How to Figure Out How Much Maternity Leave to Take

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

How much maternity leave to take
Liz McGrory

It's the big question on everyone's mind when someone is about to leave on maternity leave.

"When are you coming back?" asks ever co-worker, client, customer, and any other professional you work with.

So how much maternity leave should you take?

Great question and a bit complicated to answer for a number of reasons.  First, only that little guy or gal growing in your belly knows when they will be born.

 Second, once that bundle of joy arrives you will want to spend time getting to know him or her. Third, who knows how your body will react during and after childbirth.  You need to factor in some recuperation time. And fourth, you don't know if your baby will need extra care due to any unforeseen complications (but we'll focus on the positive for the rest of the article, promise).

Putting all of the unknown aside let's look at the facts.  Here in the U.S. you are (sadly) entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  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 and 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.

 Here are some guidelines to help guide you. 

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 will 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.

Connect with other working moms in your company

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 monthly household budget

Crunch your budget to see how much leave you can afford to take unpiad. Make sure to understand how the length of your leave might affect your employer-provided health insurance, if relevant.

Connect with your spouse and family

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

The longer maternity leave you take, the less sleep-deprived you will be upon return

Depending on your job, it may even be dangerous to return to work too soon.

Many new moms require 6 weeks to fully recover from the physical effects of giving birth. It may take another two to three months before you get 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.

It's easier to cut your maternity leave short than extend it

You may want to overestimate how much leave you want, in case you end up needing more than you think.

Remember that 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.

Know your rights

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.

Edited by Elizabeth McGrory