The Big Question: Is there an optimum time for a woman to go back to work after giving birth?

Why are we asking this now?

Rachida Dati, France's glamorous justice minister, defied convention this week by returning to her office just five days after giving birth by caesarean section to her first child, a daughter called Zorah, last Friday. Ms Dati, a Muslim, who is 43 and single, was pictured perfectly coiffured wearing heels, a black jacket with leopard print lining over a pleated skirt revealing her trim figure, carrying not her baby but a folder of papers outside the Elysee Palace. She has refused to identify the father, declaring a private to be "complicated," and leading to fevered speculation in the French press.

Could she have done the same in Britain?

No. Women here are "not legally allowed to return to work until at least two weeks after birth," according to Mary Newburn, head of policy at the National Childbirth Trust. This is to protect their health. A caesarean is a major operation and women are advised that they will feel sore and stiff for at least a couple of days, and should not lift anything for six weeks. A survey of over 700 mothers in Minnesota, US conducted five weeks after they had given birth found they had an average of six post-birth symptoms including fatigue, not feeling rested on waking in the morning, breast discomfort and back or neck pain.

What about the effect on the baby?

It will be impossible for Ms Dati to breast-feed her baby unless she arranges for her to be brought into the office for feeds. Breast is best for babies and many women who return to work express breast milk so it can be given in their absence. But Ms Dati will not have had time in five days to establish breast feeding, even if she wanted to. It is also important for mothers to have time to get to know their babies in the early days so that they can form an emotional bond.

Did Ms Dati do the right thing?

Not according to the National Childbirth Trust. Ms Newburn said: "There needs to be a balance between work and family life and this would seem not to reflect the kind of balance we would be looking for. It is really important that women have the time to recover and to get to know their baby and it is important that we value families and giving a good start in life to babies. Employers and society need to recognise that babies need time."

Was she under pressure to make a swift return?

It appears so. As France's first cabinet minister of North African origin (born to an Algerian mother and Morrocan father, a bricklayer, she was one of 12 children) she has enjoyed a remarkable rise. But she has run into difficulties in her latest post, prompting the departure of a string of aides from her ministry who have complained of her brutal management style, and enraging prison officals and magistrates who say she is impossible to work with. Although Ms Dati is a high profile politician, she is not alone in feeling under pressure. A growing number of mothers from all parts of the social spectrum believe they don't have a choice about whether to return to work because of the uncertainty created by the financial crisis. One study published last month by the insurer, Scottish Widows, claimed four million mothers had been forced back to work by the rising cost of living.

When is the best time to return to work?

There is no best time – it is a matter of choice, and women's personal circumstances will differ. Currently the post birth check is conducted at six weeks but many women have still not recovered fully by then and discussions are under way about postponing the check to three months. A lot of physical changes take place around birth and it is important to ensure they have settled down and everything is back to normal before subjecting the body to the stresses of working life, experts say.

Should new mothers work at all?

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has warned that today's babies and toddlers are the first generation in history to spend much of their early childhoods in formal child care rather than being looked after at home. In a report published before Christmas it said most babies born in Britain spend long periods in nurseries or with childminders despite research showing that under-threes benefit from being looked after at home. The researchers acknowledged that the change reflected greater opportunities for women but added that the fact that two thirds of women in developed countries now work was a "cause for concern".

Is this a fair judgement?

Not according to child care experts. They agree that the quality of childcare has lifelong consequences for mental health, especially in the first three years which are crucial for brain development and psychological stability. But they do not insist that home care is always good and nursery is always bad – there is good and bad in both.

If parents can't stay at home with their children – and four out five say that financial pressures forced them to return to work early – or don't want to, then the emotional and cognitive needs of their children can still be met.

How much time offare new mothersentitled to?

Under current rules they are entitled to 39 weeks of maternity leave, with the first six weeks on full pay and the remaining 33 weeks on £117.18 per week. Many employers have individual, more generous arrangements, with higher pay and/or longer time off. Unicef says Britain should provide a year of parental leave at 50 per cent of salary as a minimum, and says it comes 14th in the EU league table. The most generous nation is Norway, where the mother and father can divide 44 weeks of paid leave between them.

What about fathers?

They are entitled to two weeks paternity leave at £117.18 a week. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who is about to become a father himself, said the current allowance was "pathetic" in an interview this week. he said the Lib Dems would introduce parental leave of up 19 months on statutory payments, with fathers able to take over care of the child after six months if the mother wished to return to work. Separately, the Government announced last month plans to give millions of parents greater rights to request flexible working.

What conclusions can be drawn from Rachida Dati's decision?

People have to make their own decisions, according to their circumstances, having weighed up the options. There is no "right" decision. But as a society it is vital that we show that parenthood is valued, and provide the support that parents need.

Has Rachida Dati gone back to work too soon?


* It takes at least six weeks for the body to recover from the changes around birth

* New mothers need time to get to know their babies and establish breast feeding

* Too swift a return suggests an imbalance in the relationship between work and family


* How long a woman spends at home after giving birth should be a matter of personal choice

* Women differ in the time it takes them to recover from giving birth, and many feel fine within days

* A mother can still provide the attention that a new-born baby needs, before and after work

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?