Becoming a mum for the first time is a life-changing experience for anyone. The first few months after the birth of a newborn are precious, allowing mum and child to form an important bond and set the foundations for a healthy childhood.

During this time, mums really need to concentrate on their babies without being distracted by work or money issues. Most business owners across the UK accommodate their female employees well and give them support during their maternity leave - it's the law.

But how does Britain’s maternity allowance compare with the rest of the world? Are we leading the field or could we be doing a whole lot more?

Mum's the word

At first glance, Britain appears to take care of its new mums pretty well, offering a whole 52 weeks of maternity leave. However, only the first 39 weeks of that is paid. The first 6 weeks of your maternity allowance is 90 per cent of your weekly salary and for the remaining 33 weeks, it’s only £139.58 per week.

The UK government says that Britain’s maternity scheme is one of the most generous worldwide, but the TUC (Trades Union Congress) argues that after the first six weeks of maternity leave, new mums are left in financial dire straits. They stress that if mums take the extra additional 33 weeks they’ll struggle on a maternity allowance, which at half the national minimum wage (which is £288 per 40-hour week), will force many reluctant mothers back into the workplace before they’re ready.

Exceeding expectations

Scandinavian nations tend to be firm believers in maternity leave, ensuring that mums have some decent time with their babies before returning to work.

If you're a new mother in Norway, you can take 49 weeks at full pay, or 59 weeks at 80% pay. Sweden offers a staggering 480 days, in 390 of which mothers are entitled up to 80% of their wages. Additionally, in Sweden, parents can shorten their work hours by 25% until their child turns eight, which seems a pretty great idea.

Croatia leads the way in maternity leave, offering a full year at full pay - wow. Serbia also offers a healthy 20 weeks of fully-paid leave, with an extra year of reduced pay too. Estonia is also a leader, offering mothers a full 85 weeks of paid leave, closely followed by Hungary on 72 weeks, and Bulgaria on 65.

Looks like someone's got a case of the Mondays.

An unpaid absence

Some countries do fall a bit short, though. The USA is hardly a world-beater when it comes to maternity leave. In fact, businesses in the USA are under no legal obligation to offer a single paid day of time off for new mums. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act requires that employers offer employees a period of up to 12 weeks off unpaid.

Down under, things are a bit better. Both Australia and New Zealand allow their workers at least eight weeks on full pay. Yet in the United Arab Emirates, you are only allowed six weeks on full pay and then it’s a case of going back to work or making other arrangements.

Can we do better?

Although the UK ranks higher than many countries in maternity allowance, it still lags behind others such as France and Germany. A recent study by Unicef found that the UK sits in the bottom 10 of the 41 countries for maternity leave in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Unicef's executive director Henrietta Fore said:

"There is no time more critical to children’s brain development, and therefore their futures, than the earliest years of life. We need governments to help provide parents with the support they need to create a nurturing environment for their young children. And we need the support and influence of the private sector to make this happen."

So you have to wonder if just doing the legal minimum is really a good idea. Sure, you might gain a few extra weeks of basic productivity, but at what cost? As with any other benefit, giving additional time off will endear you to your workers and probably make them feel more valued. Long term, that'll increase loyalty and wellbeing. Not to mention making your company more attractive to those thinking about starting a family.