As the director of Start Early’s Enterprise Project Management Office, Colleen Vehr knew the early months and years of a child’s life are critical to their learning, growth, and development. Knowing this, she was particularly grateful to be able to have extended time away from work to focus on her rapidly growing family and providing for her newborns’ needs as they grew and changed each day.
As a mother of twins who spent time in the NICU, Vehr shares, “I really cherish the time I was able to spend at home nurturing my babies so they could thrive in the way that all children deserve.”
Providing parents with paid time off from work to care for their young children helps families begin their journey on a strong foundation of caring, consistent relationships. Infants experience rapid rates of brain development fueled by nurturing and consistent relationship with caregiving adults, and these earliest interactions have a significant, long-lasting impact on executive functioning, early communication, and problem-solving skills.
Bridget Byville, managing director of Corporate and Foundation Relations and another recent mother at Start Early recalls how her parental leave helped get her son to a place where he was healthy and thriving. “My parental leave helped us get into the cadence of being a family and creating those social emotional connections that we needed. It was especially beneficial for creating a bond with this tiny human — who is very fragile — and it gave me time to focus on my health and well-being post labor,” she shares.
Indeed, research has found that paid family leave leads to a wealth of benefits related to child development and child and caregiver health. One recent study found that paid leave was linked to better language, cognitive and social emotional outcomes in toddlers regardless of socioeconomic status and fewer infant behavior problems. Research also suggests that parental leave — especially paid leave — can support children’s health during this critical window, including positively affecting breastfeeding rates and duration, reducing the risk of infant mortality, and increasing the likelihood of infants receiving well-baby care and vaccinations.
The benefits that paid leave produces for young children and their families have not only compelled Start Early to advocate for policies that increase access to paid leave but has compelled our organization to adopt our own paid leave policies, including providing up to 6 months of paid maternity, paternity or adoption leave for employees.
The U.S. is one of only eight countries that does not offer paid leave, forcing parents to cobble together paid personal time, sick leave and short-term disability, if available or feasible. As a result, the average maternity leave in the U.S. is about 10 weeks.
Vehr reflects on how even a 3-month policy wouldn’t have felt sufficient. “With a 3-month policy, I would have spent about a third of my leave with at least one child in the hospital. The extended 6-month leave meant that I could spend meaningful time, especially in those precious early days, focused on establishing new routines and caring for my children.”
Decreasing an employee’s salary and retirement savings opportunities at a time when their expenses are increasing causes high levels of stress, conditions that have been shown to negatively affect children’s growth and development. Start Early’s parental leave program also aligns with research evidence about the impact caregiver stress and access to high-quality healthcare has on young children by providing employees with 100% of their salary and benefits during parental leave.
“I was really one of the fortunate parents in the NICU,” says Vehr. “I think about mothers who have to return to work before they’ve fully healed or parents who are forced to return to work when their little ones are so very young because not receiving a paycheck is simply not an option.”
A comprehensive paid parental leave program can aid in retaining women in the workforce. One study from Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that implementing paid parental leave policies in California and New Jersey resulted in a 20 percent reduction in the number of women exiting their jobs in the first year after welcoming a child and up to a 50 percent reduction after 5 years.
“When you invest in your people, they invest back in the organization which ultimately leads to increased retention,” notes Byville. “I feel a much stronger sense of loyalty to Start Early because of the space they made for my family.”
Vehr agrees, “I feel a deeper sense of commitment to our organization and more cared for as an employee.” She adds, “it really calls on employers to consider a far more empathetic, humane approach to parental and family leave, and it also calls on our lawmakers to support employers with that aim.”
The benefits of paid parental leave set families, employers, and our communities up for success, which is why Start Early will continue to advocate for family-friendly policies that support time for parents and caregivers to bond with and care for their children without jeopardizing their ability to afford basic needs.