There are many parental responsibilities I have assumed as a new father.
- how to change diapers
- how to clean breast-feeding equipment for mom
- how to fit my daughter into her onesies
- and how to coax her into taking a bottle when mom is preoccupied.
I’ve also learned how to interpret the pitches and intonations of her coos and cries. But in these early months of fatherhood, I’ve committed myself to touch and emotional engagement as arguably my most important duty as a father.
‘Duty’ admittedly insinuates an obligation discharged reluctantly rather than conduct from which one derives inherent satisfaction. It is true that, in the immediate postpartum period when I was sleep-deprived and running on fumes, I was carrying out the mundane chores of newborn care with varying degrees of irritation rather than with the alacrity of a father overjoyed to have a newborn daughter. But as I settled into a routine and sleep patterns returned to normal, I became more happily reconciled to (not to mention efficient in) my chores.
Changing diapers or fitting my daughter into onesies became cherished opportunities to interact with my daughter. This took time for me to appreciate, but as a father on paternity leave, I have had the opportunity to enjoy sustained engagement with my newborn daughter which deepened my bond with her. A Department of Labor policy brief states:
‘[s]tudies from other countries have confirmed that fathers who take more paternity leave have higher satisfaction with parenting and increased engagement in caring for their children.’
I believe it. Moreover, sustained engagement with an infant child not only confers emotional and psychological benefits on the father, but at least one study suggests that paternity leave can enhance the cognitive test scores of a child (though this is only one study and is by no means definitive).
Social science research still lags in documenting the effects of parental leave policies on childhood development.
There is much we do not know, at least not conclusively, but the proposition that deep and sustained parental engagement in the early months of life can be a windfall for a child’s long-term developmental health is not a farfetched idea. In one book about ‘how the brain and mind develop in the first five years of life,’ one reads about the crucial importance of touch to the long-term development of a newborn baby. Reviewing several studies on mammals that attempt to measure the importance of touch on development, the studies conclude that touch stimulates such important developmental capacities as stress hormone regulation, immunological response, and emotional stability.
The book also discusses how babies can grow up with severe deficiencies in their emotional and intellectual health if they are deprived of sufficient nurturing and environmental stimulation. The book cites work in the 1940s by psychiatrist Rene Spitz that compares infants raised in foundling homes (in which they received minimal human interaction) to infants reared by mothers in prison who were able to feed, nurse, and care for their infant children. The foundling children suffered severely. Many died before the age of two, and those who survived ‘were physically stunted, highly prone to infection, and severely retarded, both cognitively and emotionally.’ One Scientific American article reviews research showing that orphans adopted from East European orphanages where they received little attention other than feedings and diaper changes ‘suffer from depressed levels of hormones that have been linked to bonding, caring, communicating and stress regulation, among other things,’ even three years after being adopted.
Needless to say, touch and human interaction are crucial to an infant’s healthy development.
My partner Kara and I have been able to indulge our infant daughter with touch and emotional engagement because we have been able to take advantage of family leave. In Washington D.C., employees are entitled to four months leave after the birth of a child. Federal government employees like myself get only three, and while official Office of Personnel Management policy does not allow paternity leave, individual agencies are allowed their own discretion, and I work for an agency that allows me to take paternity leave. I am currently finishing up two months of leave (I took the other month immediately after our daughter was born), which supplements Kara’s four months of leave. Thus, our daughter has had six months of close attention and parental care—i.e. lots of touch, attention, and engagement.
In 1993, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allowed employees of companies employing fifty or more people to take leave to care for a newborn or sick relative without fear of losing their job. The legislation was an important response to changing demographics. As two-income households were becoming more numerous, the legislation allowed parents to take time off to care for a newborn child. It was merely a first step, however, as it guaranteed only unpaid leave for employees who work for firms that employ fifty or more employees.
Many parents are unable to take leave because they cannot afford it, or because they work for companies that employ fewer than fifty employees. The United States currently is the only industrialized country that does not offer some form of paid leave, effectively making FMLA leave a right granted primarily to families that can afford to take advantage of it. It would seem, then, that paid leave is a policy the United States government could consider as a way of ensuring that all families, and not just families with means, can take sufficient time to provide the care and attention so essential to the long-term developmental health of their children. At a time when socioeconomic inequality is a major policy concern, paid leave is perhaps one way to improve the relative long-term developmental prospects of children born into poor families.
Studies have shown that paid leave can reduce the risk of infant mortality, increase the likelihood of a child getting his polio and measles vaccines, and reduce the incidence of depression in mothers (which improves her mood and thus her ability to positively engage with her infant child). Moreover, it can lengthen the time a mother breast feeds, the benefits of which are widely discussed. According to one study summarizing the available evidence, breastfeeding can lower ‘infant and child morbidity and mortality by reducing the risk of infection.’
Some studies suggest that extended breastfeeding can lead to increased IQ, though it is difficult to parse out its specific contribution, as IQ can be influenced by mother-child bonding, home life, school systems, the quality of intellectual stimulation during development, and a host of other factors. But as explained by Dr. Lessa Horta, the author of a study of 5,914 mothers which found that children who were breastfed for twelve months or longer had a higher IQ, more education, and higher income in adulthood: breastmilk is ‘rich in long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids which are important to brain growth and development.’ Thus, a correlation between long-term breastfeeding and higher intellectual performance does not necessarily run counter to the biology of brain development.
A connection between sustained breastfeeding and IQ is plausible, even if it has yet to be proved. All told, it is no wonder that, in its policy statement,
‘[t]he American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.’
It is important to acknowledge that the research on the benefits of breastfeeding is not necessarily conclusive.
Professor Joan Wolf, for example, in Is Breast Best?: Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood, argues that ‘methodological and interpretive problems are pervasive at every step of the research process, from the design of the studies to the communication of their results; that as is often said, correlation does not equal causation; and that except in the case of gastrointestinal infections, the biological mechanisms by which breastfeeding promotes better health have not been demonstrated.’ She posits:
‘behavior associated with breastfeeding, not breastfeeding per se, explains any relationship between breastfeeding and better health.’
One can easily fathom how the benefits of behavior associated with breastfeeding are enhanced by the amount of time a mother can spend with her child. Paid leave would allow all mothers, and not just mothers with means, more time to breastfeed, and breastfeeding is almost synonymous with parent-child bonding, which common sense and several academic studies strongly suggest has profoundly positive effects on the long-term intellectual and emotional well-being of a child. As one policy brief by the National Center for Children in Poverty states:
‘[i]t is well established that the experience of interacting with familiar, responsive and stimulating primary caregivers during the first two years of life is critically important to a child’s social, emotional and intellectual development.’
As stated above, many families are not able to enjoy the luxury of time because they cannot afford to take the time off from work. Whether breastfeeding per se, or the behaviors associated with breastfeeding, are the crucial factors in a child’s long-term development, paid leave would allow parents more time for breastfeeding, and the parent-child bonding that comes with breastfeeding, that are correlated with healthy development. But according to data cited by sociology professor Cynthia Colen:
‘Seventy-four percent of children in families with incomes above 185 percent of the federal poverty line are breastfed, compared to only 57 percent of children in families with incomes at or below that threshold.’
Some families that do not have the luxury of means may still enjoy the benefit of extended family, like grandparents, who are available to provide additional material and emotional support to a newborn infant when a parent must go back to work. But for those parents without means or additional family support, it does not take much imagination to appreciate the struggle they can have trying to ensure their child gets the extended attention and care it deserves.
Paid leave can ameliorate that struggle and help level the playing field for children born into poor families. Every industrialized country in the world offers some form of paid leave except the United States. One is left wondering if the absence of paid leave exacerbates socioeconomic inequities in the United States. This is, of course, a hypothesis that requires much testing and study. It must be emphasized, as a policy brief by the National Center for Children in Poverty explained:
‘[r]esearch assessing the direct effects of paid family leave policies on child health and development and maternal health is still sparse, partly because of limited data and thorny methodological challenges to isolating the influence of leave policy from a host of other variables that influence these important outcomes.’ But the same policy brief also writes that ‘[a]lthough there is at present only modest evidence directly linking paid family leave to improved child cognitive and social-emotional outcomes, such an association is likely and may be better observed as scholars refine their methods.’
In short, the question of whether paid leave might mitigate socioeconomic inequities is worth asking.
This is not to suggest that paid leave is a panacea for all the problems that arise from socioeconomic disparities.
The research is still inconclusive on how much of the long-term emotional and cognitive health of a child can be traced to paid leave. One must also consider the public cost of ensuring paid leave, and whether the burden that a federal mandate would put on companies might lead to an outcome where fewer jobs are available to disadvantaged parents because companies cannot afford to pay employees on leave. Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio introduced a paid leave program that would give a tax credit to companies that offered paid leave, as a way of reducing the economic burden on companies, but critics doubt whether this policy would be enough of an incentive to convince companies not already providing paid leave to go ahead and provide it.
Surely there is little dispute that extended attention and care in the first months of life does not work to the detriment of a child’s long-term developmental health. Finding a way to ensure that all parents can have the time and means to be provide the emotional support that parents are uniquely positioned to give is a worthy public policy goal. Paid leave is one potential way to do it. The causal relationship between paid leave and the long-term development health of children is still an unresolved topic of research, but it seems only a matter of time before research provides supporting evidence. If so, one hopes that the United States can join the rest of the developing world in ensuring paid leave to all families.
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