Written by Professor Stephanie Brown and Professor Frank Oberklaid
Academics, researchers and policymakers around the world, along with international organisations such as WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank, agree that promoting optimal health and development in the early years of life makes economic sense. Healthy children are more likely to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults who contribute positively to a country’s productivity and economic success.
There is incontrovertible evidence that early life stress and trauma can have a lasting impact on health and wellbeing. Children exposed to early life stress experience poorer physical and emotional health and wellbeing than children growing up in less stressful environments. As adults they are more likely to suffer from a range of problems including obesity, diabetes, mental health problems, welfare dependency, criminality, and substance abuse, with a subsequent drain on resources.
Tackling this requires evidence based policies and programs to eliminate or reduce these stressful early environments in which young children grow up. Successive Australian governments, along with NGO’s and other agencies, have tried to do exactly that by increasing investment to support families to create the responsive and nurturing environments that give young children the best start in life.
The power of paid parental leave
Paid parental leave is a powerful mechanism for reducing stress in the critical early months when the foundations of the parent-child relationships are being established. It provides a fundamental platform supporting families to manage financially, and reducing economic and social stresses associated with the arrival of a new baby.
Provision of paid parental leave beyond 18 weeks and allowing women to receive employer and government contributions has provided Australian families with the economic ‘breathing space’ for women to regain their physical and mental health after childbirth.
The myths of 'bouncing back' after pregnancy
It is a myth that mothers recover from pregnancy and giving birth within the first six weeks after birth. Australian research from 1500 first time mothers shows that many common maternal health problems associated with pregnancy and childbirth continue for many months and even years after having a baby. Counter to popular belief, women are more likely to experience the onset of depression at 6-12 months postpartum, than in the immediate weeks and months following childbirth. Poor physical health and recovery, and the sheer exhaustion that so often accompanies motherhood, are associated with stronger likelihood of poor maternal mental health.
Children of mothers experiencing mental health problems during and after pregnancy are more likely to experience emotional and behavioural problems and chronic conditions, and lead to long-term problems. Prioritising women’s health postpartum is therefore important not only for women themselves, but also for children, and the health and wellbeing of the whole family.
The greater benefits
As the Government launches the Third National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, it is also important to consider the hidden benefits of paid parental leave. Our research shows that women and children are less likely to be exposed to family violence when mothers have access to paid parental leave, providing them with greater economic security, and lessening financial stresses on families.
Australia, like other nations, would be wise to expand investment in the health and wellbeing of families, by strengthening the provision of paid parental leave. The costs of not doing so will be transmitted across generations. That is why paid parental leave is both a sound economic and social investment.
Professor Stephanie Brown directs the Healthy Mothers Healthy Families Research Group, and Professor Frank Oberklaid is Director of The Centre for Community Child Health, at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne
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