Maternity leave reduces neonatal and infant mortality rates in high-income countries. However, the impact of maternity leave on infant health has not been rigorously evaluated in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In this study, we utilized a difference-in-differences approach to evaluate whether paid maternity leave policies affect infant mortality in LMICs.
We used birth history data collected via the Demographic and Health Surveys to assemble a panel of approximately 300,000 live births in 20 countries from 2000 to 2008; these observational data were merged with longitudinal information on the duration of paid maternity leave provided by each country. We estimated the effect of an increase in maternity leave in the prior year on the probability of infant (<1 y), neonatal (<28 d), and post-neonatal (between 28 d and 1 y after birth) mortality. Fixed effects for country and year were included to control for, respectively, unobserved time-invariant confounders that varied across countries and temporal trends in mortality that were shared across countries. Average rates of infant, neonatal, and post-neonatal mortality over the study period were 55.2, 30.7, and 23.0 per 1,000 live births, respectively. Each additional month of paid maternity was associated with 7.9 fewer infant deaths per 1,000 live births (95% CI 3.7, 12.0), reflecting a 13% relative reduction. Reductions in infant mortality associated with increases in the duration of paid maternity leave were concentrated in the post-neonatal period. Estimates were robust to adjustment for individual, household, and country-level characteristics, although there may be residual confounding by unmeasured time-varying confounders, such as coincident policy changes.
More generous paid maternity leave policies represent a potential instrument for facilitating early-life interventions and reducing infant mortality in LMICs and warrant further discussion in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. From a policy planning perspective, further work is needed to elucidate the mechanisms that explain the benefits of paid maternity leave for infant mortality.