Women have a statutory right to take up to 52 weeks’ leave from work in order to have and provide immediate care for a baby.

This law protects the health and safety of new mothers and also allows time for a crucial bond to form between mother and child during the early stages of development.

Typically, the earliest start date for maternity leave is 11 weeks before the expected birth date. In some cases, maternity leave may also start automatically in the event of premature birth or pregnancy-related illness in the four weeks prior to the due date.

It would be an illegal offence for an employer to allow a woman to return to work within the first two weeks following birth, or four weeks if her role involves factory work.

Employer responsibility

The standard length of maternity leave means that employers could be without a key employee for a substantial amount of time. The employer is expected to arrange cover during this time, and must generally ensure the employee is able to return to work following maternity leave.

The employer must not discriminate against employees on the grounds of maternity leave in any way. This includes dismissing an employee because they become pregnant, but also preventing hiring or promotion opportunities just because the woman is of childbearing age.

With health and safety best practice in mind, the employer must also complete a risk assessment in relation to a pregnant employee, a mother who has given birth within the last six months or who is currently breastfeeding.

Statutory maternity pay

Employers must take certain procedural steps to ensure the employee is eligible for statutory maternity pay (SMP). This includes approving specific documentation and information provided by the employee.

Employers are due to pay SMP for a maximum of 39 weeks to eligible employees. SMP is currently set at 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings (uncapped) for the first six weeks, and then £139.58 or 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings for the following 33 weeks (whichever is lower). This reduction may discourage some women from taking their full maternity leave entitlement in favour of returning to work sooner.

Businesses can reclaim either 92% or 103% of SMP paid depending on the amount of national insurance contributions paid by both the employer and employee.

Keeping in touch

During maternity leave, the employee is afforded 10 ‘Keeping in Touch’ days. This time ensures the mother is able to introduce their new arrival to colleagues, and to stay relatively up to date with any significant events within the company without their SMP being affected.

If the employee exceeds these 10 allotted days, they will lose their right to SMP for that week.

Return to work

If the employee returns to work within six months, they have the legal right to resume their previous job role. If the employee is on leave for longer than six months and business circumstances change during that time, the employer must still ensure the employee is able to return to another role of equal seniority under the same terms and conditions of employment.

In this case of the latter, additional time for training and development is expected in order to bring the employee up to speed in their new role. Employees must give their employer at least 8 weeks’ notice if they intend to change their return to work date.

Employers should also be aware that the vast majority of women who return from maternity leave will submit a request for flexible working. This enables new mothers to adjust their schedule in order to provide care for their child, and often reduces the amount of days and hours worked per week.

The law behind maternity leave

The Employment Rights Act 1996: Part VIII documents that basic right to maternity leave.

The Employment Rights Act 1996: Part VI allows time off for antenatal care.

The Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 detail the statutory length of leave and prospective periods in which it may be taken.


  • Mothers are permitted the statutory right of up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave from work in order to have and provide immediate care for their baby.
  • Employers must understand their responsibilities both prior to and following maternity leave and must not discriminate against an employee on the grounds of pregnancy.
  • Statutory maternity leave pay is currently set at  90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings (uncapped) for the first six weeks, and then £139.58 or 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings for the following 33 weeks (whichever is lower).

Information is also available for Shared Parental Leave and Paternity Leave.