My daughter was born three months early – at 27 weeks of gestation. She had to stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 109 days. We visited her in the NICU twice a day -- my husband went in the evenings after work, and I went before work every day. As a pediatrician, I was keenly aware of the importance of breastfeeding, reading, singing and talking to my daughter and holding her skin-to-skin. All of these things have immense developmental benefits for newborns, especially preterm infants, who are at higher risk of health problems. That was a scary time for our family, and as much as I wanted to spend all my time in the NICU, I couldn’t -- because I had to keep going to work every day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 12 weeks of paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child. This recommendation is based on the vast amount of evidence demonstrating the health benefits to mothers, fathers, and babies (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/FAMILYLeaveAct.aspx). However, even as a pediatrician, I was unable to take my own advice because I needed to work to pay off my loans.

That’s because the United States is one of the only developed nations in the world that does not guarantee paid family leave. As a result, millions of women who have their babies here must go right back to work. In fact, nearly 12% return to their jobs within a week of giving birth, and one in four return within just 10 days! Those shameful statistics mean families are suffering and babies miss critical moments with their parents.

Unfortunately, I was one of those mothers who returned to work a week after giving birth. It was excruciating to have to do so as my premature daughter fought for her life in the NICU.

That’s why I applaud Gov. Roy Cooper for Executive Order No. 95, which would extend paid parental leave to state employees in cabinet agencies. While this is a step in the right direction for the estimated 56,000 eligible state employees, millions more families do not have similar protections. They should.

Paid family leave legislation filed recently in our state legislature would protect parents' jobs so that they can be at home with a new baby at the most critical time. The bonus for employers is that they get to retain their most valuable assets: good employees. Paid family leave also boosts morale by showing employees that their employers value their work, and it supports their ability to be both a good employee and a good parent. H 696, the North Carolina Families First Act, would establish a public financing system for paid family leave insurance that every working person in the state could access after the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a family member who needs them.

Researchers at Duke University found that paid family leave insurance saves babies' lives by making it possible for parents to be at home with them when they're born (https://duke.app.box.com/s/9wti16byhdyyz6k99ri2yib3ttlprgl8). According to their research, a paid family leave insurance program in North Carolina could prevent 26 infant deaths every year. That would make a significant dent in our abysmal infant mortality rate, which is the 7th worst in the nation. It’s twice as high for African American babies. Duke researchers also found that paid family leave insurance can help keep older folks at home with family instead of in costly nursing homes – reducing the burden on taxpayers.

Access to paid leave has amazing benefits for families:

  • more parents can keep their jobs because they don’t have to choose between staying at home with a new baby, or having a job;
  • more moms can breastfeed, one of the most important factors in a young child’s healthy development;
  • more babies survive to their first birthdays; and
  • parents have time to find quality child care.

According to recent polling by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, 87 percent of voters support parental leave with pay after the birth or adoption of a child (https://buildthefoundation.org/2018-voter-poll-tookit/). Moms like me want legislators to adopt paid family leave. I do hope to have another child one day, but I am at higher risk for giving birth prematurely again. I cannot imagine being forced to return to work immediately again instead of being able to spend time with my baby in the NICU. We need to make paid leave available to all families in our state!

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Dr. Kimberly Montez is a pediatrician who practices in Winston-Salem.

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