The first few weeks after a baby is born are as chaotic as they are precious. But for many families, the worries about job security and financial stability overshadow those early days.

While standard maternity leaves in the United States might range from six to 12 weeks, they are often unpaid, and for many parents – far shorter.

Let’s take a look at how parental leave in the U.S. lines up with the lives of parents and newborns.

There are, of course, other ways for children to join families, such as adoption or fostering. This timeline takes a look at a typical recovery from pregnancy and birth, and the development of newborns. But parental leave is essential whenever a new child enters a home.

Week One

Baby

Breastfed babies are typically nursing at least 10 to 12 times a day, often more. Parents are often instructed to wake a baby up to nurse every two to four hours at night, though many wake on their own more often.

Mom

In the first few days postpartum, most women experience contractions, muscle soreness, vaginal soreness, and bleeding (lochia). As milk comes in, breasts may be painfully engorged. For women who delivered via C-section, a hospital stay may be four days or longer. Bonding, rest and recovery are a top priority for mothers.

Leave

One survey of employees who had taken leave found that one in ten women took a week off or less after birth. Women who have premature infants requiring time in a neonatal intensive care unit might return to work in order to save their maternity leave for when the baby comes home from the hospital.

Additionally, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees some workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, does not cover about half of all employees. Those in new jobs, part-time jobs, or in small companies often do not qualify.

One in six fathers do not take any time off, and three in four will be back at work by the end of the first week.
maternity leave timeline week one


Week Two

Baby

Baby likely has already had his or her first doctor appointment to make sure the little one is gaining weight. Many newborns lose up to five to 10 percent of their birth weight in the early days, despite eating eight to 12 times per day.

Mom

Most women are still experiencing bleeding and soreness at this point. Breastfeeding mothers might also be experiencing painful, sore nipples. Women who have had C-section are typically instructed not to drive yet, lift anything heavier than a baby, or walk upstairs. Most mothers experience the “baby blues” during these first couple weeks.

Leave

A shocking one-quarter of women are already back at work.

maternity leave timeline _2


Weeks Three – Four

Baby

At this point, babies may turn towards familiar sounds and voices, such as their parent’s. While newborns sleep for 15 to 16 hours a day, naps are rarely organized into long stretches.

Mom

While the uterus has returned to its normal size and lochia has slowed or stopped by this point, other problems may linger. Abdominal muscles are still stretched and can cause back pain. Women report dealing with excessive sweating, exhaustion, and mastitis. Postpartum depression may also occur at this stage.

Leave

Even just a one week increase in maternity leave has been associated with a five to six percent reduction in depressive symptoms six to 24 months after birth.

maternity leave timeline 3

Week Six

Baby

One in five babies experience colic, which hits its peak around week six. First smiles might be coming soon, although they and all other milestones may be delayed if a baby was born prematurely.

Mom

Many women still experience urinary incontinence, or difficulty urinating. Typically women at this point have their first (and last) postpartum appointment. Women who plan on breastfeeding after they return to work may be squeezing in extra pumping sessions between frequent feedings to build a milk supply.

Leave

About half of women without college degrees are back at work, compared to 20 percent of those with them. Women who take less than eight weeks paid leave are more likely to be depressed than those who are able to take longer leaves.

maternity leave timeline 4


Month Two

Baby

At two months, baby returns to the doctor for a first round of vaccinations. Many daycares will not accept children before they are fully vaccinated.

MOM

It can take up to eight weeks to fully establish a breastfeeding relationship and adequate milk supply.

Leave

Forty percent of women who worked during their pregnancy and gave birth to their first child are back at work before the start of their baby’s third month. Another 20 percent have left the workforce.

maternity leave timeline two months


Month Three

Baby

Baby starts to stay awake for longer stretches and engages with caregivers. The risk of SIDS, however, peaks between two and three months.

Mom

Many mothers call the first three months the “fourth trimester” because the demands of caring for a newborn are still so physically intense. Having gone several months without a full night of sleep, fatigue is still common at this point.

Leave

For workers able to take advantage of FMLA, 12 weeks of unpaid leave are now coming to an end. But mothers who take at least 13 weeks of maternity leave are most likely to still be breastfeeding past six months.

maternity leave timeline month 3


Month Four – Six

Baby

By now, most babies should have doubled their birth weight.  After six months, babies can begin eating solid foods in addition to breast milk or formula. The risk of SIDS drops dramatically as the baby’s brain matures.

Mom

Changes are much more minor in your body, but your body is still adjusting back to its pre-pregnancy state until about six months after delivery.  Many women might still have problems with incontinence.

Leave

Most moms have been back to work for a while now, and breastfeeding mothers are figuring out how to squeeze in pumping sessions at the office. At six months, only 10 percent of moms who work full time are breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life due to the numerous nutritional benefits.

maternity leave timeline month 6

It’s clear that the timeline for infant care and development, postpartum recovery, and maternity leave are out of sync. In the United States today, new mothers are expected to go weeks without pay and return to work before they and their babies are physically ready.

Lawmakers who wish to strengthen families should pursue policies that ensure all parents can take paid leave time to care for their new babies.