What to Know About Maternity Leave for Nurses

Charmaine Robinson, MSN-Ed, RN
Updated June 13, 2023
    Explore paid and unpaid maternity leave programs available to nurses. Discover ways to prepare for your upcoming leave.
    Mother holding newborn baby in nurseryCredit: Getty Images
    • Nurses may be eligible for paid or unpaid maternity or parental leave through federal, state, and employer programs.
    • Less than half of nurses who return to work after maternity leave report having support for childcare and household duties.
    • Nurses can best prepare for maternity leave by learning about available programs and anticipating their needs when returning to work.

    Are you a working nurse and currently pregnant, or plan to be soon? Discover ways to prepare for maternity or parental leave by exploring the benefits available to you.

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    Understanding the Federal and State Laws for Parental Leave

    Parents who recently had a baby (or fostered/adopted a new child) may be eligible for unpaid leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Some states may offer paid leave. You can prepare for parental leave by familiarizing yourself with these programs.

    Federal Law for Parental Leave

    Under the FMLA, eligible employees can take time off from work for various medical reasons (including childbirth) without losing job security or employee benefits. Parents may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to bond with their new baby.

    Eligible parents must have worked for an employer (with over 50 employees) for at least one year and accumulated at least 1,250 working hours during that time.

    Federal employees are eligible for paid parental leave under the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA). However, there is no federally-mandated paid leave program for non-federal employees.

    State Laws for Parental Leave

    Many states offer paid and unpaid parental leave programs to qualifying residents. Eligibility requirements and program benefits vary by state and include employee income, job longevity, payout, job security, and amount of weeks off.

    States that offer paid parental leave:

    • California
    • Colorado
    • Connecticut
    • Delaware
    • Massachusetts
    • Maryland
    • New Jersey
    • New York
    • Oregan
    • Rhode Island
    • Washington
    • Washington, D.C.

    While the FMLA requires employees to have worked for an employer for at least a year, some states do not have this requirement. The payout amount may differ by state and depend on your income.

    Job security is another factor. For many states, paid leave does not guarantee that you will keep your job or health insurance. However, these benefits may be protected under the FMLA.

    The length of time off can vary by state. You may be eligible for paid leave in your home state for a specified number of weeks. You may be able to extend this time (although unpaid) using FMLA.

    How Long is Maternity Leave for Nurses?

    Eligible nurses are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity or parental leave through the FMLA, no matter their state. For paid leave, the length of time off depends on your state of residence. Most states with paid leave programs offer 6-12 weeks off.

    If you do not qualify for FMLA or state paid leave, you may still be eligible for unpaid leave through your state or employer.

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    How to Prepare for Parental Leave as a Nurse

    Balancing the roles of parent and working nurse can be challenging. The same can be said of working dads. Parental leave is a way to achieve a better work-life balance. Here are four ways to prepare.

    Know your employer’s parental leave policy

    Many nurses may be eligible for paid leave through their employers. Understanding your employer’s parental leave policy is the best way to prepare for the time off.

    Arrange a meeting with a representative from your employer’s human resources department to learn what you are eligible for. Discuss what parental benefits are paid or unpaid, how much you will be paid if so, how long you can take time off, and how the leave will affect your job security or benefits.

    Prepare your coworkers for your leave

    When you take leave, your absence may change the flow of care or team dynamics. Although coworkers may already support you as you manage working while pregnant, letting them know when you plan to leave may lead to a more trusting relationship.

    A 2022 Nursing Open study shows that many nurses in Ghana who return to work after having a baby spend time making calls to check on their baby and other home affairs.

    Your coworkers may be more understanding and willing to cover your patients while you make these calls or take breast pump breaks (if you decide to breastfeed).

    Discuss your return plan with your managers

    The study also indicates that many nurses who returned to work after parental leave had some degree of poor work performance due to the demands of parenthood at home. Sharing your return plan with managers may alleviate any uncertainty and help them better prepare for your return.

    Consider discussing whether you want to return to work full-time vs. part-time. You can also address whether you will work day or night shifts or change the days of the week you normally work.

    Develop a support system when you return to work

    Less than half of nurses returning to work reported having childcare support, according to the Nursing Open study. Although you can adjust your work schedule to allow for more time at home, there may be days when you need help with childcare.

    While family and friends can be great babysitters, you can also reach out to other nurses for support. Consider sharing babysitters with nurses at your job who have recently given birth. Having a backup plan for childcare can lead to more job security as you can avoid frequent call offs at work.

    Parental leave should be a time for bonding with your new baby. Preparing early for your leave can help you limit stress during this time, gain support at work and home, and ultimately maintain a better work-life balance.