Give our children a strong start

Democratic leaders announced last month that they will make access to paid family leave the party’s next big issue. Paid leave enjoys bipartisan voter support, as well as private support among individual Congressional Republicans.

As psychologists who study and work in child development, we strongly support a national paid leave solution like the The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (The FAMILY Act), which can give more children a strong start in life. For children, the positive effects of paid parental leave are profound and long-lasting. So are the ill effects of its absence. In both cases, these effects ripple into adulthood and across society.

{mosads}It starts with babies’ health. Maternal work leave—which tends to be longer when compensated—is associated with lower rates of premature birth, fewer caesarean sections, and fewer cases of low birth weight and infant mortality. With longer parental leaves, children are more likely to get immunized and receive all their well-baby checkups.

In one study, mothers who took paid leave in California—one of three states to offer paid family leave—breastfed their infants twice as long as mothers without paid leave. Breastfeeding benefits both babies and mothers, lowering rates of diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and other serious conditions in children, while reducing mothers’ risk of postpartum depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

When a child is sick—and about 15 percent of American children are chronically ill—the presence of a parent reduces the length of hospitalization by about a third, as well as minimizes health complications. And a parent with paid leave is five times more likely to care for a sick child than one without it.

New parenthood is a job all its own. But in the California study, new mothers who took paid leave reported being better able to care for their new child and find good childcare, compared to mothers who didn’t. Low-wage mothers, especially, spent more time with their infants and suffered less postpartum depression, anxiety, and fatigue. And fathers who take leave for their child’s birth are more likely to be involved in later parenting responsibilities.

There are other compelling reasons for paid leave, based on an understanding of how children develop.

Infant brain development requires certain conditions in order for neurons to migrate to optimal locations. These conditions are not unduly difficult, but do require the presence of someone who’s “crazy about the child,” as psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner famously said.

For example, parents often hold infants face-to-face—a simple and natural act rich in developmental nutrients. Infants coo, parents light up, and the infant smiles in return.  Here, infants learn the “serve and return” of human interaction and of having an effect on their world.

Babies are born ready to bond with caregivers. This bond is vividly demonstrated by experimenters who ask the adult to adopt a stony, still face, or even to turn away and ignore the infant. Most infants try desperately to re-engage the adult and will dissolve in distress if they’re unsuccessful.

Research in developmental neuroscience tells us that warm and loving attachment behaviors like these wire the brain’s limbic and central nervous systems, influence the ability to regulate stress, and set the stage for healthy emotional and cognitive development. Just as each step in building a house depends on the soundness of the one before, so too do complex neurological and psychological systems depend strongly on the establishment of early brain functions. And the energy required to give a baby a good start is much less at this early stage than the energy required to correct problems at a later age.

In short, babies need the presence of a highly invested, loving adult. Most parents know this, but the system is stacked against them and they face the Solomonesque choice of holding down a job or feeling like good parents. And with no childcare policy, many are forced to seek cheaper, lower-quality care for their infants. That’s unfortunate, since long-term studies of early childcare show that its quality matters.

Parents everywhere want to do right by their children. But their ability to do so depends in large part on whether their country cares to help. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that children in the US rank 26th out of 29 developed countries on overall measures of well-being.

Policies like The FAMILY Act make eminent good sense. In the coming debate over this Act, let us remember that some of the Americans paid leave most affects are those who stand to benefit for their entire lives. 

Divecha is a developmental psychologist and research affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Stern is a psychoanalyst and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Both are OpEd Project Public Voices Fellows.


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