else, than for the safety our country's children.