Parental leave cuts undermine breastfeeding and child health

Baby in mother's arms

The following opinion piece, by Dr Karleen Gribble from the UWS School of Nursing and Midwifery, was first published on The Conversation website.

New and expectant parents are among the biggest losers in this year's budget. From July 1, 2016, primary carers will lose full access to government-funded paid parental leave if their workplace also provides leave. The change is projected to save almost $1 billion in savings over three years; the fourth-largest savings measure in the budget.

This means that around half of new mothers in the workplace will be partially or completely ineligible for the government's 18-week paid parental leave scheme totalling A$11,500. They have effectively had their maternity leave cut short.

In a further insult, the government has framed the cut as cracking down on "double dipping"; suggesting new mothers are acting dubiously by taking the leave available to them.

Most of the developed world provides longer paid parental leave than Australia; the United Kingdom provides 39 weeks, Canada 50 weeks and Sweden 60 weeks. But this is not simply an issue of how we lag behind other countries, there is cost to short maternity leave provisions. It results in poorer infant and maternal health.

The Coalition's previous parental leave policy stressed the value of giving every new mother 26 weeks off with paid leave, saying "a primary objective … is to support women to have the best chance to breastfeed and bond with their infant for the six month period recommended by international and Australian health experts."

Australian guidelines recommend that infants are fed nothing but breast milk for their first six months of life and continue to be breastfed into their second year. These recommendations flow from extensive research indicating that breastfeeding is important to the health, growth and development of children.

The way infants are fed has short- and long-term impacts.

Feeding a baby under six months of age anything other than breast milk makes them more vulnerable to infection. Ingesting other foods or liquids changes the lining and environment of the baby's gut in a way that makes it easier for bacteria and viruses to infect the baby. If these other foods or liquids replace breast milk, babies are also deprived of a variety of anti-bacterial and viral agents that they would have got from breast milk.

Sometimes these infections can be serious. Infants in countries such as Australia who are never breastfed are three- to five-times more likely to be hospitalised in their first year of life than infants who are fully breastfed.

One study found one in eight formula-fed infants were hospitalised, compared with only one in 44 fully breastfed infants. These visits come at a cost to individuals, workplaces (because of missed days to care for sick children) and the health system.

In the longer term, infant feeding can influence children's developmental trajectories. Short durations of breastfeeding are associated with slower brain and cognitive development and there is a measurable impact on school performance and beyond. There is also a growing body of evidence that early termination of breastfeeding alters the trajectory of infant growth and increases the risk of obesity later in life.

Although the impact of stopping breastfeeding early can be reduced – by actions such as hand washing, avoiding daycare (where the close contact between children encourages disease transmission), reading to children and avoiding overfeeding – at a population level, anything that lowers breastfeeding rates costs the health system and the economy.

That's a point that the Coalition supported in their previous parental policy, which said "as the Productivity Commission notes, the health gains from paid parental leave do not only benefit families. Society at large will benefit from the lower long-term health costs."

Mothers know breastfeeding is important; 95% of mothers in Australia start breastfeeding. But it's a time-intensive activity. The time spent breastfeeding gradually decreases after birth, but even at six months of age, breastfed infants feed for an average 2.5 hours a day.

It can be extremely difficult for mothers to maintain breastfeeding while they are working. The need to return to work prompts some women to introduce infant formula to their baby's diet or stop breastfeeding altogether.

Only 60% of Australian babies are still breastfeeding at all at six months of age, and only 15% are exclusively breastfed to five months.

While there are many issues that factor into mothers' infant feeding decisions, it is no accident that the countries with the highest breastfeeding rates in the OECD are also countries with generous paid parental leave and workplace accommodations for breastfeeding women.

In Norway, for example, mothers have up to 46 weeks of leave at 80% of their pay. Almost all (99% of babies) are breastfed initially and 80% are still breastfeeding at six months of age.

Sweden has 60 weeks of paid parental leave at 80% of pay and has 60% of babies exclusively breastfed at four months.

The government's own evaluation of paid parental leave identified that the longer women are able to stay at home with their babies, the longer they breastfeed. They found that "in a great number of cases, women weaned their babies at around the time of their return to work."

The impact of short parental leave is not limited to infants, as mothers also suffer when they do not have enough leave available to them. Negative outcomes of an early return to work include poorer physical health and well-being, feelings of stress and poorer mental health, including anxiety and depression.

Taking away the additional nine weeks parental leave that employers provide, on average, effectively reducing parental leave from 27 to 18 weeks, is enough to make a real difference to mothers.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that women who took between 13 and 26 weeks parental leave were more likely to report that they were suffering from mental distress for up to two years than women who took more than 26 weeks.

The private sector has been remarkable in providing paid parental leave for a large proportion of the population. They were picking up the slack of an inadequate government scheme. That is the sort of action that a "small government" government should have welcomed and fostered – rather than now undermining with this new policy.

Mothers, babies, the health system and the wider society are going to pay the price of this false economy.


18 May 2015

Photo: Mark Briddle, Flicker

Mark Smith, Senior Media Officer

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