9 Steps to Planning Your Maternity Leave

pregnant woman with planner


Whether you have a career you love, you are working purely for financial reasons, or something in between, one of the biggest stressors you might encounter as you prepare for your baby's arrival is planning your maternity leave. This process can seem overwhelming—especially if you are not sure where to start.

The best approach is to take it one step at a time. This guide will help you think about how you are going to handle being away, who will take on your responsibilities, and how you will transition back once your leave is up. Making a plan for maternity leave will help reduce stress now and later.

What Is Maternity Leave?

Typically, maternity leave refers to the period of time that a new mother takes off from work following the birth of a baby. Dads may take paternity leave, or it may be called family leave for either parent. 

Maternity leave is usually created from a variety of company benefits that include sick leave, vacation days, holiday time, personal days, short-term disability, and unpaid family leave time. Look at your employee handbook or talk to a human resources representative to find out how your company approaches maternity leave. 

Generally, most companies ask you to use your sick pay, vacation days, and holiday time toward your maternity leave. In fact, some companies will even require that you use these benefits first before using any short-term disability or unpaid time. 

Emily Guarnotta, PsyD

The right amount of maternity leave for you will depend on the type of job you do and how demanding it is, your physical and emotional postpartum recovery, and how much support you have.

— Emily Guarnotta, PsyD

Just be sure you know in advance what your company expects. If it has unrealistic restrictions, research your rights to ensure they are not discriminating against you.

"In the United States, twelve weeks of maternity or paternity leave is considered standard," says Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in caring for new parents. "The right amount of maternity leave for you will depend on the type of job you do and how demanding it is, your physical and emotional postpartum recovery, and how much support you have. If your baby spent time in the NICU or experienced complications, then a longer leave is probably right for you."

Why You Should Develop a Plan

Although you want to ensure that things run smoothly at the office while you're gone, the primary reason to develop a maternity leave plan is so that you and your family do not experience any unexpected financial challenges, especially if part of your time off will be unpaid.

"In the U.S., some states require that companies pay all or a portion of a parent's salary," says Dr. Guarnotta. "You can contact your local government to see if you are eligible. Women may also be eligible for disability to help cover some of the costs of leave. Unfortunately, though, many families have to find ways to manage to have a parent out of work."

In addition to addressing financial considerations, maternity leave plans also allow you to make the most of your time with your new baby. But, very few companies offer clear guidelines on how to manage maternity leave. Likely, it will be up to you to decide how to prep your co-workers, outsource your work, stay in touch with the office, and transition back when your leave ends.

"There are so many unknowns when it comes to caring for a newborn, and bringing home a new baby takes an incredible amount of time and energy," says Michelle Risser, LISW-S, a maternal mental health therapist based in Ohio. "The last thing a new mom needs is to be worried about work. Planning as much as possible ahead of time can help new moms be more present with their little ones and take a break from stressors at work."

Planning your leave also is an opportunity to demonstrate to everyone that you are still committed to your career and your job.

As you are planning your leave from work, Risser suggests you also consider putting together a plan for home, too. Think about what might change once the baby arrives and how you want to handle those changes.

"At home, I encourage new parents to consider who their support system will be; who will help with food, chores, and errands; and who will care for older siblings," Risser says. "It’s also a good idea to think about visitors ahead of time and set clear expectations for friends and family."

When to Take Your Maternity Leave

Some expectant parents prefer to pick a start date for their leave, such as a week to a month before the baby is due. Others wait until the last minute for maternity leave to start so that they can maximize time spent with their baby at home.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires you to provide your employer with a 30-day notice before you intend to take your leave. This is why planning maternity leave and communicating your goals is so important. Even if you do not have an exact date in mind, you have notified your boss of your plans.

If you're on a tight budget and you aren't sure you can afford much of a maternity leave, you still should consider planning how to handle the arrival of your baby and your recovery.

Think about who can provide care, meals, transportation, overnight support, grocery runs, and other basic needs so that, as much as possible, so you can attend to your baby and this special relationship when you're not at work, says Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC, a therapist with Rockwell Wellness Counseling in Maryland.

"It can be helpful to have a deliberate plan for who can help you and your baby as you transition into your life together," she says. "Plenty of excellent moms simply cannot afford maternity leave; we, societally, need to be better at supporting all mothers in all realms of life."

If You Cannot Afford to Take a Leave

Risser suggests talking to your boss or human resource manager to find out other options if you cannot afford to take a maternity leave. For instance, some workplaces have sick pay pools where employees donate some of their available time to someone in need.

She also suggests looking for ways to cut back on expenses, asking if loan payments can be deferred for a short time, leaning on family for support if you can, and looking for a side hustle you can do from home. "Maternity leave is a critical time for mom to heal from childbirth and for the newly expanded family to bond with the new baby," she says.

Steps to Planning Your Leave

As you start to prepare your maternity leave plan, you will want to be sure you understand all the factors involved as well as put a plan together that helps your boss and co-workers understand the workflow in your absence. Here are nine steps you should take when putting together your maternity leave plan.

Know Your Rights

If you have worked in the U.S. at the same job for more than a year, the FMLA allows you 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, an adopted child, or a foster child. However, these laws apply to companies that have at least 50 employees. Smaller companies may have very different expectations. 

It is also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against pregnant women. This includes both hiring practices and existing employment situations.

In late December 2022, President Biden signed two new bills into law that protect the rights of pregnant workers and nursing parents. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant people. It takes the Pregnancy Discrimination Act one step further, by mandating those reasonable accommodations, like allowing food and drink on the job, and providing seating when necessary. The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act expands on the rights protected in the Affordable Care Act. It requires these rights to be extended to salaried employees, not just hourly employees.

Start a Conversation with Your Boss

You need to let your boss know as soon as possible that you are pregnant—ideally before you tell anyone else at work. Keep in mind that as soon as the first person knows you are pregnant, you should assume that everyone knows. You do not want your boss to find out you are pregnant from someone other than you.

Also, make it immediately clear that you plan to come back to work. Emphasize that you are a committed employee and reassure them that you will develop a comprehensive maternity leave plan so that things continue to run smoothly even in your absence. This initial conversation should be the first of many that you have as you work out the details of your maternity leave plan.

Ask an Expert

Before you sit down to write your maternity leave plan, talk with someone in the office that has gone through the process before. They may be able to offer you some insight and suggestions of things that they learned along the way.

This is especially important if there are no formal guidelines for your company. You may need to negotiate the terms of your maternity leave whether you work at a large company or a small company. 

Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC

I suggest finding another woman who has recently had the same experience, ask her how she went about her leave, and what she would do differently. Having another 'mom mentor' can be hugely helpful.

— Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC

"It’s normal to feel stressed about planning a maternity leave, especially if you are someone who considers themself to be 'Type A,'" says Rockwell. "It can feel really difficult to give up control. However, I suggest finding another woman who has recently had the same experience, ask her how she went about her leave, and what she would do differently. Having another 'mom mentor' can be hugely helpful."

Additionally, you can ask how they were treated during their pregnancy and whether or not the transition back to work was the way they had hoped. The goal is to gather some inside information that will make it a little easier to draft your plan. 

Develop a Game Plan

The first step is to determine how much time you would like to take off and try to figure out if you can afford it. Also, consider how accessible you plan to be once you're gone, how much you plan to work during your first few weeks back, and whether or not you want the option to telecommute for a while. 

The second step is to prepare a list of your core responsibilities. Then, divide them into tasks that can be assumed by others as well as tasks that are not so easy to delegate, such as client relationships and expertise-related functions.

Start to think about who might be willing to take on these responsibilities while you are gone. If you do not have someone on staff that can handle the work, consider suggesting a temporary employee. 

"Planning ahead can help alleviate the anxiety of what is happening at work while [you] are out on leave," says Dr. Guarnotta. "Emotions like anxiety and guilt are common, but women should be assured that the company or organization will function without them. Having a solid plan in place helps [you] identify how responsibilities will be divided. This can help women disengage from work...and be more present with their babies."

Get Your Co-Workers on Board

After you have a rough idea of how you would like your maternity leave to go, it is important to get your co-workers on board. If you have people that report to you, have candid conversations with them about how this is an opportunity for them to step up and take on more responsibility.

"Make the plan so that it is clear and kind, yet firm," suggests Rockwell. "Consider that you will need plenty of time and processing space for issues that you cannot foresee, so give yourself ample wiggle room. Perhaps designate a colleague or co-worker who can be your 'proxy' through which absolute emergencies can be filtered."

The key is not to just dump a bunch of work on your co-workers, but to get them to buy into the fact that they will have some new responsibilities and some new opportunities. Then, listen to what they have to say.

Find out if they want more responsibility or less, and then be flexible enough with your plan to try to accommodate them. Keep in mind that not everyone will be eager to take on additional responsibilities. Be open to changing your plan if need be.

Communicate With Outside Clients

Once you have determined which of your co-workers will be handling your clients or outside contacts, reach out to these people as soon as possible. You want them to feel secure that they will still be taken care of even though you will be gone for a few weeks or months.

Schedule a time for them to meet with the person who will be working with them while you are gone. This way, you can introduce the two parties and slowly allow them to begin working together, even while you are still at the office. This step allows you the opportunity to iron out any kinks and ensure that your clients will be well taken care of. 

Plan Regular Communication With the Office

While it is perfectly acceptable for you to be mostly unavailable once you are on leave, you may need to have some contact with the office. Doing so provides your colleagues with a sense of comfort and security. They'll know that if they have a question for you, they can get it answered.

If you feel comfortable with it, consider being in contact with the office once a week either through a short telephone conversation or a regular email. The key is to be sure your boss and co-workers know when and where they can expect to hear from you while you are gone. 

Avoid making yourself too available during your maternity leave. And try not to commit to more work until you know how parenting feels for you. Most first-time parents are surprised by how much is involved when it comes to taking care of a newborn as well as how exhausted they are. Do not expect your maternity leave to feel like a vacation, because it won't.

Prepare to Be Flexible

"I am a big fan of making plans, but also being prepared to be flexible," says Risser. "Having a new baby can be extremely unpredictable, from the due date, to baby’s sleep habits, to breastfeeding, and everything else. A plan can provide a structure and a guideline, which is comforting. But...holding on to a rigid plan that isn’t working will just cause more stress." 

Remember that your priority right now is to heal, get comfortable in your new role, and bond with your little bundle of joy. Risser says it's easy for the basics like sleep, drinking water, adult conversation, or even a shower to go to the bottom of the list. Focus on how you are going to fill your own cup first, she says, and then you can be there for others. 

"I want new moms to remember that their needs are priority number one," says Risser. "It can be so easy to get wrapped up in what others need, from their employer to their coworkers to their partner, their families, and most of all the new baby. However, mom can’t be there for anyone if she doesn’t take care of herself first."

Look Into Child Care

While it may seem like you have a lot of time to find quality child care, the process actually takes a lot longer than you might think—so start searching now. That includes visiting facilities.

You want to get a feel for what the place is really like and not just assume that it will be acceptable. Always trust your gut in these situations, too. If you do not have a good feeling about the child care provider, move on to the next one. Your transition back to work will be extremely painful if you do not feel good about your baby's care.

Make a Plan for Your Return

"If [you] will be returning to your job after your leave, then this transition should also be discussed," suggests Dr. Guarnotta. "For example, will working hours be the same or will they change? Will you transition back slowly? Can you work from home in certain instances? How will breastfeeding and pumping breaks be handled and where can you go to pump in private?"

Remember that it can be extremely stressful to transition back to the office after being out for 3 months or more. Discuss in advance how this will be handled, including having a debriefing meeting before your official return date. These steps can be very beneficial for everyone involved.  

A Word From Verywell

No matter how exciting pregnancy is, preparing for your maternity leave can be stressful, especially if you are fully committed to your job as well. With careful planning and solid communication, you can put together a maternity leave plan that meets your needs but also is thorough enough to make sense to your boss and provide a clear plan for how things will be handled in your absence.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. NIH guide to parental leave.

  2. United States Department of Labor. Family and Medical Leave Act.

  3. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

  4. United States Congress. H.R.1065 - Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

  5. United States Congress. H.R.3110 - PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.