In the fall of 2021, Democrats pushed to establish a national paid leave program under the Build Back Better Act, an initiative that would guarantee paid family and sick leave to US workers. The bill faltered in the Senate before eventually being shelved when it failed to garner enough votes.
Without a paid leave policy, the US maintains its position as the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee this aid to its citizens. Nearly 80 percent of US workers do not receive paid leave through their employer, leaving them, when having children, to choose between earning a paycheck or bonding with their newborns.
According to developmental psychologists such as NYU Steinhardt Assistant Professor Natalie Brito, the lack of paid leave has profound consequences for both new mothers and their babies. To explore this impact, Brito studied a diverse sample of NYC families to examine links between paid leave and electrical activity in infant brains at the age of three months. She and her co-authors found that infants with increased activity of higher-frequency brain waves were 7.39 times more likely to have mothers with paid leave. Their findings, “Paid Maternal Leave is Associated with Infant Brain Function at 3-Months of Age,” are published in Child Development.
NYU News spoke with Brito about the state of maternity in the US, the benefits of paid leave, and the adverse impacts faced by those without it.
Why are the first several months of an infant’s life such an important period for brain development?
One of the key features of the brain is its plasticity, or ability to adapt to environmental experiences, and the brain is highly plastic during infancy. The first few months of life are so important for brain development because neural connections in the infant brain are emerging in the context of warm, predictable, and responsive social interactions between the parent and infant. This brain plasticity makes it easier for infants to learn about the world around them, but this plasticity also makes the brain much more susceptible to negative experiences like parental stress.
The first couple months after childbirth are also a stressful time for parents, and mothers, in particular, often find themselves facing post-birth complications, lactation difficulties, and sleep deprivation. Although daily stressors are common for parents, high levels of chronic stress can disrupt a parent’s ability to respond to their infant’s cues in a sensitive and timely manner. So parents have an enormous impact on the socioemotional and cognitive development of their infants, but need both time and resources to support this development.