New maternity policy right on track

We have irrefutable evidence to show that there is a strong association between the time a mother spends with her newborn child and the long-term health benefits to both that flow from such bonding.

For working mothers this has always been a challenge. Most countries have some formal policies that guarantee paid time off for working mothers to fully recover from child birth and get the time they need to care for a new born baby. Not all countries, however, give them the amount of time needed to this satisfactorily. Extended time together is not the only assurance a mother needs after childbirth.

As a working mother, she is also concerned about protecting her financial status which is where extended paid maternity leave becomes so important. India’s new maternity leave policy of fully paid 26 weeks puts us amongst the most advanced countries in this respect and just behind Canada (50 weeks) and Norway (44 weeks).

While the Government of India's initiative is in the right direction, it should offer more benefits to female employees working in small scale organisation by offering them tax benefits if the number of female employees utilising maternity leave affects their businesses. Paid maternal leave has several proven benefits for both mother and child. Some of the most significant are:

Reduction in infant mortality: Every additional month of paid maternity leave is associated with a 13% reduction in infant mortality rates in low-income countries and the developing world. This translates to eight infant deaths averted for every 1,000 births.

Timely childhood vaccination: Studies that have compared maternal leave policies around the world show that countries with more generous maternal leave have better indicators of childhood vaccine compliance. This comes as no surprise, since extending the duration of paid maternity leave gives the mother more time for regular clinic visits and to ensure timely vaccinations.

Better attention to breastfeeding: Among the many observed benefits of long maternal leave is an increase in the rate and duration of breastfeeding which, as is well known, has many benefits for both mother and child. Breast-fed babies are far less likely to get common infections and are at a lower risk of developing asthma, obesity or experiencing sudden infant death syndrome.

We also have sufficient evidence to indicate that women who breastfeed are less likely to develop breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Physiological advantages notwithstanding, there is a huge emotional impact that breastfeeding has on both mother and child. The enduring bond created during this time lays a sound psychological foundation for emotional stability later in life.

Reduced risk of postpartum depression: The first year after childbirth can sometimes present a risk of what is known as ‘postpartum depression’, with about 13% new mothers experiencing this. For any new mother going through this condition is very unpleasant, leading to neglect of the new born baby. Experts believe that women who return to work sooner than six months after childbirth have an increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms. The new maternal policy should help us reduce the incidence of PPD in Indian mothers.

Improvement in overall maternal health: A new mother’s full physical recovery after child birth is critical to make sure that she suffers no lasting debility and is ready to resume her full active life. Long maternity leave allows for sufficient time for the new mother to recover from her pregnancy and delivery. Moreover, paid leave provides the mother with a sense of security, and reduces stress about financial stability or job security.

Generous maternal leave policies also allow expecting mothers to use some of this leave before delivery. This too, is beneficial for working mothers because working longer into the pregnancy has been linked to delivery complications, while taking leave towards the end of pregnancy has shown positive benefits to a baby’s birthweight, improving survival changes.

A country’s maternity leave policy tells a powerful story of how it prioritises healthcare and the value it places on the health and wellbeing of mothers and a new generation of adults. Maternal and child well-being are key to ensuring healthy outcomes for India, and quality maternity leave is fundamental to achieving these goals. The government has taken a most welcome step in this direction and moved us many steps forward to improving our health indicators in the years to come.

(The writer is chairman and neonatologist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Bengaluru)

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