Parental Leave Brings Mental Health Benefits, Especially for Mothers
Along with all the excitement and anticipation, becoming a new parent comes with a great deal of change and potential stress, such as the challenges of childrearing, financial pressure and career uncertainties. This elevated stress can contribute to mental health problems, including peripartum depression. New research published in the Lancet finds that access to employer-provided parental leave may help protect mothers’ mental health in the months after childbirth.1
An estimated one of every five new mothers experiences mental health disorders in the postpartum period and as many as one in 10 new fathers may also be affected.2, 3 Women who have experienced depression before pregnancy are at greater risk of postpartum depression. Other risk factors include young age, low income or education, single relationship status or relationship problems, unplanned pregnancy and high stress levels.4 The COVID-19 pandemic also had a significant impact on new parents. One study found that mothers whose infants were in neonatal intensive care or who were worried about contracting COVID were significantly more likely to screen positive for postpartum depression.5 (See more on postpartum/peripartum depression.)
Benefits of Parental Leave
In the study in the Lancet, researchers from Stockholm University reviewed 45 studies on parental leave, mostly U.S.-based. Parental leave is a job-protected leave of absence for new parents after childbirth.
Overall, they found that the “evidence suggests that parental leave is protective against poorer mental health for mothers in the post-partum period, especially paid leave of at least 2–3 months.” Evidence for benefits for fathers was more mixed and less conclusive.
Longer parental leave was associated with better mental health. For example, a number of studies found decreases in depressive symptoms among mothers with longer leave, paid or unpaid. Other studies found longer parental leave associated with decreased risk of stress, reduced mental health care use, and lower rates of hospital admissions for mental disorders.
The researchers also looked at the implications of paid versus unpaid parental leave. Compared with unpaid leave, paid parental leave was generally associated with improved maternal mental health in the post-partum period. For example, one study found that among women on leave for a similar length of time, those with paid leave had lower risks of depressive symptoms and major depression than those with unpaid leave. However, other studies found no differences between paid and unpaid leave.
The synthesis of the research “strongly suggests that parental leave generosity contributes to alleviating or preventing mental health problems, particularly for mothers—a finding that is highly relevant from a policy perspective,” the authors note. In addition, they found some evidence that the protective effect of parental leave for maternal mental health could last beyond the post-partum period into later life.
The authors conclude that “parental leave can be protective against poorer mental health,” and “Taken together, the findings of this review have implications for the wellbeing of the entire family in the long term.”
1. Heshmati, A., Honkaniemi, H., & Juárez, S. P. (2023). The effect of parental leave on parents' mental health: a systematic review. The Lancet. Public health, 8(1), e57–e75. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(22)00311-5
2. Wang, Z., Liu, J., Shuai, H., et al. (2021). Mapping global prevalence of depression among postpartum women. Translational psychiatry, 11(1), 543. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-021-01663-6
3. Bradley R, Slade P. A review of mental health problems in fathers following the birth of a child. J Reprod Infant Psychol 2011; 29: 19–42.)
4. Vanwetswinkel, F., Bruffaerts, R., Arif, U., & Hompes, T. (2022). The longitudinal course of depressive symptoms during the perinatal period: A systematic review. Journal of affective disorders, 315, 213–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.06.087
5. Shuman, C.J., Peahl, A.F., Pareddy, N. et al. Postpartum depression and associated risk factors during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Res Notes 15, 102 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-022-05991-8