In two new studies, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that taking maternity leave before and after the birth of a baby is beneficial both for the health of mothers and newborns.
While one study found that women who started their leave in the last month of pregnancy were less likely to have caesarean deliveries, the second one discovered that new mothers were more likely to establish breastfeeding the longer they delayed their return to work.
Led by Sylvia Guendelman, professor of maternal and child health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, the study focuses on whether taking maternity leave can affect health outcomes in the United States.
''In the public health field, we'd like to decrease the rate of C-sections (caesarean deliveries) and increase the rate of breastfeeding. C-sections are really a costly procedure, leading to extended hospital stays and increased risks of complications from surgery, as well as longer recovery times for the mother. For babies, it is known that breastfeeding protects them from infection and may decrease the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), allergies and obesity. What we're trying to say here is that taking maternity leave may make good health sense, as well as good economic sense,'' said Guendelman.
In the first study, the researchers analysed data from 447 women who worked full-time in the Southern California counties of Imperial, Orange and San Diego, comparing those who took leave after the 35th week of pregnancy with those who worked throughout the pregnancy to delivery.
By conducting post-delivery telephone interviews and analysing prenatal and birth records, the researchers found that women who took leave before they gave birth were almost four times less likely to have a primary C-section as women who worked through to delivery.
Figures from the U.S. Census, among working women who had their first birth between 2001 and 2003, revealed that only 28 percent took leave from their jobs before giving birth while an additional 22 percent quit their jobs. Twenty-six percent of women took no leave before birth.
''We don't have a culture in the United States of taking rest before the birth of a child because there is an assumption that the real work comes after the baby is born. People forget that mothers need restoration before delivery. In other cultures, including Latino and Asian societies, women are really expected to rest in preparation for this major life event,'' said Guendelman.
For the second study, the researchers used data from 770 full-time working mothers in Southern California, and assessed whether maternity leave predicted breastfeeding establishment. Phone interviews were conducted 4.5 months, on average, after delivery.
Overall, the study found that returning to work within 12 weeks of delivery had a greater impact on breastfeeding establishment for women in non-managerial positions, with inflexible jobs or who reported high psychosocial distress, including serious arguments with a spouse or partner and unusual money problems.
''The findings suggest that if a woman postpones her return to work, she'll increase her chances of breastfeeding success, especially if she's got a job where she's on the clock and has less discretion with her time. Also, women who are in jobs where they have more authority may feel more empowered with how they use their time,'' said Guendelman.
The researchers stressed that just having maternity leave benefits offered by an employer was not helpful in breastfeeding establishment unless the leave was actually used.
The authors encouraged the use of maternity leave and making it economically feasible to take it.
''These new studies suggest that making it feasible for more working mothers to take maternity leave both before and after birth is a smart investment,'' said Guendelman.
Both the studies were part of the Juggling Work and Life During Pregnancy study and will appear in the January/February print edition of the journal Women's Health Issues and the January issue of the journal Pediatrics.