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When newborn’s dad gets time off, mom gets surprising benefits, a study finds

Flexible paid leave for fathers has “positive spillover effects” on the physical and mental health of mothers in the months after childbirth, a new study out of Stanford University has found. 

Maya Rossin-Slater, an assistant professor in Stanford’s School of Medicine who researches maternal and child health, explained the motives behind this research in a lecture at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy last week. Rossin-Slater co-authored the study, “When Dad Can Stay Home: Fathers’ Workplace Flexibility and Maternal Health,” with Petra Persson, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford.   

“Temporal flexibility in the workplace is becoming increasingly important for modern households in which all adults tend to work,” Rossin-Slater said. Temporal flexibility simply means that parents can rearrange their work schedule to stay home in case of an unexpected child or family need.

For mothers in the months after childbirth, the study found a decrease in childbirth-related doctor’s appointments and a decline in prescribed antibiotics and anti-anxiety medication.

There is no state or federal requirement for paid parental leave, although efforts by such advocacy organizations as MomsRising and Family Forward NC have pushed for that to change.

In May, an executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper granted eight weeks of paid parental leave to employees in state agencies under his authority, and many other state agencies have extended the benefit. Last week, the UNC Board of Governors approved four to eight weeks of paid parental leave to eligible university employees across the UNC system. Several county and local governments have passed similar policies.

Increasingly, these parental leave policies can be broken up over the first year of the child’s life and are offered to someone other than the primary caregiver.

A study by the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy reported in May that parental leave policies would significantly decrease infant mortality in North Carolina, and would reduce low birthweight and the number of families using government assistance.

Rossin-Slater’s research studied the impacts of parental leave policies in Sweden. Where workplace flexibility is given, she said, flexible parental leave helps mothers’ career trajectories and reduces gender pay gaps. She said that’s because it is almost always mothers who take the leave when something unexpected comes up — like a child illness or a snow day cancellation.

“We know less about fathers,” Rossin-Slater said. “Do fathers demand workplace flexibility, by which I mean, if workplace flexibility is available for fathers, are they more likely to use it? And then a related question is, are there any intra-household spillovers of workplace flexibility?”

In the months after childbirth, she added, career impacts are not the only major costs for women. 

“In the months immediately following childbirth, the major cost that mothers face is the health cost associated with postpartum recovery,” she said. Nationally, she said, more than one of every 100 mothers are readmitted to the hospital in the first month after childbirth. About one in nine face postpartum depression, she said, and the maternal mortality rate has increased in the country in recent decades unlike anywhere else in the developed world. This especially affects women of color.

The study looked at a 2012 reform policy in Sweden which, at the time, was offering 16 months of paid leave across two parents. But the two parents were not allowed to take this leave at the same time except within 10 days of childbirth. In January 2012, a “Double Days” policy allowed parents to take the leave at the same time for up to 30 additional days during the first year after childbirth.

Rossin-Slater said this affected fathers’ flexibility most, since mothers generally were staying alone with the child — while the father would use his leave after the mother returned to work about 14 months after birth. The following image illustrates how the median Swedish parents before the 2012 reform would use their leave. 

Under the “Double Days” policy, fathers could use the leave to stay home with the mother and child for as little as one day at a time for both the first 10 days after childbirth and then for another 30 days during the first year of life. 

“… And this is potentially important because moms are on their own caring for a newborn child during potentially challenging times,” Rossin-Slater said.

The study found that fathers are indeed more likely to use more leave when given the chance. However, the study found an average increase of only one to two days in the number of leave days taken by dads in the first six months of the child’s life. 

The reform’s flexibility was correlated with several improvements in maternal health. The study found that the reform led to a 14% reduction in the likelihood of the mother going to either an inpatient or specialist outpatient doctor’s appointment related to childbirth, and an 11% decrease in the chance of receiving an antibiotic prescription six months after childbirth. The reform also led to a 26% decrease in the chance of anti-anxiety medication being prescribed. 

“These effects on maternal health are larger in both absolute and relative terms for particularly vulnerable mothers, who have a history of mental and physical health issues pre-childbirth,” the researchers write in a column explaining the study’s findings.

Rossin-Slater said a reform such as this one is cost-effective since the government did not extend leave but just offered more flexibility in how parents use it. 

“We think that these results provide some new insights about the role of workplace flexibility in the home environment more generally in influencing maternal postpartum health,” she said. “The fact that we see such large maternal health benefits stemming from a relatively small increase in the average number of leave days taken by fathers actually suggests that these policies are quite cost-effective. In fact, these policies essentially cost nothing to the government… They essentially just gave families more agency and flexibility in being able to allocate that leave in whatever way is more optimal for their household on a day-to-day basis.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.