New mothers living in states with generous mandated paid family and medical leave are less likely to experience postpartum depression, a new study indicates.

They also are more likely to breastfeed their newborns.

“By increasing mothers’ ability to breastfeed and reducing postpartum-depressive symptoms, strong state paid family and medical leave laws provide a major boost to the health of postpartum women and infants,” said senior study author Joe Feinglass, a research professor of general internal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The United States remains one of the few wealthy countries without federally mandated paid parental leave.

For this study, researchers used data gathered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to compare pregnancy outcomes in 43 states, taking into account each state’s level of support for parental leave.

Women living in the eight states with the most generous paid family leave had a 9% greater chance of breastfeeding at six months postpartum, compared to the 26 states with little to no paid leave.

And those living in states with moderate leave coverage had a 10% lower likelihood of developing symptoms related to postpartum depression.

“Mental health conditions are the leading cause of maternal mortality in the U.S., with perinatal depression symptoms affecting about one in eight new mothers,” researcher Dr. Madeline Perry, a fourth-year resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Feinberg, said in a university news release. “Our study adds to previous research that has also found paid leave reduces the rates of postpartum depression symptoms.”

Women benefitted even more when state Medicaid programs covered delivery costs on top of generous paid leave, researchers found.

Those in states with Medicaid-covered delivery and generous leave programs had a 32% greater likelihood of breastfeeding at six months postpartum and a 15% lower likelihood of suffering postpartum depression.

The new study was published recently in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Researchers “suspected these findings would be greatest among newly postpartum individuals whose delivery was covered by Medicaid, as lower-income mothers were more likely to be forced to return to work more quickly, and this is ultimately what we found,” Perry said.

Many health benefits to mom and baby from breastfeeding have been observed. Babies have better GI function and brain development, and moms have a lower risk of certain cancers.

“Having to return to work is one of the main reasons mothers stop breastfeeding,” Perry said. “While the decision on the method of feeding infants is very personal, paid leave allows women the space to actually make the decision to breastfeed in the months after a baby is born.”

Researchers noted that state-level family leave programs are fundamentally different than the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows new parents to take time off but does not require employers to pay them while they’re away.

“While FMLA has been associated with an improvement in some postpartum outcomes, these improvements are only seen in a higher-income population,” Perry said.

More information

The American Pregnancy Association has more about maternity leave.

SOURCE: Northwestern University, news release, Nov. 2, 2023