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by Michelle Hughes

Bringing a new child into the family is an incredibly exciting time. Whether it’s the birth of a newborn, an adoptive or foster child, the joy is hard to describe. The stress is also hard to describe. Huge new expenses, juggling work, child care, and new responsibilities can turn family life upside down. Decades of research show us what a critical time those first weeks are for establishing healthy new behaviors, and preventing the stressful conditions that can contribute to abuse and neglect.

Many employers offer paid leave, because it helps them retain good employees and avoid the costs of employee turnover. Today Governor Cooper announced an Executive Order guaranteeing paid parental leave to all state employees under his purview. Here are three key reasons why NC Child supports this important step:

1. Paid family leave can save lives.

Paid leave has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of infants who die in the first weeks of life. North Carolina is among the nation’s top ten states for infant mortality – a gruesome distinction that we are working hard to reverse. Recent research from Duke University found that a statewide policy on paid family leave could prevent as many as 26 infant deaths per year in North Carolina.

Furthermore, the most common complication of childbirth is post-partum depression. Paid leave provides new mothers with time to recognize and get help for this mental health challenge. Paid leave also removes a significant amount of stress on new parents. Depression is a serious, and very common side-effect of childbirth, and can put both the baby’s health and the mother’s life at risk.

2. The new executive order will save the State Health Plan money.

In addition to better access to preventive mental health care, as described above, paid parental leave has also been shown to significantly increase the number of women who are able to breastfeed their infants. Paid leave also lengthens the time that infants are breastfed. The benefits of breastfeeding to children’s health are hard to overstate: reduced allergies and asthma, better oral health, and a strong dose of the mother’s immunity to a wide range of illnesses. Breastfeeding provides a very strong foundation for children’s health and development that will translate into lower costs to the State Health Plan that covers them.

3. Finally, paid parental leave will make families stronger.

Parents need time to bond with their new baby, to find good child care, and to establish healthy habits that support children’s development. Families need the opportunity to navigate a huge number of new responsibilities, and costs. Paid leave provides families with the time to find their footing after the birth or adoption of a child, or when bringing a foster child into their lives. When families don’t have to scramble to get back to work to keep the rent paid, they are able to take the time to settle into life with a new family member. Those first weeks are critical for preventing some of the most common stressors that contribute to abuse and neglect. Kudos to the Governor for recognizing the preventive value of this family-friendly policy.

NC Child supports the Governor’s executive order, because it will strengthen the families of so many state employees under his purview. However, we believe that this essential benefit should be available to all state employees who work in offices under the elected Council of State members as well, which includes Agriculture, Public Instruction, Labor, Insurance, and others. Private employers in North Carolina should follow suit.

Michelle Hughes is NC Child’s Executive Director

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