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Dagher and Hofferth: Unplanned pregnancy is associated with quicker return to work after childbirth

Longer, paid maternity leaves are needed to support maternal and child health

A recent study by MPRC faculty associates Rada Dagher and Sandra Hofferth, published in the journal Maternal & Child Health, examines the relationship between pregnancy intention, maternal depression, and the pace of return to paid work after childbirth. Taking leave after childbirth provides time for mothers to recover from pregnancy and delivery, and allows time to bond with the baby. It may be especially important for women suffering from postpartum depression, which now affects about 13% of all new mothers. But in the United States, there is no national policy of paid maternity leave, and there is no consensus about the ideal leave duration after childbirth. Leave of 12 weeks to care for a newborn child was mandated under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, but this policy does not apply to all employees, and maternity leave is often unpaid. Financial pressures may be pushing new mothers to return to work before they are ready, and these pressures may be especially acute for women whose pregnancies were not planned.

In order to understand the relationship between maternal pregnancy intention, maternal depression, and return to work, Dagher and Hofferth utilized data from the Listening to Mothers II Survey collected in 2006. Results showed that shorter maternity leaves were linked to a higher risk of postpartum depression. Also, mothers who had unintended pregnancies returned to work sooner after childbirth than mothers whose pregnancies were intended. Compared to mothers with an intended pregnancy, mothers with an unintended pregnancy are not as emotionally and financially prepared and are less likely to receive paid maternity leave, suggesting that economic reasons may have forced them to return to paid work sooner.

This study highlights the need for policies that enable women to take longer maternity leave, and that ensure that women have access to appropriate methods for delaying pregnancy until they are ready for a baby. "The Affordable Care Act requirement for health plans to cover contraceptives at no cost to the consumer is an important part of the strategy to reduce unintended pregnancies," Dr. Dagher said. She also recommends that health care providers counsel all women and men who are at risk for unintended pregnancy about the most effective contraceptive methods.

Only 41% of women in the study had access to paid maternity leave. The average duration of leave taken was 7.64 weeks, compared to the six months of leave that current research shows to be optimal for mothers’ mental and emotional health. There is no national paid-leave policy in the United States, and while the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to eligible employees, many new mothers are not covered by the policy. Mothers in the United States return to paid work more quickly after birth than women in European countries with more comprehensive family leave policies, with 69 percent of those surveyed returning within six months.

Read the article in Maternal and Child Health