If you’re an expectant parent open to relocation, you might want to consider Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, and Portugal. These are the wealthy countries that offer the strongest overall family-friendly policies, according to a new analysis by the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF.
To create the ranking, UNICEF compared four types of family-focused policies offered in 41 wealthy countries who are part of the EU and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of developed nations.
It looked at the amount of paid leave available to mothers and fathers, the share of children below age three in childcare centers, and the share of children between age three and compulsory school age attending preschool or childcare centers. The amount of access parents have to this type of education for their children is considered an indication of family-friendly policies because it allows parents to “reconcile their private and professional roles,” according to the report’s authors.
The authors ranked 31 of the countries by averaging each country’s rank across the four indicators. Their analysis excluded 10 countries, including the US, Japan, and Canada, which they said didn’t have comparable data for childcare enrollment.
Each country’s rank is an average of its scores across the four indicators, meaning that one country may rank below another overall despite performing better in other indicators. That’s the case of Poland (23rd) and Slovakia (26th), which “have generous leave provisions for mothers but are positioned in the bottom third of the summary ranking because they offer poor access to early childhood education.” Norway, which ranks second, offers more paid leave to new moms than Sweden, which ranks first, but fewer weeks of paternal leave and lower rates of childcare enrollment for toddlers.
These policies are important, the report authors write, because “they help children get a better start in life and help parents find the right balance between their commitments at work and at home.” Research has shown that high-quality childcare or preschool programs benefit children’s development, sometimes for several generations. Generous maternal leave policies improve health outcomes for mothers and babies and benefit the economy by encouraging women to return to work after childbirth. And paternal leave encourages dads to actively participate in child-rearing and bond with their babies, which in turn contributes to healthy child development.
And yet most dads only take very short leave (paywall) after the birth of a child. The report found that many countries offer fathers little more than a week or two of paid leave and that “even when fathers are offered paid leave, many do not take it.” Japan offers new dads more than 30 weeks of paid leave, for example, but only 1 in 20 fathers took advantage of that in 2017.
“There is no time more critical to children’s brain development—and therefore their futures—than the earliest years of life,” wrote UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore in a press release. “We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children.”