Paid family leave has big health benefits for mothers and babies, study shows

We now have more research showing that paid family and medical leave (PFML) programs work to help some women avoid postpartum depression and extend breastfeeding duration—highlighting (and confirming) the fact that paid family leave has health benefits for both mothers and babies.

A new study finds that living in a state that requires PFML means you’re more likely to breastfeed and less likely to have postpartum depression. This is compared to people who live in states with little or no mandated programs to support paid leave.

If you have a little one, you probably know that the US is one of the few developed countries in the world that doesn’t have a federally mandated paid parental leave program.

Quantifying paid leave

The study out of Northwestern Medicine used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) database, which had information from 43 states and the District of Columbia.

Women who recently gave birth at the time the data was collected and lived in a state with a solid PFML program had a 9% greater likelihood for breastfeeding at six months compared to 26 states with less-robust programs (or none at all). Making it to the six-month mark breastfeeding comes with a ton of health benefits for both baby and mother, which is why The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and extended breastfeeding in conjunction with solid foods up to at least 2 years.

Having to go back to work is a top reason why many new mothers stop breastfeeding. Being able to have more time off gives women the chance to choose and extend breastfeeding time if they want, Madeline Perry, MD, a fourth-year resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Feinberg, who was involved in the research, says in a statement.

In states with moderate PFML coverage, there was a 10% lower likelihood of developing postpartum depression symptoms after controlling for individual characteristics, the data showed.

Of women whose delivery was covered by Medicaid, those in states with the best leave plans had a 32% greater likelihood of breastfeeding at six months after giving birth, and a 15% lower likelihood of having postpartum depression symptoms, the study found.

The benefits of paid family leave

“By increasing mothers’ ability to breastfeed and reducing postpartum-depressive symptoms, strong state paid family and medical leave laws provide a major boost to the health of postpartum women and infants,” Joe Feinglass, PhD, a research professor of general internal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and senior author, says in a statement. “The differential generosity of these laws is one reason states differ so widely in health status and life expectancy across the US.”

PFML is different from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); the FMLA provides unpaid, job-protected leave to certain workers.

“While FMLA has been associated with an improvement in some postpartum outcomes, these improvements are only seen in a higher-income population,” Dr. Perry says. “Countrywide PFML is critical to advancing health and economic equity.”A 2021 study found that longer paid maternity leave can give mothers mental and physical benefits that last decades.