Working Through Final Month Of Pregnancy Is Just As Bad As Smoking: New Study

And yet another study to remind moms-to-be that America’s maternity leave laws suck donkey booty and need a major overhaul for the sake of our children’s health and a new mom’s recovery and sanity: researchers say that working during your final month of pregnancy is as harmful as smoking.

The research, performed by the University of Essex, showed that just like lighting up, working late into pregnancy leads to newborns that are a half pound smaller than infants whose mothers quit work between their sixth and eighth months of pregnancy. The research, which sampled about 30,000 mothers across three different surveys, including one from the U.S., also showed even more pronounced results for women over age 24 and those with lower levels of education, who were most likely to do more physically demanding work.

Prof. Marco Francesconi, one of the authors of the study, offered this pearl of wisdom: the government should consider incentives for employers to offer more flexible maternity leave to women who might need a break before, rather than after, their babies are born.

“We know low birth weight is a predictor of many things that happen later, including lower chances of completing school successfully, lower wages and higher mortality,” Francesconi said. “We need to think seriously about parental leave, because—as this study suggests—the possible benefits of taking leave flexibly before the birth could be quite high.”

Problem is, not enough of us here in America have bosses who give a damn like that. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work full-time gigs where we can tack on sick and vacation days to the six weeks worth of unpaid maternity leave guaranteed under federal law mostly save that time for when the baby is born, so that we can bond with our children and recuperate from the trauma of child birth. But all-too-many of us—particularly women of color who toil in part-time positions at the secretary desks, factories, fast food restaurants and malls of the American labor market—don’t even have the six unpaid weeks, which means we’re all most likely working all the way up until the baby’s like, “Dude, seriously, I’m crowning—can you get up from the computer/get off the register/hang up your boss’s phone/put down the two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-and-cheese and go to the hospital, please?” Seriously, outside of Ann Romney—let her tell it, she’s the hardest working mother in America—who gets to take time off BEFORE the baby’s born?

I  know that with both my girlpies, I was fortunate enough to have enough vacation days and sick and unpaid maternity leave to take off nine months with Mari (I put years of unused vacation time to good use) and four months with Lila (I was working at a new job when she was born, so I had less vacation and sick leave to work with than when I had my first child). But in both instances, I worked clean up until I couldn’t work anymore—with about two days to spare before I gave birth to each of them. Because I simply couldn’t afford to leave money on the table, particularly considering most of my maternity leave was unpaid.

Both my daughters, despite excellent healthcare and my vigilance to take care of my body while the two of them were baking, had low birth weights.

Maybe there is something to this research—and perhaps there is something to be said for it as it relates to the severe low birth-weight numbers that plague African American births—a stat that rivals some Third World countries. It’s empowering to know that working through your final month may be as harmful to newborn babies as smoking while pregnant. But what in the world can we actually do with that information when our capitalist society just doesn’t give a single, runny poopy diaper about it?


1. Going It Alone: Survey Says Black Mothers Get Little Help, Services & Support While Giving Birth
2.  Tackling Black Infant Mortality Rates—Without Stereotyping Black Mothers
3. Paying Homage To The OB-GYN Who Escorted Me Into Motherhood
4. Erykah “Badoula” And the Business of Birthing: Can Midwifery Help Stem Black Infant Mortality Rates?

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Saida M Latigue

    I was astonished but not surprised by these results; when I was pregnant with my son, I was a stay at home Mom & he was full term ( 10lbs 11oz & almost as tall as I am! lol). He is still a relaxed, calm centered person to this day.
    With my daughter a few years later, I was still married but working & she was a preemie with a traumatic experience due to my placenta previa & she was in the NICU for 2 weeks. I was fortunate to have great benefits/supportive manager/etc, but I very much realize the outcome could have been much worse.
    Studies such as these prove without a doubt that healthcare is so very necessary when it comes to the quality of life, how anyone doesn’t understand that is beyond me. Health care should be available to all, in all ways.

  2. While I totally agree with the sentiment, I don’t know that I agree with the conclusion made from the study…I should probably read the study first. I worked right up until the end with both of my boys (like 2.5 hrs before I gave birth on the second, but his birth was just craziness). While both my boys were born at 36 wks, 5 and 6 days gestation, both were healthy weight (7lbs, 9 and 10 oz, respectively). I will admit, I have a very cushy job with a lot of sitting, but I just don’t see that my boys were unhealthy because they weren’t 1/2 lb heavier. Hopefully the study has other comparators if they are comparing working late in the pregnancy to smoking. I mean, it seems common sense to me that a woman whose not working at the end of her pregnancy would be resting more and expending less calories, so of course the baby will be heavier. I just don’t see how a 1/2 lb more is on par with pumping your body and baby with carcinogens. All that said, I still agree that the US needs paid maternity leave. I work for the federal government and I don’t get paid maternity leave. I can use my vacation time, and I did, interspersed with unpaid leave to make it last 3 months, but paid leave isn’t a guarantee unless you save save save like crazy. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I worked in a grocery store for years through high school and undergrad, and I can’t imagine having to stand on my feet for that many hours while pregnant.

  3. It is shocking how little paid maternity leave is offered. I think I got a pretty good deal here in the UK, but it was tight financially. Because of health issues, I wasn’t working close to the birth and they were both good birth weights. No idea if this is a factor, but surely it’s best for heavily pregnant ladies to be able to have a rest!

  4. WOW! And I was just complaining about being a WAHM this time around. I worked up until the day before my first born entered the world and was back in the work place once I’d used up my little six weeks of vacation (which I had to save through my pregnancy). My first born had a low birth weight as well, but it wasn’t until today that I noticed my strenuous work schedule during pregnancy could have been the reason. Women definitely need more time and pay for maternity leave in the U.S. I think I’ll spare my husband the gripes this time around as I now recognize the blessing!

  5. I don’t agree that working mothers are harming their babies as much as smoking mothers. For one thing, working won’t cause severe brain damage, retardation, or heart defects in the first trimester – and if I’m not mistaken, smoking will. I have a cousin whose mother smoked during pregnancy (she claimed her doctor said it wouldn’t hurt the baby as much as the stress of quitting would) – her baby needed eye surgery and has worn glasses since six months. It’s just not the same.

    That said – maternity leave has to be a federal law, and ninth-month mothers should probably be given more vacation or sick days than usual. With that – I 100% agree. But to compare it to smoking? That’s a little insulting – and a little exaggerated. I should probably read the study, though. . .

  6. I read the article, and yes it is very upsetting to say in the least how maternity leave is run in America. I watched last year a news channel focus on one of their employees who is behind the camera stay at work while 9 months pregnant, and each day they had a story on her up until she was due for labor (and she was determined to work until her water broke). I have to judge this person because I think she is an absolute fool, and I am wondering who she thought she needed to impress? Even though she felt fine she probably had other things going on with her body that she could not feel but needed to be at home resting. This kind of foolishness might warrant other women to follow in suit and before you know it there will be no such thing as maternity leave at all. Today’s woman needs to be careful of thinking she can do it all even while she is pregnant, no we cannot.

  7. Okay, so I’m a service member and a pregnant mother of a 17 month old toddler. I went to work the day I went into labor with my son. In the military, we don’t have maternity leave, as it were. We have convalescent leave to help you recuperate after the birth, but we go to work right up until we have a legitimate documented reason to not show up. I really didn’t see anything wrong with this. I don’t think we’re mistreated or that this policy is insensitive. Hell, I sit at a desk. I’m perfectly capable of sitting at my desk until my contractions are 4 minutes apart. With this pregnancy, I am now 26 weeks and on bed rest for the duration, and I would totally give my right arm to get to go to work. This is going to drive me crazy.

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