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?

Yes...

* 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

No...

* 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

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