Financial stress harming health of new mothers, charity warns

14 November 2023

The cost-of-living crisis is impacting women and babies living on low levels of maternity pay and benefits, and affecting their health and wellbeing, warns national charity, Maternity Action, in their new report, A Perfect Storm.

A survey of 1,394 mothers who had taken maternity leave at some point between January 2021 and December 2022 reported that, while on leave:

- Half (49%) were buying less healthy food and one quarter had gone without food to feed their children.
- 71% worried ‘a lot’ about money during pregnancy or maternity leave, an increase from 64% in an equivalent 2022 survey.
- 60% of respondents had relied on a credit card or borrowed money to make ends meet, up from 51% in 2022.
- 58% also returned to work before they were fully recovered from the birth due to financial pressures.

An evidence review uncovers key factors that make it hard for many pregnant women, new mums and their babies to have a decent start:

- Criteria for maternity pay unfairly excludes many women in insecure work, women whose pregnancies were unplanned or unexpected or who have had periods of illness;
Because maternity pay is low many women go back to work too soon, disrupting recovery, bonding, and breastfeeding;
- Discrimination against pregnant women and mums at work is common, damaging women’s careers, and their mental and physical health;
- Women and employers need better information to make sure that pay and conditions are in line with the law;
- Lack of affordable childcare along with a lack of flexibility from employers forces many women to leave their jobs after maternity leave or take lower paid part-time roles.

The research was overseen by eleven women with experience of low pay during maternity who contributed their perspectives. One mother taking part in the research said:

‘I had to go back to work when my baby was only three months old. I am still at work now because we couldn’t afford to live, we had to take a £5k loan to keep us afloat for those three months because maternity pay wasn’t enough.’

Another mother added:

‘In the end, despite the fact that I couldn’t afford it, I went onto statutory maternity and got 12 months with the baby. We literally food banked it. We survived that way.'

The report makes recommendations to Government to better support pregnant women, babies and their families, including:

- Criteria should be changed so that more women who have zero hours contracts can quality for statutory maternity pay;
Statutory maternity pay (SMP) and Maternity Allowance (MA) should be raised to at least the level of the National Minimum Wage;
- Rights and protections at work should be strengthened, including a right to flexible working and family friendly working arrangements;
- Women should be able to access legal advice and support with benefits entitlements and rights at work through their maternity service;
- The 30-hour entitlement to childcare should be available to families straight after maternity leave.

Ros Bragg, Director of Maternity Action, said:

“The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated long-term underinvestment in maternity pay and benefits.  We should be protecting the health and wellbeing of mothers and their babies and not putting them at risk through financial stress.

“Statutory maternity pay is just 47% of the National Living Wage and only 37% of women’s median incomes.  Families cannot make ends meet with the costs of a new baby and this dramatic drop in income.

“All mothers should be able to afford a healthy pregnancy and time away from work to bond with their baby.  Pregnant women and those with new babies should not be struggling to eat a healthy diet and pay for essentials.

Viv Jackson, Programme Manager at abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, said:

‘Decent maternity pay and benefits should be a priority for the Government, to make sure pregnancy and new motherhood is not synonymous with financial struggle for people on low-to-middle incomes. The rate of inflation is falling, but essentials are still expensive. The recommendations here will help mothers on low incomes, such as those who do not have secure contracts, or who have been ill during pregnancy and after the birth, to have a good start with their babies’.

Download the report.