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Nordic countries best for young families

Alexander Pearson
June 13, 2019

Young mothers get up to 85 weeks of paid time off in Estonia and only 8 weeks in Switzerland. Five European countries offer no paternity leave at all.

Family, father, mother with son and little daughter looking from cliff top over the sea
Image: Imago Images/alimdi

Parents and children in Sweden, Norway and Iceland enjoy the most supportive policies for young families in Europe, a UN report has found.

The UN's children agency (UNICEF) looked at the length of full-pay parental leave for mothers and fathers and the availability of childcare for young children in 31 European countries in 2016.

Estonia, Portugal, Germany, Denmark, Slovenia, Luxembourg and France rounded out the top 10. Ireland, the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Greece, and Switzerland were among the worst performers.

Read more:Are family policy reforms to thank for Germany's rising birth rates? 

"There is no time more critical to children's brain development and therefore their futures — than the earliest years of life," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

"We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children."

Estonia top for maternity leave

UNICEF said it recommends at least six months of paid leave for parents and universal childcare from birth until the first grade of school.

Mothers in Estonia (85 weeks), Hungary (72 weeks) and Bulgaria (65 weeks) were able to take the longest duration of full-pay leave. The United Kingdom (12 weeks), Ireland (9 weeks) and Switzerland (8 weeks) offered the least.

Read more: European court rules lesbian woman has no right to paternity leave

Combining kids & career - A challenge for fathers too

For fathers, Portugal (12.5 weeks), Sweden (10.9 weeks) and Luxembourg (10.4 weeks) offered the most time off at full pay. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland, Cyprus and Switzerland offered no paternity leave at all.

"Paid paternity leave helps fathers bond with their babies, contributes to healthy infant and child development, lowers maternal depression and increases gender equality," the report found.

The report urged governments to remove barriers for fathers to take paid paternity leave. Many avoid taking leave because they lack interest or feel pressure to keep working.

Read more: Berlin first in Germany to scrap child day care fees

Nordics top for childcare

Countries that had the highest share of children under 3 in childcare include Denmark (70%), Iceland (65%) and the Netherlands (53%). Greece (9%), the Czech Republic (5%) and Slovakia (1%) had the lowest share.

For children between three and the national school age, Iceland (99%), Belgium (99%), and Sweden (97%) had the highest enrollment rates. Romania (61%), Greece (56%) and Croatia (31%) had the lowest share.

Read more: Why aren't more men working in childcare?

"Parents of children under the age of three say that the cost of childcare is the main reason for not making more use of childcare centers," the report found. Parental preferences, cultural values and the presence of extended family members also explained some of the differences.

In Germany, mothers and fathers can share paid parental leave of up to 12 months. An additional two months can be taken by both at the same time. Childcare enrollment for children under 3 is 33%. For children between 3 and the school age, the figure was 92%.

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