The first few weeks of motherhood are among of the most rewarding, as well as demanding, times in a woman's life.
New research suggests that in some cases a six-week period granted for maternity leave, which has become the standard in many U.S. companies, may be too short. A recent study of working mothers for the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit research organization in Cambridge, Mass., suggests that a longer maternity leave period may improve some women's mental and physical health.
Diana Dell, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and OB/GYN at Duke University Medical Center, says this won't come as a surprise to most moms.
"The suggestion that six weeks is too short is very common," says Dell. "Many women, as they approach the time that they're supposed to go back to work, really are not ready to leave their children."
It's important to distinguish between postpartum "blues," a common physiological process that affects 70 to 80 percent of women across cultures, says Dell, and postpartum depression, which affects between 10 and 15 percent of women in the first period after delivery of their child.
"If you look at the data over a one-year period after delivery, about 20 percent of women will have had a major depressive episode," explains Dell, adding that the rate for adolescent women is about 25 percent. She notes that longer maternity leaves help mothers who experience postpartum blues, but don't provide the same benefit to women who are clinically depressed.
Dell says a one-size-fits-all policy may not meet some women's needs.
"It depends on the temperament of the baby, how much assistance a mom has, how well she tolerates sleep deprivation," she says. "The way we set up maternity leave in this country doesn't allow for the flexibility that some women need. There are some women who at six weeks say, 'I'm ready to go back.' And there are people who say, 'I'm not ready. I need some more time.'"
Dell says maternity leaves in the U.S. are typically shorter than those in other developed countries. "It's more common in many other countries for people to recognize that this bonding time between mom and baby is really important, and to recognize that there are physiological and mental changes taking place during this time," she says. "There's also an adaptation to a life change, especially if it's your first child, that's occurring during this period that's critically important."
The issue is a complex one, she acknowledges, as companies try to craft personnel policies that will improve their employees' physical and mental health. Dell suggests that employers may want to consider introducing more flexibility into their leave policies, since individual women will have different needs. "Certainly it's not true that all women need more time," she says. "For many women, going back to work earlier actually improves their postpartum depressive symptoms. What's needed is more flexibility in maternity leave policies."