PARENTAL LEAVE: Longer maternity leave increases children’s socio-emotional skills and wellbeing

When mothers are allowed to have longer maternity leave, the children benefit significantly later in life in several ways, including feeling less lonely and being better able to concentrate in school.

At age 14, the children are more likely to possess skills that are relevant for succeeding educationally and on the job market. In addition, they feel happier. 

These are the conclusions of new research by Miriam Gensowski, Mikkel Aagaard Houmark, Cecilie Marie Løchte Jørgensen and Ida Lykke Kristiansen, to be presented at the annual congress of the European Economic Association, taking place virtually this year, in August 2020.

The authors examine the effects of a policy change in Denmark that granted additional parental leave to Danish mothers who gave birth after the 1 January 2002. The average length of maternity leave went up from almost 8.5 months to almost 10 months.

Some children – those born after the New Year – therefore stayed at home with their mothers for a longer time before entering the daycare system compared with the children born in November and December 2001.

The researchers combine population-wide register data with annual wellbeing questionnaires given to all Danish school children. This reveals that, more than ten years later, the children who enjoyed longer maternity leave are not only happier (4.4% per extra month of leave), but also have higher conscientiousness (3.2%) and lower neuroticism (2.9%). 

The latter two are so-called ‘socio-emotional skills’. The more conscientious children report being better able to complete what they commit themselves to, and better able to concentrate in school. The less neurotic children feel less lonely, safer and more accepted by their classmates. 

This has implications reaching beyond the wellbeing of these children. As established by research by James Heckman and colleagues, such socio-emotional skills are just as important as cognitive ability when it comes to succeeding in adulthood. Moreover, the early years of life tend to be particularly important in the formation of such skills.

Longer maternity leave thus appears to be one beneficial early life investment. The findings also show the importance of looking beyond classical cognitive outcomes such as test scores or grades, which receive the most attention in educational policy and research. While some factors of the environment are crucial for cognitive development, other factors might be of equal personal and social importance but only show up if one considers a broader set of the children’s abilities. 

Denmark already had a comparatively generous parental leave scheme before the reform in 2002. That extending the length of leave beyond eight months has positive effects is striking, as parents in many other countries are entitled to leave benefits for a much shorter time.


Contact: Mikkel Aagaard Houmark, PhD student at Aarhus University