When we talk about paid leave, the conversation usually revolves around benefits seen by moms and babies in the first weeks and months following childbirth. However, a 2021 study suggests that when moms take longer paid maternity leave, they experience mental and physical benefits that last decades.

The first-of-its-kind study examined the health of Norwegian mothers who gave birth both before and after paid maternity leave became law in Norway in 1977. Because the law change applied to mothers across income levels and social backgrounds, it offered researchers a chance to study how paid leave would impact all women, not just those with the privilege of working for a company that offered it.

“This sharp change in who was eligible for paid maternity leave provides a nice natural experiment,” said study author Meghan Skira, an economist for the University of Georgia.

“It provides an environment where we can examine the causal health effects of paid leave. Our findings show that having access to paid leave leads to important health benefits for mothers around age 40,” she said.

Long-ranging health benefits

The women who gave birth after the 1977 law change were in better health overall when they hit their forties.

Tellingly, the biggest health gains were seen among low-income women who may not have been able to take the full amount of unpaid leave before the law went into effect.

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health collects health data on its citizens around age 40 to reflect on the nation’s well-being.

Skira and her co-authors compared health data for women who gave birth both before and after the 1977 law change as the women entered their forties. The researchers examined health patterns using body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and rates of diabetes, along with self-reported rates of pain, mental health, tobacco use and exercise habits.

They found that women who had access to longer paid maternity leave had better health outcomes across the board. Those women had healthier weights and blood pressure, less pain and better mental health. They also exercised more and smoked less.

“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,” said Skira. “We speculate that a reduction in stress, more time to recover from childbirth and perhaps breastfeeding played a role,” she said.

We know that when moms have access to paid maternity leave, they experience less work-related stress, have more time to recover from childbirth and breastfeed longer.

The majority of mothers support paid family leave

This study is important because it tells us that those immediate benefits don’t just go away. They contribute to long-term health gains for moms, too.

And we know that mothers overwhelmingly support longer, paid family leave policies. According to Motherly’s 2021 State of Motherhood survey, 92% of mothers support legislative action to increase support for childcare and/or parental leave. 85% of moms also say they would support or vote for a political candidate who supported childcare legislation that did more to actively support mothers, regardless of that candidate’s party affiliation. These aren’t partisan issues. They affect everyone.

As the mothers involved in the study continue to age, Skira hopes to study their health outcomes later in life.

“While things have changed since the late 1970s, understanding the effects of this policy change is important since it extended leave benefits from a level similar to what the U.S. offers today under the Family and Medical Leave Act,” Skira said. “Our results, therefore, may inform the current debate over family leave policy.”

We hope legislators review this study, so they understand just what’s at stake when it comes to paid maternity leave.

We know that when moms have access to paid maternity leave, they experience lower rates of depression, as well as lower rates of physical and emotional abuse from partners.

When mothers take longer paid maternity leave, their babies have a “slightly reduced likelihood of infant death and an increased chance of secure maternal attachment, breastfeeding and keeping up to date with vaccinations,” according to a 2020 study co-authored by UC San Francisco researchers.

According to Scientific American, paid parental leave even boosts babies’ brain development.

And now we know that the health benefits stay with moms for decades.

It’s a no-brainer: we need paid family leave in America.

Our health depends on it.

A version of this article was published in September 2022. It has been updated.