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Emma Jenner

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Babies and Benefits: How Countries Around the World Support New Moms

Posted: 08/05/2013 8:53 am

Royal Baby

The Duchess of Cambridge's trendsetting ways may be rubbing off on her husband. This week, Prince William became the first royal to indulge in a modern British luxury -- paternity leave. Like fathers across the UK, the Prince is taking two weeks of paid vacation to bond with his new baby.

Paternity leave has been available in the UK since 2003, and is one way the country supports new families. But it isn't the only government benefit the littlest prince in England has received.

Earlier this month, the Government of Finland sent quite a gift. Designer clothes? Kooky high-end jewelry? Six geese a-laying? No -- it was a cardboard box.

Since 1949, every new mum in Finland has received a box -- big enough to double as a crib -- filled to the brim with baby necessities. Onesies, jacket and mittens, diapers, bedding, a sleeping bag, toiletries, a picture book -- all courtesy of the government.

The boxes began as part of a program aimed at reducing the sky-high postwar infant mortality rate. Mums-to-be received the box after attending a free prenatal doctor's appointment. Today the Finns have one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world -- and the boxes are here to stay.

As a nanny and baby consultant who has worked across the U.S. and Europe, I've seen firsthand how different places support new mums and dads. Whether they're single or married, working or staying at home, healthy moms and their babies are in the best interest of every country -- but there are a variety of ideas about how to help them. From baby boxes to paternity leave, tax breaks to birthing classes, here are some of the most interesting systems in place in the countries where I've worked as a nanny.

U.K.:
This BBC article is meant for Brits considering having a baby in the U.S., but it reveals a lot about both countries. For example, #10 reminds parents that having a baby in the U.S. means they won't be eligible for British provisions like "free prescriptions, dental care, statutory maternity leave and pay (or maternity allowance)... [or] Child Maintenance payments."

Today, all working moms-to-be in the UK are eligible for a set of benefits. While pregnant, they receive pay for time taken off for antenatal care like doctor and midwife visits. Those who have worked at the same place for at least half a year have job security for up to a year of maternity leave. They receive paid leave at 90% of their pay for six weeks, and £136.78 (about $200) for the next 33 weeks.

Just as Prince William did, new dads can get in on the action, too. They can receive up to two weeks of paid paternity leave, plus another 26 weeks if their partner returns to work.

For families that don't qualify for standard maternity/paternity leave and pay, there is a patchwork of tax credits and allowances available. (You can read more about specific benefits here.)

Britons get something else that might surprise Americans -- in-home help from experts. In the UK, a midwife visits every day for 10 days after mum and baby return home from the hospital. They give checkups and help with breastfeeding, sleep, diapering, bathing and all the other basics that challenge new parents. I vividly remember the midwife who helped my mom when my baby sister was born -- she was incredible, so helpful and supportive. Like many British families, my mom and dad were glad to have the help!

Germany:
I worked for a family in Germany for three years. Germany has some of the strongest moms in the world, and the country has lots of programs in place to support them.

Before their baby's birth, new moms in Germany choose a Hebamme, or nurse-midwife. Hebammes offer a range of services, from basic medical checkups at the office or clients' homes to newborn care classes to pre-labor acupuncture treatments intended to help with pain relief.

After the birth, most mothers and babies stay at the hospital for about a week to recover. They can get help learning baby care basics from the nurses, and the baby will have regular checkups.

After mother and baby leave the hospital, the Hebamme remains on call for questions and emergencies, and most will come for in-home visits similar to the ones English midwives do, to help with everything from checking on C-section stitches to assisting with baby hygiene to establishing good nursing habits.

Working moms are guaranteed 14 weeks of leave at full pay. However, Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, and German mothers tend not to work. Some accuse German culture of being unfairly hard on working moms, and of designing policies that push mothers to stay at home.

German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, mother of seven children, recalled: "All my colleagues at the hospital where I worked were disappointed that I was pregnant because they thought that I would never ever come back." When she did return, however, "they were disappointed in me and questioned whether I would be a good mom. It was awful."

That was 26 years ago, however, and recently Germany seems to be doing more to support mums regardless of whether they choose to work outside the home. In 2007, von der Leyen introduced a two-month paid paternity leave that can be extended for up to seven months if the mother reduces her maternity leave, which gives families more flexibility.

America:
America, it's often pointed out, is the only developed nation in the world that doesn't guarantee paid maternity leave for new mothers. (The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees 12 weeks of leave to new mothers, but leave can be unpaid, and is only granted to those working in places with 50 or more employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours at the same place of business over 12 months.)

More alarmingly, we top the charts for C-section surgeries, and we lag far behind other developed nations in maternal and infant mortality rates -- women in the U.S. are seven times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than women in Italy or Ireland.

As someone who's seen time and again that that supporting parents is the surest way to raise healthy kids, I hope that changes soon. The good news is that some states -- Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey, California and New York -- are already moving in the right direction. My home state, California, leads the pack.

California has extended benefits beyond federal requirements, but the system is complicated, and the latest changes would confuse even the most veteran HR officers. Fellow Californian Lauren Wallenstein, who runs MilkYourBenefits.com, helps new parents navigate the labyrinth of rules around disability leave, maternity leave, and family care and medical leave.

"California is one of the most progressive states in terms of providing both job-protected baby-bonding leave and income for new parents," says Lauren. "Our state offers the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) which enables both parents to bond with their child for 12 weeks. And they can get paid for six of those weeks through the Paid Family Leave (PFL) program." That works in tandem with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and is more generous than other states' policies. "What this suggests," says Lauren, "is that California lawmakers are unique in how they accommodate and value this part of the workforce and try to ensure that they stay employed."

I've enjoyed living and working with families across Europe and the States, and am fascinated by the different ways nations care for their newest citizens. Support systems for new families say a lot about culture and the country, and it's good news for all that so many places are moving to prioritize the health and wellbeing of parents and babies.

 

Follow Emma Jenner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@emmaschildren

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