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Op-Ed: Paid Family Leave Helps Babies, Not Just Their Parents

With members of a state Senate committee expected to vote Monday on a bill to expand family leave in New Jersey, the benefits should be clear

Cecilia Zalkind
Cecilia Zalkind

Paid family leave for working parents is usually viewed as a benefit for employees. But family leave is just as important for children. During the crucial first weeks of life, children need time to build strong bonds with their most important caregivers: their parents.

A bill (S-2528), co-sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, strengthens New Jersey’s family-leave law so that more parents have the chance to build those solid foundations.

Last year, Advocates for Children of New Jersey launched its Right from the Start NJ campaign to call attention to the importance of the early years, from birth to age three, and to urge policymakers to invest in this critically important time for child development. What happens — or doesn’t happen — in the early years can have lifelong consequences.

The ‘fourth trimester’

Modern brain science has shown that the first few weeks, known as the “fourth trimester,” are among the most critical in a child’s life. Every day, a newborn’s brain grows tens of thousands of brain connections called synapses. During this time of intense brain growth, a baby is learning how to relate to other people, how to begin exploring the world, and how to feel safe and loved. Those experiences form the model for a child’s relationships later in life.

Beyond the benefits of forming strong attachments, the availability of paid leave for both parents is associated with improved outcomes, including lower rates of infant mortality and postpartum depression and higher rates of breastfeeding, vaccination, doctor’s check-ups and father participation in caretaking.

New Jersey is one of the few states that offers paid family leave, but it only goes so far. It allows for only six weeks of leave paid at two-thirds of normal salary. And under the current law, more than 1 million workers at businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not protected from firing or demotion for taking time off to care for their children.

This is only a first step

These factors make paid leave out of reach for many families, with New Jersey workers using leave less frequently than workers in other states with paid family leave. Almost 57,000 New Jersey infants had a working mother in 2016, but only 27,000 claims were filed for time to bond with a baby for fathers and mothers combined.

The state has the chance to build on its existing program with S-2528. The proposed law provides 12 weeks of leave and expands job protection to employees at businesses with 30 or more employees. Although this is a great first step, job protection for all families is still needed. Babies deserve this critical time with their parents, whether an employer has 15 employees or 15,000.

New Jersey needs a comprehensive agenda to give its infants and toddlers an equal shot at lifelong success. That agenda must begin by giving newborn babies what they need most — the presence of a loving parent.

Cecilia Zalkind is president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a statewide nonprofit focused on giving every child the chance to grow up safe, healthy and educated.

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