Family-friendly policies matter because they help children to get a better start in life and help parents to find the right balance between their commitments at work and at home. Yet even some of the world’s richest countries fail to offer comprehensive solutions to all families. This report focuses on two key policies: childcare leave for parents and early childhood education and care for preschool children. It reviews these policies in the 41 high- and middle-income countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the European Union (EU), using the most recent comparable data on hand. The analysis includes national breastfeeding rates and policies as well as the quality of preschool education, where comparable indicators are available. It excludes other elements of family policy, such as child benefits or birth grants, to limit the scope of the report to issues that concern the work–family balance.
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FIGURE 1: League Table – Indicators of national family-friendly policies, 2016
Note: A light blue background indicates a place in the top third of the ranking, medium blue denotes the middle third, and dark blue the bottom third. All figures except paid leave reserved for fathers are rounded to the nearest whole number. The blank cells indicate that there are no comparable data available. Countries are ranked on each of the four indicators. Ranks are shown in brackets. Subsequently, the average of their four ranks (column on the far right) is used to calculate the final rank (column on the far left). Only 31 of the 41 countries are ranked because 10 lack comparable data.
There is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life. Parents hold the biggest stake in creating the nurturing environment their children need, and governments should give them the resources to do so.
Family-friendly policies – including paid parental leave, universal quality, affordable childcare from birth to the first grade of school and breastfeeding breaks – strengthen the bond between parents and their children, which is critical for the development of families and socially cohesive societies.
The report highlights that while Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offer the best family-friendly policies among 31 rich countries with available data. Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, United Kingdom and Ireland rank the lowest.
The report notes that in many countries, there’s a lack of paid parental leave, with only half of countries offering at least six months of leave at full pay equivalent for mothers. The United States is the only country included in the analysis with no national paid leave policy for mothers, or fathers.
The report also finds that there is a significant lack of paid paternity available to fathers. However, even when fathers are offered paid leave, many do not to take it. In Japan, the only country that offers at least six months at full pay for fathers, only 1 in 20 fathers took paid leave in 2017.
Universal access to quality, affordable childcare from birth to children’s entry into the first grade of school is critical for children’s development and for enabling parents to go to work – and thus helping them become more financially stable.
However, for some parents looking for childcare options, affordability is the biggest barrier. Data from 29 countries highlighted parents of young children in the United Kingdom were the most likely to cite cost as the reason why they do not use childcare centres more.
The report highlights strong disparity between maternity and paternity leave. Leave reserved for fathers makes up at least one third of all available paid leave in only four countries -- Iceland, Japan, Republic of Korea and Portugal. In Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain and Sweden the father’s share is more than a tenth of a total allocated time. In the remaining 19 countries with some paternal leave, the father’s share is less than 10 per cent of total time.
UNICEF is advocating for at least six months of leave for all parents; safe and comfortable public and work-based places for women to breastfeed; and universal access to quality, affordable childcare from birth to children’s entry into the first grade of school.
Childcare leave available to mothers
The amount of paid leave for mothers varies widely among the world’s richest countries. Estonia offers mothers the full-rate equivalent of 85 weeks in paid maternity and parental leave. (Actual job-protected leave is longer but some of it is paid at a much lower rate). Hungary offers the equivalent of 72 weeks. At the other end of the scale, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland offered less than 10 weeks in 2016.
Paid maternity leave, which typically starts just before childbirth, tends to be short, averaging 18 weeks across the OECD and 22 weeks across EU in 2016. In 14 of the 41 countries it is fully paid for an employee on average earnings, although the calculation varies across countries. Some countries pay 100 per cent of the mother’s previous earnings up to a cap. Some have no cap. Others have a flat rate.
Parental leave, which usually follows maternity leave, tends to be longer but more poorly paid. Even the countries with the longest full-rate equivalent job-protected leave do not offer women full salary replacement for the total duration of the leave.
Childcare leave reserved for fathers
Paternity leave, which begins at childbirth or soon after, is not as widely available as maternity leave. Of the 41 countries surveyed, 26 offer paid paternity leave compared with 40 that offer paid maternity leave. Paid paternity leave tends to be shorter than maternity leave (usually 1–2 weeks) but it is often paid at a higher rate. Sixteen of the 26 countries guarantee 100-per-cent salary replacement for an employee on average earnings. The number of countries offering leave for fathers rises when parental leave, which follows paternity leave, is included. Out of 41 countries, 32 reserve paid leave for fathers either through paternity leave or parental leave (see Figure 3). Yet in 14 of these countries, fathers are entitled to two weeks of paid leave or less.
Breastfeeding has substantial immediate and longer-term health benefits for children (Gartner et al. 2005). Yet it is difficult to find estimates that are up-to-date and accurate for all high-income countries.14 The available data suggest that high-income countries have comparatively low breastfeeding rates. The World Health Organization15 reports that between 2006 and 2012, only 25 per cent of infants in the European region were fed only on breast milk in their first six months. This is the lowest rate globally and compares unfavourably with 43 per cent in South-East Asia. More recent estimates by UNICEF16 show the rate of exclusive breastfeeding is above 50 per cent in South Asia and in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The rates of breastfeeding at six and 12 months uses data published in The Lancet in 2016 showing the proportion of infants who are breastfed (not necessarily exclusively) at six and 12 months for 20 countries in the OECD or EU (Victora et al. 2016). The light blue bars show the percentage of infants being breastfed at six months and the dark blue bars denote the percentage who are still being breastfed at 12 months. Norway had the highest rate at six months, but Japan had the highest at 12 months. The lowest rates were 13 per cent in Denmark at six months and 0.5 per cent in the United Kingdom at 12 months. Some of these data date back to 2003. Evidence from the US suggests that mothers tend to stop breastfeeding in the first year of the child’s life because they think that breastmilk no longer satisfies their infants (Li et al. 2008). There are sizeable differences within high-income countries, with better-educated mothers most likely to breastfeed their children.
The WHO guidelines (2017) on breastfeeding provide 12 evidence-based recommendations on protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding in facilities that provide maternity and newborn services. Yet, the guidelines do not discuss how to support breastfeeding in the community or workplace. Working is not necessarily incompatible with breastfeeding; however, new mothers need breastfeeding breaks, places to pump and store milk or quality childcare near their places of work (Heymann, Raub, and Earle 2013, 398). All but seven of the 41 EU/OECD countries – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Malta and the United Kingdom – guarantee breastfeeding breaks at work until the child is at least six months old, according to the World Policy Analysis Centre.
The majority of preschool children aged three and older attend education and care centres across the 31 European countries for which comparable statistics are available. This ranges from 51 per cent in Croatia to 99 per cent in Belgium and Iceland. In every country, children under the age of three are much less likely to attend such centres than their older peers. Less than one in 10 children under the age of three do so in the Czech Republic, Greece, Poland and Slovakia. Enrolment rates for children younger than three exceed 50 per cent in only six countries: Luxembourg and Sweden (51 per cent), Norway (52 per cent), Iceland (65 per cent) and Denmark (70 per cent).
Barriers to accessing early childhood education and care Parental preferences, cultural norms and the availability of family members to provide informal care account for some of the differences across countries in enrolment rates for children under the age of three. The availability and affordability of formal services are also important factors. In many countries, parents of children under the age of three say that the cost of childcare is the main reason for not making more use of childcare centres (see Figure 8). Affordability is a key barrier for 22 per cent of parents in the United Kingdom who say they have an ‘unmet need’ for childcare. Almost 18 per cent of parents with an unmet need in Spain agree, as do more than 10 per cent of parents in five other countries. In the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden, less than 1 per cent of parents say that affordability is an issue.
Quality of childcare Measuring the quality of childcare is challenging, especially in cross-country comparisons. The proportion of staff to children is one of the indicators most often used to compare formal childcare quality. Unfortunately, country coverage for this indicator is often limited. Some data are dated. Figure 9 shows the ratio of staff to children in pre-primary programmes for 19 OECD countries in 2015 (OECD 2018). The ratio ranges from five children per staff member in Iceland to 25 children per staff member in Mexico.
Family-friendly policies can help parents with their caring responsibilities, regardless of their work situation. Yet even the world’s richest countries fail to offer comprehensive solutions to all families. Some countries do better than others in guaranteeing paid job-protected leave to mothers and fathers and ensuring children have access to affordable care and preschool education. Others lag far behind.
This report reviewed family-friendly policies in 41 countries that are part of OECD or the EU using four country-level indicators: duration of paid leave available to mothers; duration of paid leave reserved specifically for fathers; the share of children below the age of three in childcare centres; and the share of children between the age of three and compulsory school age attending preschool or childcare centres.
Iceland, Norway and Sweden occupy the top three places in the league table of family-friendly policies. Cyprus, Greece and Switzerland take up the bottom three places among the 31 countries with data on all four indicators. No country ranks consistently high or low on all four indicators. This suggests that there is room for improvement, even among the more family-friendly countries.
Countries could improve their policies as follows:
Provide statutory, nationwide paid leave to both mothers and fathers, where it is lacking.
Remove barriers to the take-up of childcare leave, especially those faced by fathers.
Enable all children to access high-quality, age-appropriate, affordable and accessible childcare centres irrespective of their personal or family circumstances.
Fill the gap, where it exists, between the end of parental leave and the start of affordable and accessible childcare in centres so that children can continue their development without interruption.
Ensure that mothers can breastfeed both before and after they return to work by providing such things as guaranteed breastfeeding breaks, places to pump and store milk and quality childcare nearby.
Build the capacity of health professionals to provide breastfeeding support in hospitals and communities.
Collect more and better data on all aspects of family-friendly policies so that programmes can be monitored, policies compared, and countries held accountable.
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