How Long Should Your Maternity Leave Be?

Plan ahead and get clear on how much maternity leave you could take.

How Long Should Your Maternity Leave Be?
••• Yuri_Arcurs / Getty Images

At the end of your pregnancy, the burning question on everyone's mind is, "I wonder when she'll be back from maternity leave." So how much maternity leave should you or can you take? The answer isn't simple and there are many factors to consider before answering this important question.

Know Your Rights

Putting all of the unknown aside let's look at the facts. Here in the U.S., you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Unfortunately, this is all we get as the U.S. is one of three nations in the world who does not offer paid leave but hopefully, that's changing with the proposed FAMILY act in Congress at the moment.  

There is a huge push for paid leave. Although our nation doesn't provide it many companies, states, and even towns are taking matters into their own hands. This is great but unless you work for one of these great companies or live in a state or town paving the way to support working mom you are responsible for deciding how much maternity leave you will take. 

It's illegal for employers to fire a woman because they become pregnant or take maternity leave. But, companies can let you go if it's part of an overall reduction in workforce or for a cause. If you suspect pregnancy discrimination, consult a lawyer or the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Work with your HR department

Contact your HR department for the latest employee handbook or policies and procedures to see how much (if any) paid maternity leave you could receive. Your employer or HR department may provide a maternity leave form that you can fill in or they may even submit the paperwork for you.

Ask Other Working Moms About Their Maternity Leave

Ask them how their maternity leave went. How much time worked for them? If there anything they would have done differently? Also, find out how they stayed connected to work during their leave.

Check Your Budget

Crunch the numbers to see how much unpaid leave you could afford. Make sure to understand how the length of your leave might affect your employer-provided health insurance, if relevant.

See If Your Spouse or Family Members Help

Discuss leave plans with your spouse or family. If another adult could take leave after your leave ends this would save money on child care expenses and extend your baby's time being cared for by a family member.

The Longer You Are Out The Less Sleep-Deprived You May Be

For many new moms, they require six weeks to fully recover from the physical effects of giving birth. It may take another two to three months before getting a 4-hour stretch of sleep at night. Some babies will sleep for five or six at a time when they're four months old but some don't do so until eight months or later.

Because of this and depending on your job, it may be dangerous to return to work too soon. If you know you need a good night sleep to perform well at work you may want to consider taking a longer maternity leave.

It's Easier to Cut Back Than It Is To Extend Your Leave

You may want to overestimate how much leave you want, in case you end up needing more than you think. Giving birth can be unpredictable. You don't know what your health or the baby's health will be like immediately after delivery. If your newborn ends up in intensive care unit, the last thing you want to be thinking about is calling your boss to request more leave.

There's No Easy Answer 

This question is complicated to answer for a number of reasons.  Be sure to give this question a lot of time to consider. It's easy to say you'll be back as soon as you can because you haven't met your baby yet. Once you hold him or her, nothing else may matter. So give yourself plenty of wiggle room, aka time, to make the best decision for you and your family. Remember, you always have a choice. 

Edited by Elizabeth McGrory