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May 31, 2024

Lack of paid family leave in Pennsylvania forces many mothers to forgo critical bonding time to ensure financial stability

Nearly 1 in 4 employed moms return to work within 10 days of giving birth due to financial constraints, a new report shows.

Opinion Parental Leave
Paid Family Leave Source/

Paid family leave is linked to reduced risk of rehospitalizaiton, increased breastfeeding rates and strengthened bonds between mothers and their babies.

In Pennsylvania, most families do not have access to paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child. The lack of access to paid family leave forces families to make impossible decisions – weighing the loss of income or even the loss of their job against taking time off to recover from birth and to bond with their new baby. 

A new report released by Maternity Care Coalition highlights the reality of this decision-making process – as many as 23% of employed mothers return to work within 10 days of giving birth due to financial constraints. The report goes on to highlight the multitude of maternal child health benefits directly linked to access to paid family leave. They include a significant reduction in the likelihood of rehospitalization after birth for both mom and baby, improved breastfeeding rates, and strengthened bond between parent and baby. These benefits are critical for all Pennsylvania families, but for families whose babies spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit, access to paid family leave is imperative.

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As a neonatologist, I am often present at the beginning of life for children whether in the well newborn nursery or when they are admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The beginning of life is a very crucial period for the health of a newborn and parental bonding. Research shows the benefits of breastfeeding, especially for babies who are born prematurely. Breastfeeding can reduce the risk for certain poor health outcomes for a child and is linked to better neurodevelopmental outcomes. Unfortunately, I have witnessed many mothers decline to initiate breastfeeding for their infants because they would be going back to work soon and do not want to start something they would be unable to sustain.

Parental involvement during a baby's NICU stay can impact a child’s long-term health and development. Establishing a secure bond between a baby and their parents in the early parts of the child's development can lead to better neurodevelopmental outcomes for the child.

Recently, I was caring for an infant in the NICU and noticed the baby’s parents were not visiting and participating in care and bonding. Later, the team caring for the baby learned the father had been fired from his job because he took time off to be with his partner and baby in the NICU. Out of fear of losing another job, the father later requested to only be called to participate in family meetings if the child was gravely ill. Access to paid family leave will ensure that parents can be actively involved in their baby's care and lead to better health outcomes.

The time surrounding the birth of a child is a highly emotional one and can be overwhelming for parents. Parental stress not only negatively impacts caregivers but also can increase an infant's risk for adverse health outcomes.

Access to paid family leave enables parents to take time off from work to cope with the stress and emotional challenges of having a a newborn – especially a critically ill newborn. With paid family leave, parents can focus on the health of their baby and not their financial situation. This provides the opportunity for parents to participate in their baby's care and medical decisions, which can positively impact the baby's mental health and lead to better mental health of the parents.

The birth of a child is a transformative time for a family. Establishing a universal paid family leave program in Pennsylvania would ensure parents can be present for their infant's care, navigate a challenging and emotional period of life, maintain financial stability, and promotes positive long-term health outcomes for children.

Dr. Folasade Kehinde is a neonatologist, a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a breastfeeding advocate. 

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