The Child Development Case
Babies are born learning, and their first few years of life are critical for healthy development. In this period of rapid brain development, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second.
These early years of life form a foundation for all that follows, setting babies on a life trajectory that can be positive or negative. Babies who grow up in a safe environment with adequate nutrition and consistent, supportive, responsive and nurturing caregivers reap developmental benefits immediately. Long-term outcomes include better health, higher levels of educational achievement and greater financial well-being as adults.
Research shows that a period of paid leave after the birth of a child contributes to the healthy development of infants and toddlers. Paid leave policies that enable workers to take time off to care for and bond with young children without forgoing their entire income offer a measure of financial security for families. They also increase the likelihood of extended breastfeeding, timely doctor visits and immunizations, and improved maternal health.
Secure relationships between babies, parents and other caregivers are essential to long-term health and well-being. The most fundamental parent-child bonds are generally formed during a baby’s first three months. It’s during this period that infants develop the capacity to recognize a caregiver’s voice, smell and face. In addition, consistent, caring relationships can mitigate the impact of stress and help develop the foundation of a child’s ability to learn, form positive relationships and exercise self-control.
Financial security is also linked to positive child outcomes, including greater academic achievement and fewer behavioral or mental health issues. Parents tend to be more responsive to the needs of their young children when not under extreme financial duress. Evidence suggests paid leave also reduces the risk of postpartum depression. Some experts caution, however, that postpartum depression or other maternal mental health issues could impede healthy bonding regardless of leave policies. In some instances, child care and other supports for the parent and child may be more advantageous to the health and well-being of the entire family.
Families benefit when fathers take advantage of paid paternity leave, according to a 2019 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research. For example, research found that fathers who take paid leave are better able to support their birth partner and bond with their child. A study from the University of New Hampshire found that fathers who take two or more weeks off after the birth of their child are more involved in that child’s direct care nine months later than fathers who did not take leave. Moreover, the study found maternal mental and physical health improved when fathers and non-birth parents use paid leave policies during the months after birth, adoption or placement. Another study found both mother and baby sleep better when fathers are involved during the first six months of infant care. Additionally, paid leave benefits provide fathers a greater role in decision-making and care taking of children.
Breastfeeding and breast milk are both critical for babies. The act of breastfeeding, or nursing, among other things, creates a nurturing bond between child and mother. This opportunity for physical closeness, touching and eye contact helps babies feel secure. In addition, breast milk provides baby with antibodies to fight off illness and build immunity and is the best source of nutrition. The proteins in breast milk are more easily digested than the proteins in formula or cow’s milk and the calcium and iron in breast milk are also more easily absorbed. The CDC shares in scientific and medical consensus that breastfeeding protects babies against pneumonia, respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome. According to one scientific study, if 80% of mothers breastfed exclusively for six months, the United States could save an estimated $10.5 billion a year in health care costs through reduced incidence of pediatric diseases. The country would also experience 700 fewer, primarily infant, deaths. That same study found that if exclusive breastfeeding rates increased to 90%, the savings could increase to $13 billion annually and prevent just over 900 deaths, again, mostly among infants.
Breastfeeding newborns is made easier when mothers have the economic security to be at home with their child. Research in 2016 on New Jersey’s paid leave policy found that infants of low-income families with mothers using the paid leave program breastfed, on average, one month longer than mothers not using paid leave. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast milk for at least the first six months of life. New Jersey mothers able to extend breastfeeding by one additional month deliver even more of the immunity-boosting and brain-building benefits of breast milk to their baby.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pediatricians see infants at least seven times in their first 12 months. These well-child visits include important developmental screenings and assessments and may also identify maternal mental health issues. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2020 report notes that “longer periods of maternity leave have been associated with higher rates of infants receiving well-baby care and immunizations.”
In addition, babies born prematurely or with developmental difficulties often require significant parental attention, and research has attributed health and developmental improvements in neonatal intensive care unit patients to the presence of parents. Paid leave creates opportunities for parents to identify concerns, intervene early and provide the care their child needs without jeopardizing their family’s financial security.
A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that after being discharged from a hospital, U.S. women who took paid leave experienced a 47% decrease in the odds of rehospitalizing their infants at 21 months postpartum, compared to women taking unpaid or no leave. They were also 51% less likely to be rehospitalized themselves.
Additional research showed improved outcomes for early elementary students, including maintaining a healthy weight, decreased prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and fewer hearing-related problems, particularly for less-advantaged children. According to the study, these positive outcomes are likely attributable to reduced prenatal stress, increased breastfeeding and increased parental care during infancy.
Financial insecurity is a common and significant source of parental stress, which in turn leads to greater likelihood of child maltreatment. While the absence of a paid leave benefit is not synonymous with poverty, lack of access to paid leave does create financial strain for low-income families, and stressful home environments contribute to child maltreatment.
Emerging evidence is beginning to show a link between paid leave benefits and child safety. Preliminary research indicates that California’s paid leave policy may be reducing the occurrence of child maltreatment by reducing parental stress and depression. The study analyzed hospital visits related to abusive head trauma and found a decline in hospital admissions compared to states without a paid leave policy.
The number of parents working outside the home has grown for decades. Employers that cultivate supportive work environments can help ease the stress of employees who are managing job and family responsibilities. Child welfare experts note that parental leave policies, and other family-focused workplace accommodations, help new parents and babies form positive attachments and may prevent family dysfunction, abuse or neglect.