Study shows benefits of early maternity leave

Bonding time: Romy Sujica with her now 14-month-old daughter, Eve, says delaying her return to work was beneficial.
Bonding time: Romy Sujica with her now 14-month-old daughter, Eve, says delaying her return to work was beneficial. Photo: Paul Rovere

Women who start maternity leave at least a month before their baby is born are less likely to have a caesarean delivery according to US researchers, who also found mothers who delay their return to work breastfeed for longer.

The findings, in two separate studies from the University of California, Berkeley, add weight to the push for extended paid maternity leave.

The first study, which appears in the Women's Health Issues journal this month, found women who took at least a month off work before the birth were four times less likely to have a caesarean delivery because they were less tired and anxious. They were also more likely to carry to term, especially for women who had stressful jobs.

"What we're trying to say here is that taking maternity leave may make good health sense, as well as good economic sense," said Sylvia Guendelman, professor of maternal and child health at the university's school of public health.

Using prenatal birth records and post-delivery phone interviews of 447 women who worked full time, researchers noted that financial concerns could deter women from taking leave in the last month of pregnancy.

Women who took less than six weeks' maternity leave were four times less likely to successfully breastfeed beyond 30 days.

Romy Sujica concurs with the findings. She took four weeks' maternity leave before her daughter Eve arrived - and topped it up with an additional two weeks' annual leave. It was a decision that paid off.

Her weeks at home before the birth were spent resting and reading up on breastfeeding. "I found towards the end, I was getting disrupted sleep and I wasn't rested, so it was difficult to get up and go to work a full day." Her daughter Eve Sujica Zimmermann arrived only a day past the due date on November 14, 2007, and Ms Sujica said she felt she was well prepared.

A senior appeals administrator at the Building Commission, Ms Sujica gets 14 weeks' maternity leave. The flexibility at work also took the pressure off breastfeeding and allowed her to bond with Eve.

Professor Guendelman, who led the two surveys, said she was keen to see the rate of caesarean deliveries fall and breastfeeding increase.

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Australia's caesarean rate hit a high of 30.8 per cent in 2006, with about 3 per cent having caesareans for non-medical reasons. In 1997, the caesarean rate was 20.3 per cent.

The second study, which appears in this month's Paediatrics journal, found women who took less than six weeks' maternity leave were four times less likely to successfully breastfeed beyond 30 days.

Of the 770 full-time working mothers who participated, 82 per cent were breastfeeding within a month of their baby's birth. Of those, 65 per cent were still breastfeeding 4.5 months later. These women had taken an average of 10.3 weeks' maternity leave.

Breastfeeding is decreasing in Australia. The latest figures show only 18 per cent of mothers were breastfeeding at six months in 2002, against 53 per cent in Sweden, 21 per cent in Britain and 20 per cent in the US.

Chat to other Essential Baby members about birth experiences and preparation.