When can I start maternity or paternity leave?

You’re pregnant, yay! But when to tell your employer? It’s time to find out about your maternity and paternity leave rights. We asked the questions for you.

10 min read

When can I start maternity or paternity leave?

You’re pregnant, yay! But when to tell your employer? It’s time to find out about your maternity and paternity leave rights. We asked the questions for you.

10 min read

Maternity and paternity leave: the essentials

When is the best time to tell your work team that you’re having a baby? How close to your due date should you leave, how long can you take off, and importantly, how much will you get paid? So many questions! Sally J Hall went in search of simple answers to help you decide what’s best for you.

What is maternity leave?

Statutory (which means required or permitted by law) Maternity Leave is defined on the government’s website as a period of 52 weeks, made up of 26 weeks of Ordinary Maternity Leave and 26 weeks of Additional Maternity Leave.

You may decide not to take all 52 weeks, but you do have to take at least two weeks leave (four if you work in a factory) after your baby is born, by law. (By the way, they don’t define ‘factory’ so you may need to check if this applies to you).

What do I get paid during maternity leave?

Your income during this time can vary depending on your personal circumstances. The amount of money you will get on Statutory Maternity Leave is:

  • The first six weeks – 90% of your before-tax earnings

  • The next 33 weeks - £151.97 per week, or 90%, whichever is the lower figure

  • The next 13 weeks - unpaid

However, your employer may offer better maternity pay and benefits, so check with them.

Am I eligible for maternity leave?

Tom McLaughlin from specialist employment law firm BDBF, whose expertise includes issues relating to maternity leave, flexible working and family friendly rights, says: “All employees have the right to take maternity leave – it does not matter if you are on a zero hours or part-time contract.”

To be entitled to statutory maternity pay, you must have 26 weeks’ service with your employer by the end of the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth. If you do not have the necessary service, you might be entitled to Maternity Allowance from the government.

What happens if I’m not eligible for Statutory Maternity Pay?

If you can’t get Statutory Maternity pay, you may be able to claim Maternity Allowance, which is £151.97 per week, or 90% of your before-tax earnings, whichever is less for up to 39 weeks, or £27 a week for up to 14 weeks.

To claim in England, Scotland and Wales, visit the Government’s website and if you are in Northern Ireland, go to the NI Direct website.

What if my employer says I can’t have maternity leave?

Sarah Haselwood was an HR professional in London for over ten years in Financial Services, Law, Insurance and Telecoms. She reassures: “If in doubt, your employer must clarify your status (employee or worker). As an employee, they cannot say no to your leave as it’s a statutory right!”

Tom adds: “It’s unlawful for an employer to refuse maternity leave or to treat you unfavourably because of your pregnancy. Ultimately, you can bring a claim for discrimination in the employment tribunals, but if you are having a problem with your employer, as a starting point you could contact the ACAS helpline: 0300 123 1100. You should act without delay, as you must normally start the process of bringing a tribunal claim within three months, otherwise you could lose the right to claim.”

When can I start maternity leave?

You can start maternity leave 11 weeks before your Estimated Due Date (EDD) though you do have flexibility and can work right up to the birth if you prefer. This will give you longer with your baby after the birth.

How long does maternity leave last?

You can take up to 52 weeks and can also add your holiday entitlement.

Can I add holiday entitlement to my leave?

Tom says: “Yes, and because you will continue to accrue holiday entitlement during your maternity leave, many employees take some holiday immediately before and/or after their maternity leave so they do not return to work with a big holiday balance.”

What if my baby is born early?

Sarah advises: “If your baby is born earlier than the expected due date, you must start your maternity leave then.”

This means if your little one is premature or a few weeks or days early, and you are still at work up until then, you will effectively start your maternity leave the day after your baby is born.

If your premature baby is very early and you spend more than a few weeks in hospital before you can bring them home, visit The Smallest Things, a wonderful charity that supports parents of premature babies and encourages employers to extend paid parental leave.

What about pregnancy-related illness?

Some women are unlucky enough to be unwell before their baby is born, with conditions such as gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia or pelvic girdle pain. If you are ill during your pregnancy, you will be covered by your company’s sick leave rules. “During your pregnancy, you’re entitled to the same paid sick leave as the other employees in your company,” says Sarah.

However, as Tom says: “If you are absent from work ‘wholly or partly because of pregnancy’ (most often, because of illness) after the beginning of the fourth week before the expected week of childbirth, your maternity leave will begin automatically on the day after the first day of your absence (if it hasn’t started already by then).”

How and when do I tell my boss about my pregnancy?

The National Childbirth Trust advises that you are not legally obliged to tell your employer about your pregnancy or your maternity leave until 15 weeks before your baby is born, but you might want to do it after your 12-week scan. The benefits of sharing your news sooner include:

  • Maternity leave: your boss can give you the information on how that will work and what they can offer you

  • You may need paid time off for antenatal care, including appointments and classes recommended by your doctor or midwife. Your boss may need proof of this. You can show them a note from your doctor or the MATB1 certificate that’s given to you 20 weeks before you’re due.

  • Once you have informed your employer, you are protected from being unfairly fired or discriminated against due to your pregnancy.

  • Your employer can help manage your workload and offer support if your pregnancy is difficult or you have sickness.

  • Your employer must make a risk assessment to help you stay safe at work.

When can paternity leave start?

According to ACAS, paternity leave is one or two weeks of leave that will allow you to care for your child (by the way, all this information also applies to adopted or surrogate children) that can be taken from the date of your baby’s birth. It must be taken all in one go, within eight weeks of the birth or adoption, with the agreement of your employer.

How does shared parental leave work?

You and your partner can share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay between you, during the first year of your baby’s life. You can be off together, or one at a time. This is a lovely way for both parents to be fully involved in their baby’s first months.

If you don’t qualify for Shared Parental Leave, you have the right to ask your employer for parental leave (usually unpaid) or to take your holiday allowance after the birth, or after your paternity leave. You are allowed up to four weeks.

What other maternity and paternity benefits are there?

You are entitled to time off for antenatal appointments plus free prescriptions and dental treatment. Tom says: “In addition to receiving statutory maternity, paternity or share parental pay, you should check your employer’s policy to see if they offer any enhanced payment during these types of leave.”

How to find support when returning to work

Annie from Mentor Mums, which supports mums back to work after maternity leave by pairing them with a mentor who is a mum working in a similar profession, says: “Returning to work after maternity leave is daunting and new parents have to adjust to a whole set of 'firsts' for their children; first time being looked after by someone who isn't family, first time exposing them to coughs and colds, first time that outings and events are disrupting sleep and routines.

“Unfortunately, a high number of people return to work after leave to find that things in their company or role have changed. When this happens, call out what's happened as quickly as possible, verbally and in writing. If it can't be resolved straight away, ask for a follow-up meeting when things can be reviewed.

“Organisations like Pregnant Then Screwed provide great legal advice on dealing with discrimination at work. As well as taking official steps, it can be helpful to remember that as a returning parent, keeping your job for you isn't 'kindness', but at the very least a requirement. Your talent and expertise are of direct benefit to the bottom line of the business.”

Parents: How was maternity and paternity leave for you?

Here are some experiences from mums and dads to help you know what to expect:

Julia says: “I work for a tech company and had a really positive experience. My company was very supportive throughout pregnancy, offering an ergonomic office setup and flexibility throughout. I was also promoted while on maternity leave.”

Martina, who works for the NHS says: “I am a nurse on an acute ward and had fantastic support during pregnancy from colleagues and superior staff – not that the work was easier! I was worried about financial support and found it difficult to get information from HR. I think people find the lack of information and how they can manage this period difficult – it’s the first time for many of us and it could be clearer.”

Single mum Rosie says: “Thank goodness I had some savings. My employer gave me the basics but it’s nowhere near enough to live on. SMP is not even enough to cover my rent. I wish we had leave like the Scandinavians – in Norway for example, both parents get almost a year off at full pay. I’m even more worried about when my son turns one and I have to go back to work because of the cost of childcare.”

Sasha says, “I had joined a start-up the year before I got pregnant. I was their first pregnant employee, so we all learned the ropes together! I felt very supported. It worked in their favour though because I didn’t want to miss out on exciting times at work, so after my son was born, I agreed to go back after a short mat leave but on a four-day week.

Lucy says, “My advice would be to talk to your boss as soon as possible and together work out a solution for cover, and how your role might change as your pregnancy commences. My job involved physical stuff and travel, so we discussed how my team might manage the more pregnant I got, and then my travel options if I was still feeding a newborn.”

Dougal says, “When my first child was born I took the usual two weeks off, but second time around, my mother-in-law moved in for the first few weeks to help and I took my time six months later, when I could spend more time with my daughter - this suited us all better.”

Jon says, ‘My wife is seven months pregnant and we’re planning on taking shared leave. We both work for companies that are supportive of flexible working - so I’m hoping to be able to work from home and enjoy our new baby at the same time.”

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