Paid maternity leave has major mental and physical health benefits for mothers and children, says a study published in the journal 'Harvard Review of Psychiatry'.
The study led by a team of researchers from the University of Georgia found that working women who were given longer periods of paid maternity leave were much healthier in their middle age.
Maternity leave reduced rates of post-partum depression, infant mortality and had an overall positive effect on infant mental health and development. It also increased the likelihood of both breastfeeding initiation and duration among mothers who choose to and can breastfeed.
The study which drew a direct link between women staying home after childbirth and their health also reported benefits including reduced psychological distress and improved mood.
The researchers assessed the birth, health and income data for the women who gave birth immediately before and after the maternity leave law changed in 1977. In order to paint a comprehensive picture of women's health at the age of forty, researchers also examined the participants' health patterns using body mass index, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and rates of diabetes. Their self-reported rates of pain, mental health, tobacco use and exercise habits were also studied.
The women who had access to paid leave had 2.5 -3.7 per cent lower BMI than those who did not have access. They were 10 per cent less likely to have high blood pressure, 16-18 per cent less likely to smoke and 14-20 per cent more likely to exercise regularly.
"We know that women are healthier at 40, but we don't know exactly why. We did not find significant changes in income or employment among the women who had access to the reform, so the health improvements are unlikely due to income effects. We speculate that a reduction in stress, more time to recover from childbirth, and perhaps breastfeeding played a role," said Meghan Skira, the study author and University of Georgia economist.
The duration of maternity leave has also been linked to the quality of mother-child interactions, which affects the development of attachment, empathy and later academic performance of the child.