A package of measures to enhance parental leave provisions takes effect today (1st April 2015). The changes will benefit many more families financially but favour parents as workers and not as the carers, nurturers and teachers of their babies.
It is well-documented in research that the provision of adequate parental leave helps to retain skilled people in the workforce, reducing the cost of recruiting and training new staff, and supporting business growth.
ChildForum's Dr Alexander says that to achieve its desired goal of getting children a better start in life, the Government should also be looking at how to address gaps between parental leave provisions and education policy that targets early and longer participation by children in non-parental childcare.
Paid parental leave has been extended from 14 to 16 weeks (and to 18 weeks on 1st April 2016), giving parents the option to stay at home for a little longer before returning to work.
More parents are likely to qualify for paid parental – in particular those who have recently changed jobs, seasonal and casual workers, workers with more than one employer, and Home for Life parents with permanent care arrangements including grandparents caring for grandchildren.
Parental leave is more flexible with people now allowed to work an occasional day or attend a course during their leave period.
The parental tax credit has risen from $150 to $220 a week and now extends to 10 weeks.
However, the improvements to parental leave provisions are not likely to flow through to improved well-being for infants and make a significant difference to the growing proportion of infants in childcare, Dr Alexander says.
In 2013 43% of all 1 year-olds and 15% of children younger than 12 months were enrolled in licensed early childhood education or childcare.
“Early childhood services can require parents to start their infant when a place becomes vacant, not when the parent’s paid leave ends. The two-week increase in paid leave may not affect childcare decisions for families with infants, because these decisions are often driven by what care is available and accessible to families,” Dr Alexander says.
Dr Alexander confirms that for some infants, childcare may be the best option and many parents and babies can benefit from a little time apart where the baby is well cared for in an early childhood facility. However, she says that there is a growing amount of worrying anecdotal evidence from early childhood staff that they are seeing a loss of confidence in parenting and in parents’ understanding their crucial role in teaching their child as they rely more and more on the early childhood service for help in child-rearing.
“Children need parents to have time to parent. Spending quality time with your infant does not make up for having little time when it comes to getting to know each other, learning how to care, and bonding.”
A second discrepancy between parental leave provisions and employment with childcare policy is in the area of support for breastfeeding.
Dr Alexander says that babies in group childcare suffer from a much higher rate of illness and so breastfeeding until at least 6 months of age is all the more important to protect the health of infants attending childcare. But the period of paid parental leave is 16 weeks and parents may choose or may have to use up some of that leave before the birth date.
Currently, workers are permitted breastfeeding breaks in the workplace if they are breastfeeding. However, most licensed early childhood services do not operate from workplaces to allow infants to be cared for onsite. It is not a legal requirement for early childhood services to have a breastfeeding policy and provide facilities for breastfeeding support.
Data on breastfeeding rates from Plunket shows that 14% of infants aged 6 weeks were on artificial milk formula and did not receive breastmilk. This jumped to 25% by the age of 3 months, and 35% at 6 months. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding/breast milk for the first 6 months and longer if possible.
While Dr Alexander praises the new parental leave measures, she also suggests that discussions and policy development work continue around how best to support parents with new babies.
Further options for consideration could include:
- The Government making childcare funding payments to ECE services available to parents when the infant is cared for within the family, giving parents a real choice to stay at home or to use childcare for the first year.
- Re-writing education regulations to make it clear that ‘baby barns’ – the colloquial term for childcare services with licences to have up to 75 babies or 150 children including babies - are not acceptable unless the babies are cared for in groups of no more than 8 with two teachers (this group size is optimal for infant health and developmental outcomes).
- Creating greater flexibility with paid parental leave by allowing parents to spread their paid leave out over 12 months instead of it being continuous.
- Supporting paid parental leave to be shared simultaneously between two parents/caregivers - currently there is provision for transfer of leave from the primary caregiver to the partner. Half/half paid leave arrangements or similar between parents could be made a clear option.
- Changing the primary entitlement for paid parental leave from resting only with the mother, to both the mother and father. Current paid parental leave provisions make it difficult for men in particular – who may not know until after the baby arrives how much their baby benefits from them being involved in care and then want to be involved more.