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Health & Wellness

The problem with parental leave in the US and how other policies compare

Amber Scorah was a new mom and money was tight, and she felt guilty about having to send her newborn to daycare three months after welcoming him into the world.

So, when she received the news that baby Karl had passed away just hours into the first day, Scorah, who was devastated, began advocating for paid parental leave.

Related: Mom whose baby died in child care turns heartbreak into a crusade

We’ve all heard the stories about paid maternal leave in other countries that seem too good to be true. Take Finland: New moms in that country can spend 17.5 weeks at home with baby and still receive 78.4 percent of their total income.

The Finnish government also gives parents a new baby package, which includes: a box that most babies sleep in; a mattress with mattress cover; bedding; blanket; sleeping bag; snowsuit; hat and a wide array of infant clothing and accessories, including diaper cream, nail clippers and bath thermometer.

Finland may be unique in its benefits to new parents, but generous maternal leave programs are typical in many countries.

When moms around the world return to work, many qualify for free, or low-cost, childcare. It’s enough to make any U.S. mom green with envy. In fact, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation whose government does not support paid parental leave.

RELATED: Two weeks after baby? More new moms cut maternity leave short

Major, profitable corporations are offering more generous family leave programs — fully paid leave for a year, free breast milk deliveries or no travel in the first year after baby's birth — but it's a very different story for the majority of new parents in the U.S. In that way, Mayer's few weeks off after giving birth are more typical of the average working American parent than other high-level professionals.

Only 13 percent of people in the U.S. have access to paid family leave, according to parental leave advocacy group MomsRising. And of new moms who work, 33 percent take no formal time off at all, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

[Click on the map below to compare searches in different countries]

The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act protects a parent’s job for up to 12 weeks, but does not mandate pay.

The only other country with such a meager level of maternal support?

Papua, New Guinea.

RELATED: Savannah's new mom confessions: What maternity leave was really like

The U.S. lag in paid parental leave persists, despite "an overwhelming amount of research" establishing the health benefits of parental leave for both babies and parents.

“The ability to bond and nurse has positive effects. In terms of the business side of it, just being able to retain your employees and giving them that benefit gives them [a boost] in job satisfaction,” says Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, a New York-based nonprofit working toward equality for working families.

There's no doubt parents around the world are interested in family leave programs. In a collaborative research effort with the Google News Lab, TODAY has found how frequently people are searching for the policies.

Good maternal leave policies aren't just a perk — they allow mothers enough time with the child, making breast-feeding much easier, says Katherine Gilchrist, a legal officer at the International Labour Organization, an international nonprofit that promotes workers’ rights internationally.

The ideal parental leave?

The ILO recommends a minimum of 14 weeks when a mother makes at least two-thirds of her income, but the organization thinks 18 weeks is ideal and supports up to 26.

While not every country in the world offers a high standard of maternity leave, many do, according to the ILO, including:

  • Poland, Vietnam, and Venezuela offer 26-weeks of paid maternity leave to women at 100 percent of their income.
  • Cuba offers 18 weeks of paid leave at 100 percent of a woman’s income.
  • Norway offers 35 weeks of maternity leave with 100 percent of a woman’s wage. If a mom opts to stay home for 45 weeks, she receives 80 percent of her wage. New moms also quality for child benefit payments, an infusion of cash to offset the cost of parenting.
  • Croatian mothers can stay home with baby for 30 weeks, while receiving 100 percent of their total income.
  • While Estonian mothers enjoy 20 weeks with their new babies and moms in Chile and Lithuania spend 18 with their children, mothers in each country receive an average pay of 100 percent of their total income.
  • Moms in the UK receive about 39 weeks of maternal leave, but the pay only amounts to about 30.9 percent of their total income. They get loads of other perks, though, including free prescriptions, dental care, child benefit payments and cash from the government to offset the cost of parenting.
  • While Sweden offers mothers 8.6 weeks of maternity leave where they make 77.6 percent of their total income, the country also offers public full-day childcare. All families with children between ages 3 and 6 up qualify for free preschool 15 hours a week. The remaining fees can be up to 3 percent of parental income but no more than 146 euros a month, which is determined on a sliding scale.

Sweden isn’t alone — many countries also offer subsidized or free childcare along with nursing facilities where mothers can breastfeed their children after returning to work.

It might seem as if such generous benefits would be burdensome on businesses or governments, but that’s not the case.

“Countries with adequate maternity protection fund maternity protection through social insurance funding, and occasional through state-funded leave, but never through employer liability,” Gilchrist said in an email to TODAY.com. “[Fifty-eight] per cent of the countries in the world fund through social security, while only 25 percent make employers pay solely (all employer liability countries are developing economies).”

Dads deserve time off, too

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Some countries even include paternity leave, allowing dads paid time off to spend with their children.

  • Fathers in Korea receive 52.6 weeks paid paternity leave and they make on average 31 percent of their income.
  • Papas in Japan can spend 52 weeks at home with a new baby and they make on average 58.4 of their income.
  • Dads in France enjoy 28 weeks of paid time at home with their babies and they make on average 24.2 percent of their income.
  • Norwegian fathers receive 14 weeks of paid paternity leave and they make on average 90.8 percent of their income.

Leiwant says the good news is the U.S. has the infrastructure in place to fund maternity leave. It would be akin to how workers pay into Social Security.

E Dygas / Photodisc via Getty Images
Young pregnant woman sitting at desk looking at document, side view

“I think we know how to do it,” she says. “It is an insurance program and workers pay for it and it would be really easy to do.”

Three states, California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island already have paid maternal leave; the first two for six weeks, the last for four. The amount of money workers pay weekly into the insurance program is minuscule, says Leiwant. The plan proposed in New York, for example, requires about a 45-cent contribution from employees weekly.

And, the polls indicate more people in the United States support paid maternal leave.

“I think [opinions are] changing, especially in the last year, to the idea that we really can’t stand alone as a developed country,” Leiwant says.

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