Pregnant woman working in the office

During pregnancy one of the things you’ll have to think about is taking time off after the birth of your baby. It’s not an easy topic, but we’ll take you through what maternity leave and pay you may be able to get; what other benefits are available in the UK; how to claim paid maternity leave; what you need to know about returning to work after maternity leave; how shared parental leave works, and much more.

How Long Is Maternity Leave and What Is Maternity Pay?

Right after your baby is born you must take the first two weeks off, but you may choose to spend more time at home. Many new mums (but not all) are eligible for paid maternity leave. You can check with your HR manager about your company’s maternity leave policy. If you are eligible, your maternity leave and pay rights include:

  • Leave. In the UK, standard maternity leave is 52 weeks. You must take the first two weeks’ leave after your baby’s birth (or four weeks if you do factory work) to recover and spend time with your baby. The rest of the leave is optional; you can decide how much time you want to take off, up to a year.

  • Pay. Standard maternity pay is paid for up to 39 weeks, and you are paid for the number of weeks’ maternity leave you take. For example, if you take two weeks off for maternity leave, you will get two weeks of maternity pay. In general, the pay is as follows: For the first six weeks you get 90 percent of your average weekly earnings (before tax). Then, for the next 33 weeks, you get whichever is lower of £145.18 or 90 percent of your average weekly earnings. Maternity leave pay is given weekly or monthly – whichever way your wages are typically paid. Taxes and national health insurance are deducted. Those remaining weeks of maternity leave you may choose to take between weeks 40 and 52 are unpaid, however, your job is still waiting for you when you go back to work.

Use this maternity leave calculator for a rough idea of what you may be eligible for. If you are not eligible for paid maternity leave, you may still be able to get other forms of support such as the maternity allowance.

When Can Maternity Leave and Pay Start?

You can keep working until your baby is born and start leave from that point on, or you can start your maternity leave before your baby is born, at most 11 weeks before the expected week of your baby’s birth.

If your baby is born early − before the expected due date, maternity leave will start from the very next day.

Maternity leave also starts automatically if you take time off work for a pregnancy-related illness in the four weeks before your baby is due.

Maternity pay typically starts at the same time as the leave.

Am I Eligible for Maternity Leave and Pay?

You are entitled to maternity leave no matter how long you’ve been employed by your workplace, how many hours you work, or how much you get paid. You also have to give the right amount of notice − tell your employer at least 15 weeks before your baby is due date.

You are eligible for maternity pay if you

  • earn an average of at least £116 a week

  • have given your employer at least 28 days’ notice before taking leave

  • have provided proof you’re pregnant

  • have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks continuing into the ‘qualifying week’ – the 15th week before the week of the expected due date.

If your baby is born early – before the expected due date, you may not have been able to give the full 15 full weeks’ notice; alternatively, if you have a very premature birth (where your child is born 15 weeks or more before the due date) you may not have been able to give any notice at all. In both of these cases − so long as you meet the other eligibility criteria − your paid maternity leave will start the day after you give birth. Within 21 days of your baby’s birth, give your workplace a copy of your baby’s birth certificate or a note from your doctor or midwife confirming the birth date.

If, for some reason, you’re not eligible for paid maternity leave, your employer must tell you so in advance.

How Do I Arrange Maternity Leave?

At least 15 weeks before your due date, tell your employer when your baby is due, and when you want to start your maternity leave. You may choose to let your employer know earlier in the second trimester so you, your manager, and your colleagues can plan ahead, but the choice is yours!

To get maternity pay, give your employer at least 28 days’ notice before the date you want to take paid maternity leave. You also need to provide your employer with proof of your pregnancy. ‘Proof’ is either a letter or an MATB1 certificate from your midwife or doctor. You don’t need to provide this proof to get maternity leave.

What Are My Employment Rights While I’m on Leave?

Your rights as an employee aren’t usually affected during maternity leave. You have the same redundancy rights as your colleagues; being pregnant or taking maternity leave are not reasons to be made redundant. You should be given any pay rises and improvements in conditions that are given while you are on leave, and you also continue to accrue holiday days. However, pension contributions continue only during paid maternity leave.

You have the right to return to your old job if you take up to 26 weeks of maternity leave, up to 26 weeks of shared parental leave, or up to four weeks of unpaid parental leave. If you take more than 26 weeks but still fall within the maximum of 52 weeks’ leave, you have the right to return to a similar job – one that offers the same work conditions as your old job, or better ones.

If you want to return to work for a few days during your maternity leave, for example, to finish a project or to help out during a particularly busy time, there is an option for so-called ‘keeping in touch days.’ If agreed with your workplace, you can do 10 days of work during maternity leave without leaving the maternity leave system permanently. The kind of work you do and the amount of pay you get for these work days needs to be agreed on beforehand.

Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

When to return to work is every mum’s individual decision, and many factors are involved. You may feel ready to return to work sooner, or you may want to take a little more time off. Everyone’s situation is unique and there are many aspects to consider from finances to who will care for your baby. If you’re uncertain, speak to your partner, loved ones, healthcare provider, and other people whose opinions you trust.

Before you go on maternity leave you may choose to discuss with your boss when you would like to return to work after maternity leave, but keep in mind that things might change over time. If you’ve settled on a return-to-work date, but would like to change it, you must give your workplace eight weeks’ notice. Your maternity leave ends when you go back to work.

Is There Any More Support Available?

As for every growing family, every penny counts! It’s good to know that you may be able to get other forms of support, such as:

  • Paid time off for antenatal care

  • Child Benefit

  • Child Tax Credit

  • Working Tax Credit, which may continue for 39 weeks after you go on maternity leave

  • Income Support, which you may get while you’re pregnant or on maternity leave and have no or a low income (you must meet a range of other criteria as well)

  • £500 Sure Start Maternity Grant, usually given if this is your first child, or if you’re expecting twins. (A £1000 grant may be given if you’re expecting triplets or more.)

  • Maternity Allowance, which may be provided by the government if you are not eligible for maternity pay (more on this below)

  • Company maternity schemes – your workplace may provide additional benefits, so be sure to find out if there’s anything extra on offer.

Maternity Allowance

If you aren’t eligible for paid maternity leave, take heart, there is support available. You may be eligible for the maternity allowance, which is paid by the government. The amount you get depends on your situation; many mums get £145.18 a week or 90 percent of their average weekly earnings (whichever is less) for 39 weeks. Typically, you can claim this if you’re employed but don’t qualify for maternity pay. Some mums get £27 a week for either 39 or 14 weeks. Read more on the details of maternity allowance eligibility.

You can claim maternity allowance after you’ve been pregnant for at least 26 weeks. Payments can start 11 weeks before your baby is due.

Shared Parental Leave and Pay

If both you and your partner want to stay at home with your new baby, shared parental leave may be a great option for you. In the first year after your baby is born, you and/or your partner may be eligible for shared parental leave and pay. Eligible parents who adopt and same-sex couples can also access shared parental leave and pay. It works like this: After you take two weeks of mandatory maternity leave, you can end your maternity leave, and share some of the remaining 50 weeks of leave with your partner. The shared scheme offers more flexibility. The mum may want to return to work and have her partner stay at home instead, or both parents may want to be at home at the same time.

You can share up to 50 weeks of leave (remember, you must take the first two weeks as maternity leave), 37 weeks of which may be paid. For example, if the mum takes the first 12 weeks as maternity leave, she might then share some of the remaining 40 weeks of leave. Together with her partner, they may choose to each take 20 weeks of shared parental leave at the same time.

Both parents may be eligible for the shared parental leave pay of £145.18 or 90 percent of average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for up to 37 weeks. If the remaining 13 weeks of leave is taken, it is not paid.

Another benefit of shared parental leave is that it can be taken in up to three blocks (with periods of work in between) or in one long stretch. You can choose to be off work at the same time as your partner, or at different times. That’s the great thing about shared leave: The choice is yours, and you can do what works best for you, your partner, and your baby.

Take this example: Say you take two weeks of mandatory maternity leave but decide to share the rest of the 50 weeks leave with your partner. You stay home for 30 more weeks, leaving your partner with 20 weeks of shared leave. He chooses to take 10 weeks leave overlapping with your leave, then he goes back to work. He takes the other 10 weeks leave once you have returned to work so he can be home with your baby as you transition back to work.

Another example: Say you take 12 weeks of maternity leave, but decide to share the rest of the 40 weeks, staggering the leave so that one of you is always home while the other works. You both take turns staying at home in 10-week blocks with periods of work in between. In other words, you have both taken your leave in two blocks each.

To be eligible, both parents must share responsibility for caring for the child at birth, and the parent taking the shared leave must meet the work and pay criteria. Criteria for shared parental leave relates to things like average earnings, employment status, and time spent working. The person taking the leave must tell their boss about their plans at least eight weeks in advance, including letting them know whether they’re taking the leave in blocks or all at once.

Under this scheme − if your employers agree − you and your partner can each work up to 20 ‘keeping in touch’ days. These are in addition to the 10 days available to you during your maternity leave.

Keep in mind: Once you switch from maternity leave to shared parental leave, you can’t go back to the maternity leave system.

Unpaid Parental Leave

There may be many times when you would like to take some unpaid leave to care for your child. For example, to spend more time with your child, or to take a week off to look into childcare options or visit potential schools. Beyond maternity leave, you may be entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave per child. This is a great option for all those instances when you need a little time off work as you raise your child.

These 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave can be taken any time before your child turns 18, but there’s a maximum of four weeks per year. The leave needs to be taken in whole weeks, so you can’t take a few days off here and there, however, you don’t need to take the leave all at once. For example, you could take one week off in March, then take three weeks off in October. This leave applies to your child, so if you change jobs the amount of unpaid parental leave you have left carries over.

Paternity Leave

Before your baby is born, your partner may be able to go on up to two blocks of 6.5 hours of unpaid leave to go with you to antenatal appointments. Once your baby is born, your partner (including same-sex partners) or the father of the baby may be eligible for one or two weeks of paid paternity leave so he or she can care for your baby. The pay is £145.18 or 90 percent of your partner’s weekly earnings (whichever is lower). Read more about paid paternity leave.

What If I’m Adopting or Having a Baby by Surrogacy?

If you’re adopting or having a child via surrogacy you may be wondering what entitlements you may have as you get ready for those first exciting months with your child. You may be eligible for adoption leave and pay – the eligibility criteria and benefits are much the same as with maternity leave and pay. There are some differences, though:

  • You may be eligible for paid time off to attend five adoption appointments after you’ve been matched with a child.

  • You must show your employer a proof of the adoption or surrogacy, not proof of birth.

  • You aren’t eligible for adoption leave and pay in certain cases including if you arrange a private adoption, or if you adopt a stepchild or family member.

  • Only one parent is eligible for adoption leave and pay (even in the case of same-sex couples); the other may be able to get paternity leave, paternity pay, or shared parental leave and pay.

If you are eligible, this is when adoption leave and pay can start:

  • If you are adopting from within the UK, leave can start up to 14 days before your child starts living with you.

  • If you’re adopting from overseas, leave can start either when your child arrives in the UK or within 28 days of your child’s arrival.

  • If you’ve had a child through surrogacy and you’re eligible for adoption leave and pay, it can start the day your child is born, or the day after.

There’s a lot to think about during pregnancy, but finding out what leave and pay you may be eligible for is especially important. Many mums wonder how much time to spend at home with their baby, and when to go back to work. There’s no right or wrong answer; every situation is unique. Regardless of how long you take off it’s reassuring to know what support may be available to you and your partner so that you can make the best choices for your family.

If there is a dispute about your paid maternity leave, call the HM Revenue and Customs enquiry line. For more information on what benefits you may be eligible for contact your nearest Jobcentre Plus.