Maternity leave policies

Trade-offs between labour market demands and health benefits for children

by Lucy Strang, Miriam Broeks

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Research Questions

  1. What are the existing maternity leave policies in European Union countries?
  2. What is the impact of these policies on breastfeeding practices and infants' health?
  3. What are the potential trade-offs for labour market demands in extending maternity leave to six months?

Over recent years many European Union countries have made changes to the design of the maternity leave provision. These policy developments reflect calls for greater gender equality in the workforce and more equal share of childcare responsibilities. However, while research shows that long period of leave can have negative effects on women's labour market attachment and career advancements, early return to work can be seen as a factor preventing exclusive breastfeeding, and therefore, potentially having negative health impacts for babies. Indeed, the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age to provide babies with the nutrition for healthy growth and brain development, protection from life-threatening ailments, obesity and non-communicable diseases such as asthma and diabetes. Therefore, labour market demands on women may be at odds with the health benefits for children gained by longer periods of maternity leave. The aim of this brief is to examine the relationship between leave provision and health benefits for children. We examine maternity and parental leave provision across European countries and its potential impact on the breastfeeding of very young babies (up to 6-months of age). We also consider economic factors of potential extension of maternity leave provision to 6 months, such as costs to businesses, effects on the female labour market attachment, and wider consequences (benefits and costs) for individuals, families, employers and the wider society.

Key Findings

Breastfeeding initiation and length is linked to maternity leave policies.

  • Evidence shows a positive link between extending breastfeeding to six months and beyond and improved health benefits for infants and mothers. The length (six months or more) and mode of breastfeeding (especially when exclusive) are crucial in increasing the benefits of breastfeeding.
  • Evidence has also found that breastfeeding initiation and duration is related to the characteristics of maternity leave policies (e.g. length, level of pay). Longer duration of maternity leave is linked to longer breastfeeding.

More research is needed on the economic impact of extending maternity leave.

  • A key issue with extending maternity leave for the benefits of infants' health is that this is potentially at odds with mothers' career prospects. However, the quality of the evidence on the economic implications of extending maternity leave to six months is rather weak, and needs more analysis.

Evidence on the impact of maternity leave is mixed.

  • Six months of leave is associated with a dip in wages for mothers taking leave, although evidence on the size of this dip is mixed.
  • Businesses may also incur costs in relation to productivity and replacing workers on maternity leave, which may directly or indirectly be passed on to female workers. However, existing research suggests that extending maternity leave has a positive effect on women's employment rates: leave periods between 14–26 weeks are associated with a 4.3% increase in the predicted female employment-to-participation ratio.


  • More research needs to be conducted on the question of the economic impact of extended maternity leave on women, families, business and society.
  • Policymakers should consider complementary programmes that will facilitate breastfeeding while women participate in the labour market, for example by promoting company policies that encourage breastfeeding at work, such as providing day care facilities or breastfeeding rooms.
  • Protections should be put in place to ensure that the career progression of women is not negatively impacted by the extension of maternity leave, and neither female workers nor companies are forced to bear all the financial costs of such schemes.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Maternity leave policies and their impact on breastfeeding practices and infants' health

  • Chapter Three

    Extended maternity leave policies and trade-offs for labour market demands

  • Chapter Four


Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC) and conducted by RAND Europe.

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