The Nordic countries, with their strong public spheres, are more supportive than those which elevate the family as a private institution.
Bringing up children can be seen as the sole responsibility of families or as a role shared and supported by society as a whole—countries can be more or less ‘family-friendly’. The period from a child’s birth until the start of school is critical, as parents balance time caring for their child with the demands of paid work.
Public policy can promote child wellbeing and support parents in this period through such provisions as:
- rights to paid parental leave;
- availability of affordable, high-quality pre-school facilities; and
- promotion of, and support for, breastfeeding.
In our recent report for UNICEF, we show there are large variations in family-friendly policies across 41 EU and OECD countries. Even within Europe countries differ a lot in what they provide (Table 1).
Sweden, Iceland and Norway provide the best overall packages of parental leave and early childcare, while Switzerland, Greece and Cyprus offer the least. But there is room for improvement in all countries, compared with international guidelines and standards.
Job-protected maternity leave helps women to maintain their earnings and attachment to the labour market immediately before and after giving birth. The International Labour Organization recommends that countries provide maternity benefits for 14 weeks and a range of other protections for women in paid work.
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Most of the 31 European countries exceed the 14-week target in their nationwide statutory entitlements. But only 16 have ratified the full range of protections in the ILO Maternity Protection Convention.
Leave reserved for fathers can promote a more equitable distribution of care in the home and help fathers bond with their children. In some countries, such as Iceland, paternity leave is understood as a child’s right to access to the second parent. Paternity leave is however much less widely available: there is no entitlement in five countries and less than one week (full-rate equivalent) in five others.
Universal access to early childhood education and care is included in the Sustainable Development Goals. Positive and high-quality early childcare can have long-term benefits for children, as well as supporting parents to balance work and family life. Childcare enrolment rates under the age of three varied from 1 per cent to 70 per cent in 2016.
They tended to be lower in countries with longer parental-leave entitlements. But in some countries there was a gap in support between the end of parental leave and the onset of access to childcare. Enrolment at older ages was higher—from 51 per cent to 99 per cent.
Equality of access is vital to provide a fair start in life for all children. In some countries, a substantial proportion of parents cited costs as a barrier to making (more) use of childcare services.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend initiation of breastfeeding immediately after birth, exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continuation in combination with other foods until children are two years old. There is however remarkably little up-to-date comparable data on this topic in European countries.
Nevertheless, breastfeeding rates appear to be much lower in Europe than many other parts of the world. Breastfeeding breaks at work are guaranteed in most, but not all, of the 31 countries.
Across the 31 European countries, there is thus room for improvement in family-friendly policies. This can be achieved through:
- improving paid leave entitlements for parents and removing barriers to access to this leave;
- ensuring that all children have affordable access to high-quality early childcare and that there is no gap between the end of leave entitlement and the start of availability of childcare; and
- providing better facilities and support for breastfeeding, including after mothers return to work.
Table 1: League table of family-friendly policies (2016)
Yekaterina Chzhen is a social-policy manager at the UNICEF Office of Research―Innocenti, researching poverty and inequality. She now assumes an assistant professorship in sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Anna Gromada and Gwyther Rees are social and economic policy consultants at UNICEF Office of Research―Innocenti. Gromada is also a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Rees is an associate research fellow at the University of York.