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By Luciana Nunez
September 29, 2015
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Luciana Nunez is CEO of Danone Early Life Nutrition in the U.S.

The U.S. is the only developed nation that is not required to provide paid maternity leave, and that matters more than you think. The moment when a family grows is a defining one that goes well beyond the joy of a new baby: It is a window into the future of what we want to stand for as a society.

On Tuesday, at the closing of the Clinton Global Initiative 2015 Annual Meeting in New York, we announced the Working Parent Support Coalition, a group of companies and organizations dedicated to improving and implementing parental-support strategies. Danone started this movement, and we are proud that Barclay’s, Ernst & Young, Nestlé and KKR are the first companies to join us, in addition to the expert support from American Academy of Pediatrics, Cornell University and the Families and Work Institute.

Few workplace strategies besides parental support have the potential power to do so much good with relatively little effort and investment. In the first few months after a child is born, we have the opportunity to improve short- and long-term health outcomes, drive gender equality and affect the economy for the better.

A mom’s lifestyle and nutrition in the first 1,000 days, from her first day of pregnancy to age 2, can have a lasting effect on her and her baby’s future health. When we offer better maternity leave (both in length and support systems for when moms return to work), we can help extend the duration of breastfeeding to six months, and give parents the opportunity to bond with their baby and to stimulate their baby’s brain development as early as possible. According to a two-year study conducted at the insurance company CIGNA, lactation support programs alone resulted in an annual savings of $240,000 in health care expenses.

Better parental support practices could also help improve gender equality. When women are able to access better leave taking options (especially longer leave), they are about 40% more likely to return to work at any time after giving birth than those who do not have access which correlates with personal, professional and economic growth. In turn this drives inclusion of women in the workplace at all levels. If we increase female participation in the workforce to male levels, we could add 5 GDP points to the U.S. economy.

So why don’t we have paid parental leave? There are three key barriers:

1. The debate of federally mandated paid leave drives a mindset of “wait and see.”

There has been significant debate on federally mandated paid leave. We have seen states such as California and New Jersey successfully taking the initiative, but the reality is that policy changes take too long, and businesses can do better than sit and wait. That’s why we have recently seen many companies proactively stepping up to improve their policies. From Hilton announcing 10 weeks of paid leave inclusive of their hourly workers to Netflix and their controversial unlimited leave, there is real momentum behind it because the business case is a positive one.

2. Companies tend to think that the cost will outweigh the benefits.

The opposite is often the case. For some companies parental support helps retain valuable workers. Vodafone conducted an independent KPMG study that showed that if they extended maternity leave to 16 weeks, they could save $19 billion by retaining key people. For other companies it’s part of the “war on talent”: attracting the best of the best. Perhaps all it will take for other companies (big and small) to be able to step up is just to have more knowledge and guidance on how to calculate their own business case and make their plan toward it.

3. People often believe that when you change the policies the job is done.

Our job is not done if we only improve policies. Culture is just as important. Even some progressive employers that have generous paid leave policies are acknowledging that we need to create truly family friendly cultures of support from within, where things like scheduled breastfeeding breaks in equipped lactation rooms, coaching for transition back into the business, telecommuting and flexible work arrangements could and should become the new normal. As Dr. Sandra Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, “It is great that companies create the space and give parents more time, but then what are we going to do with it? We need to make sure that we equip those moms and dads with education, support and knowledge to get that baby in the best possible health trajectory.”

Every improvement to parental support—whether it is a big or a small commitment—can help give the next generation the best possible start in life. It’s an opportunity for companies and business alike to create a wave of change. Working together, we can move the needle of health, inclusion and business.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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