Timing Your Maternity Leave

Some mums like the idea of 'tools down, feet up' a few weeks before their due date, while others choose to work as close to the big day as possible. We look at what to consider when planning when to leave work and take your maternity leave.

One of the many decisions you need to make when you are having a baby is when to officially start your maternity leave. Some mums like the idea of 'tools down, feet up' a few weeks before their due date, while others choose to work as close to the big day as possible. The fact is, it's truly a personal and individual matter - and a range of factors will influence your final decision.

Early, Late or Right-on-Time

Whilst you may have a firm idea about how long you'd like to be away from work, plans can change.

  • "I had medical issues and was signed-off work off and on during the third trimester," reports Susie. "I'd also stacked my annual leave to have four weeks off pre-the due date, but then baby came two weeks late. So I had a very, very long wait before he showed his face."
  • For new mum Jo, there was a different kind of change to her plans.

"I'd saved up annual leave so I could take three weeks off before my due date. However, baby arrived three days after I stopped work. I did wish that I'd stopped work a little earlier so I had more time to rest before the birth."

  • By contrast, Verity reports a seamless transition: "I worked until the end both times, thirty-eight weeks, to try and maximise time off after. I felt good throughout both pregnancies though. I know I was lucky."

Listen to Your Body

Every expectant mum hopes for a complication-free pregnancy but with your body undergoing such huge physical changes, not everything always goes to plan.

  • "Listening to your body is very important", says Sophie, a mum currently on maternity leave. "I struggled with my hips and back and with an hour and a half commute each way to work it was tough. I started my leave four weeks before my due date - and had saved up another week of annual leave to take before my mat leave even started.

She's no regrets though. "Those five weeks off were pretty boring and I watched a lot of television, but at least I was resting in preparation for the big day."

The Best of Both Worlds

The tactic of saving some annual leave to use ahead of your chosen maternity leave date can certainly help you have the best of both worlds: extra-time off before the birth and not cutting short your leave at the back-end.

  • "Both times, I used saved-up annual leave to finish five-or-six weeks before my due date," says mother-of-two Louise, "and then I didn't officially start mat leave until just before I was due." She found this approach worked best for her, but for differing reasons. "For my first, I had a two-hour commute each way and was nervous to be so far away from home should anything happen. The second time, I just wanted to enjoy a bit of time with my son and time to get organised before the baby arrived. I loved it both times and was not at all bored!"

Work Concerns

Another factor for some pregnant women in choosing when to begin maternity leave is picking a good time from a work perspective. This can especially be the case if they are due to deliver their baby around the same time as they are due to deliver a project at work, and are keen to see it through, or feel that their personal involvement is crucial. The important thing to remember is that work really will carry on without you and that your health - and that of your baby - comes first. You don't want to be under intense pressure and rushing around at the last minute or caught short with the baby arriving earlier than expected.

It's About Time... & Money Too

There are, of course, other considerations that come into play. Beyond on any statutory minimum pay, your employment contract may give you enhanced maternity pay and you should also note any policies on taking accrued annual leave so that you can use it - and not lose it.

Another consideration - within the UK - is the option of sharing parental leave with your partner. It would allow them to spend some time bonding with the baby, or perhaps for you to both to take time off together, but that would likely mean an earlier return to work for you.

  • Janet's story is a good example of just how much personal circumstances can both dictate as well as influence matters. "I'd planned to work until the due date but baby had other plans and came two-and-a-half weeks early. My waters broke at work and I was put on leave effective the next day. I really wish I'd had a bit of time at home to prepare, but I guess I was able to maximise my maternity leave time."

She's currently on maternity leave from the university where she works and gets six months full-pay. Once this ends, she plans to return to work. "I'm entitled to up to a year", she notes, "but to take it beyond the six months on full pay would mean three months of statutory maternity pay and three months unpaid. My partner's company offers one year of fully-paid paternity leave so it makes more financial sense for us to switch over at six months. I've also taken two weeks of holiday at the end to overlap with my husband so we can all spend some time together."

How to Decide?

Not everyone is in the same boat.

Mum-and-baby coach Vanessa sums up what she's observed. "When it comes to going off on leave, the physical demands or the travel, or their health may mean some mums start maternity leave earlier than they would like to. I also know that many would have preferred to have longer to rest and prepare for birth but wanted longer with their baby once born. Sadly, lots of the mums in my classes also return to work earlier than they'd like to because of financial need."

So how do you decide how early or late to plan your leave? "Although it can be a difficult decision, on balance I do think that a week either way at the end doesn't make too much difference", believes Louise. "By contrast, having another week before baby arrives, to rest and prepare - physically and mentally - really can make a huge difference. The run-up to going on maternity leave can be very stressful, and you might need a bit of time to recover before the baby comes."

A Memorable Experience

Whatever your circumstances, it's worth considering all the options - and being aware that plans may need to change. Good communication with your manager and your HR department over everything to do with work will help you keep on track for the best possible leave and future return, and make any changes that need to be made.

There can't be any guarantees that everything will go as you planned - but all being well, the timings will work out just right, and you and your new baby will enjoy a memorable and enjoyable maternity leave together.