02:04 - Source: CNN
The US ranks last on this important issue (2015)

Story highlights

Majority of studies on paid leave show health benefits for parent and child

Research: Lower risk of infant mortality and higher rate of vaccinations with paid leave

Health benefits extend to mothers, too, with decreases in depression

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

CNN —  

From the paid parental leave one-upmanship by Silicon Valley companies to Democratic presidential candidates calling for guaranteed paid leave to Republicans arguing mandated paid leave could drive small businesses out of business, the issue is getting more attention in the United States. Currently, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee paid parental leave.

But what are the health benefits of paid parental leave on children, mothers and fathers? Are there real, tangible benefits, especially in the case of infants, of having a parent at home while their job is protected and their pay continues?

To answer that question, CNN reviewed more than 20 studies on the health impacts of parental leave on parent and child and talked to a handful of researchers. What we found is that most studies come to the same conclusion: Paid parental leave can have a significant positive effect on the health of children and mothers.

Related: Is Paul Ryan the new poster child for the work-life debate?

“Having paid leave makes economic and health sense,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which released a report in 2014 summarizing the research on paid leave. “I think our report, in a way, supports a cost-benefit analysis of paid leave to say there are a lot of benefits.”

Paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality by as much as 10%, according to a 2011 study of 141 countries with paid leave policies. It also increases the likelihood of infants getting well-baby care visits and vaccinations, with one study finding that children were 25.3% and 22.2% more likely to get their measles and polio vaccines, respectively, when their mother had access to paid maternity leave. Without paid leave, there was no increase in immunizations.

Paid parental leave can also increase the rate and duration of breast-feeding. A 2011 study in California found that women who had paid leave breast-fed twice as long as women who did not take leave. Babies who are breast-fed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are less likely to get a variety of infections and are also at lower risk for asthma, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome. There are benefits to mothers, too, as women who breast-feed are less likely to get breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the CDC.

Long-term benefits of paid leave?

There can be mental health effects, as well, of having job-protected, paid leave after the birth of a child. In one study, women who took longer than 12 weeks maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression and improvement in their overall mental health.

Related: A year of paid parental leave: Vital but how likely?