The United Nations on First Avenue in Manhattan, seen in 2016.

The United Nations on First Avenue in Manhattan, seen in 2016. Credit: Linda Rosier

UNITED NATIONS — Of the world’s 41 richest countries, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have national policies that are most supportive to families with young children, according to a UNICEF study ranking nations by “family friendliness.”  

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund study released Thursday ranks 41 countries, the nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and European Union, and ranked them based on the extent to which they allow paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave, early childhood education and care for preschool children.

The United States was one of 10 nations in the survey that could not be ranked with the other 31 because there was insufficient comparable data to compile on child care enrollment. But among those 10 countries the United States came in last — trailing Israel, Australia and New Zealand — mainly because it offers no parental leave as a national policy, researchers said.

Sweden offers families 35 weeks of paid maternity leave, 10.9 weeks of paid paternity leave, has 51 percent of its children younger than 3 in child care and 97 percent of children between 3 and 6 years old enrolled in child care.

By contrast, Cyprus, Greece and Switzerland were the lowest-ranking countries in the survey of the four factors, with Switzerland offering eight weeks of maternity leave, no paid paternity leave, 30 percent of its children up to 3 years old in child care and 66 percent of children between 3 and 6 years old enrolled in child care.

Based on recent data since 2016, the study noted that the United States, which has the world’s largest economy with a gross domestic product of $20 trillion, is the only country in the group that has no “nationwide, statutory, paid maternity leave, paternity leave or parental leave.”

Japan, the Republic of Korea and Chile took the top three slots among those 10 countries lacking comparable child care enrollment data. They offer 36, 25 and 30 weeks of paid maternity leave, respectively. For paternity leave, Japan offers 30.4 weeks, Korea 17.2 and Chile just one, the report said.

“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, in a news release accompanying the 12-page report “Are the world’s richest countries family-friendly? Policy in the OECD and EU." 

“We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children. And we need the support and influence of the private sector to make this happen.”

The study revealed a mixed bag of benefits from country to country, with some that rank highly in some areas faring poorly in others.

It found that only half the nations offer at least six months of paid leave for mothers — which was UNICEF’s top recommendation. But while Estonia, the fourth-ranked country, offers the longest paid leave for mothers — 85 weeks — it offers only two weeks for fathers. The same was true for Chile and Canada, which offered 30 and 27 weeks, respectively, of paid leave for mothers but one and zero weeks for fathers.

Japan was an outlier, too, because it showed that many fathers who are offered paid leave declined it in the only country that offers at least six months at full pay for fathers. Five percent of fathers, or 1 in 20 of them, took paid leave in 2017, the report said.

Other recommendations outlined in the report include increasing access to high-quality child care, closing the gap between the end of parental leave and the start of child care, allowing mothers to breastfeed both before and after they return to work by providing lengthy-enough paid parental leave and opportunities to breastfeed at work, and compiling more data “on all aspects of family-friendly policies so that programs and policies can be monitored, and countries compared.”

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