Written by Sarah Mansell Published on 2nd January 2022 Updated on 8th April 2024

It’s an exciting time when you find out you’re expecting, but it also throws up lots of questions: what’s the difference between a breast pump and a breast shield, how much is too much to spend on a buggy, and what the hell is your pelvic floor?! 

If you’re a working mum-to-be, you’ll probably also have lots of questions about maternity leave. And while your first thought might be, “Amazing, four months out of the office,” this may quickly be followed by concerns about coping with a reduced income. 

But if you’re fretting about whether you’re entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay, or trying to find the right time to share your baby news with your employer, fear not. Our guide to UK maternity leave is here to clear up all your maternity leave-related questions.

All countries have different laws and legislations around maternity leave and pay, but in this post we’re specifically exploring the rights of working mums in the UK. 

Who is entitled to maternity leave in the UK? 

If you’re employed in the UK, you have a legal right to take up to a year of maternity leave. According to Citizens Advice UK: “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked for your employer, how much you’re paid, or how many hours a week you work.” The amount you’re paid will be determined by company policy, but you’re legally allowed to take one full year. 

If you’re self-employed or work for an agency, or your work isn’t guaranteed, the answer is slightly more complicated. You may be entitled to claim Maternity Allowance for up to 39 weeks, providing that in the 66 weeks before your baby’s due date you’ve either been employed or registered as self-employed for at least 26 weeks. Like we said, complicated

Let’s try to break it down to make it a little more straightforward.

If you’re an employee: 

  • You can take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, which is broken up into 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks of additional maternity leave.

  • The first two weeks (or four if you’re a factory worker) are compulsory, but you can choose how much time to take off after that. Some mums want to get back to work after a few months, while some take the whole year. 

  • If you have more than one baby (twins, triplets, etc.) you don’t get any extra maternity leave.

If you’re self-employed:

  • You can theoretically take as much leave as you like, and you may be entitled to Maternity Allowance for up to 39 weeks.

However, in order to claim Maternity Allowance you must either:

  • Have been registered as self-employed for at least 26 weeks in the 66 weeks before your due date.

  • Have been employed for at least 26 weeks in the 66 weeks before your due date.

If you’ve been employed, you must have been earning a minimum of £30 per week over 13 weeks, but they don’t have to be consecutive weeks. 

Still unsure if you’re eligible for maternity leave and pay? We’d recommend using gov.uk’s eligibility checker to know exactly where you stand.

How much do you get paid on maternity leave?

Now for the important bit. How much money will you actually get when you’re on maternity leave? Again, it depends on whether you’re employed or self-employed, and who you work for — many working mums will get Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), which is a legal minimum entitlement, while some companies may offer their own additional maternity benefits. 

When it comes to maternity pay, here’s a rough breakdown of what you can expect: 

If you’re employed:

  • UK Statutory Maternity Pay states that for the first six weeks you’ll receive 90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax). 

  • For the next 33 weeks, you’re entitled to £172.48* or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower).

  • If you decide to take a full year of maternity leave, you’ll be unpaid for the last 13 weeks of your maternity leave period. 

  • SMP is paid through your employer in the same way as your wages or salary would have been, whether that’s weekly or monthly. 

  • Tax and National Insurance will be deducted from your maternity pay if appropriate.

  • Your employer may offer enhanced maternity pay on top of your SMP entitlement (this is entirely at your employer’s discretion and not a legal entitlement, however). 

*Correct as of February 2024.

If you’re self-employed:

  • For up to 39 weeks, you can claim a Maternity Allowance of between £27 and £172.48* a week depending on your Class 2 National Insurance contributions for the previous 66 weeks.

  • If you decide to take a full year of maternity leave, you’ll be unpaid for the last 13 weeks of your maternity leave period. 

  • Your Maternity Allowance will be paid every 2 or 4 weeks straight into your bank account.

  • Maternity Allowance may affect other benefits you’re receiving, such as Universal Credit, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit, or Income Support.

*Correct as of February 2024.

What’s the difference between statutory and contractual maternity pay?

As long as you meet the eligibility criteria, your employer is legally required to pay you Statutory Maternity Pay for up to 39 weeks. Contractual maternity pay, on the other hand, is not a legal requirement but an additional benefit which is offered at your employer’s discretion. It may be more generous than SMP in terms of the duration and amount paid.

Also called enhanced or occupational maternity pay, contractual maternity pay is effectively your employer ‘topping up’ your Statutory Maternity Pay. If you’re lucky enough to work for an employer offering enhanced maternity benefits, they may top up the statutory amount to full pay, for example, or extend the period you’re paid for beyond the statutory 39 weeks.

Eligibility for contractual maternity pay will depend entirely on your employer. If you’re not sure if you’re entitled to an enhanced maternity package, check your employment contract or simply ask your employer or HR department directly. 

Who qualifies for Statutory Maternity Pay?

Most people in employment are entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay, but there are certain conditions you have to meet to be eligible. This includes the length of time you’ve been with your employer, how much you earn, and the amount of notice you give. According to gov.uk, you’ll also need to provide proof of your pregnancy to qualify for SMP.

To qualify for SMP you must:

  • Be an employee (not self-employed).

  • Earn at least £123 per week on average.

  • Inform your employer of your pregnancy at least 15 weeks before your due date.

  • Provide proof of your pregnancy to your employer (such as a MATB1 certificate or a letter from your doctor or midwife).

  • Have worked for your employer continuously for at least 26 weeks, continuing into the 15th week before the week your baby is due.

What if I don’t qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay?

Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies for Statutory Maternity Pay in the UK. However, if you don’t meet the criteria — perhaps you’re unemployed, self-employed, don’t earn at least £120 a week, or you haven’t been employed for the required period — you may still be eligible for Maternity Allowance. Remember that every employee is entitled to maternity leave, regardless of how long you’ve been with your employer or how much you earn. It’s just the pay that has conditions you must meet. 

To apply for Maternity Allowance, you’ll need to fill in a Maternity Allowance (MA1) claim form, where you’ll need to provide information about your employment in the 66 weeks before your baby’s due date.

When can I start maternity leave?

You can start your maternity leave from 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth, although many mums-to-be choose to work almost up until their due date. The latest your maternity leave can start is the day after your baby is born. In any case, it’s important that you communicate your planned start date with your employer and provide plenty of notice.

Of course, pregnancy rarely follows a set timetable, and your baby is unlikely to arrive precisely on schedule. So, if you plan to keep working up until (or very close to) your baby’s due date, keep in mind that if your baby arrives early or you’re off sick due to something pregnancy-related, your maternity leave may automatically kick in early.

How long is maternity leave in the UK?

Providing you’re eligible, you are entitled to take up to a full year (52 weeks) of maternity leave, which encompasses 26 weeks or ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks of additional maternity leave. You don’t have to take the full 52 weeks, of course, but you must take at least 2 weeks after your baby is born (or 4 if you work in a factory).

Ordinary vs additional maternity leave:

  • Ordinary maternity leave (OML) makes up the first 26 weeks of your time away from work. During OML, you retain all your employment rights (except for wages), including the accrual of holiday, pension benefits, and the right to return to exactly the same job after your maternity leave has finished.

  • Additional maternity leave (AML) refers to the period from 27 weeks onwards (if you’ve decided to take more than 6 months off). As with OML, you retain your employment rights and benefits, but your employer does not have to take you back in your original role. If it’s not reasonably practicable for them to do so, they must offer you a similar job with the same or better terms.

Can I change the dates of my maternity leave?

Yes, you can. If you need to change the dates of your maternity leave for any reason, it’s important to give your employer as much notice as possible, as they may need time to accommodate your request and make any necessary adjustments to staffing. The minimum requirement is:

  • At least 4 weeks before the new start date

  • At least 8 weeks before the new end date

What if my baby is born early?

If you were planning to work right up until your due date but your little one arrives earlier than expected, you’ll start your maternity leave early — the day after you give birth, to be precise. You may be required to send your employer a copy of your baby’s birth certificate (or a document signed by a doctor or midwife) confirming the actual date your baby was born.

It’s also important to remember that if you’re off work for a pregnancy-related illness in the 4 weeks before your baby is due, your employer can start your maternity leave automatically. 

What if my baby is born late?

If you’ve chosen a specific date for your maternity leave to start (for example, 11 weeks before your expected due date) but your baby is late, your maternity leave and pay will start on the chosen date regardless of whether your baby has been born.

However, if your baby arrives late and you haven’t yet started your maternity leave, or you’re still working by the due date, your maternity leave will automatically start the day after your baby’s birth. This ensures that regardless of when your little one actually arrives, you’re entitled to take your maternity leave from that point onwards. 

What if I have a miscarriage?

It’s understandably not something you’ll want to think about, but it’s good to be aware of your  rights should you experience a miscarriage. You may still be entitled to maternity leave and pay depending on when the loss of your baby occurs. 

  • Before 24 weeks: If your miscarriage occurs before the 24th week of your pregnancy, the usual maternity leave and pay entitlements do not automatically apply. However, you might be entitled to take sick leave if you’re not able to work following the miscarriage. In this case, normal sick leave rules and pay apply.

  • After 24 weeks: If your miscarriage occurs after the 24th week of pregnancy, it is legally considered a stillbirth, and you are entitled to the full maternity leave and pay as long as you meet the qualifying conditions. The maternity leave can start the day after the stillbirth, and you have the right to continue it for up to 52 weeks.

Do I still have employment rights on maternity leave? 

Absolutely. In the UK, all of your employment rights remain firmly in place while on Statutory Maternity Leave. These rights are designed to protect you during your maternity leave period and when you return to your job. For example:

  • You have the right to return to your job following your maternity leave (if you take more than 26 weeks, your employer doesn’t have to give you the same job back, but it should be a similar role with equivalent or better terms and conditions).

  • Except for your wages, all of your employment terms and conditions remain in place while you’re on leave. This includes your right to accrue annual leave, as well as any other benefits you have such as health insurance.

  • If any improvements are made to the conditions of your employment (such as a pay rise), you’re entitled to benefit from this on your return to work.

  • You’re protected against unfair dismissal or discrimination. Your employer legally cannot terminate your employment for any reason related to your pregnancy.

You’re also allowed to work up to 10 days during your maternity leave without this affecting your pay or leave period. These are known as ‘Keeping in Touch Days’ and can help you stay connected to the company and your colleagues while you’re away, easing the transition back to work when the time comes.

When should I tell my boss I’m pregnant? 

Deciding when to tell your boss you’re pregnant will probably depend on the relationship you have with your employer and the type of workplace you’re in. You might feel so rotten in week 6 that you simply can’t not tell them, or you might sail through your pregnancy and only feel the need to tell them when it starts becoming obvious. 

As a general rule, you should inform your employer in writing at least 15 weeks before the week the baby is due. Citizens Advice UK recommends that in your letter, you should tell your employer when your baby is due, that you want to take maternity leave, and the intended start and end dates of your maternity leave. Your employer may also ask you to produce a MATB1 certificate

Is my partner entitled to paternity leave? 

Yes. Your partner is entitled to paternity leave as long as they’re either: your child’s father, your partner, or your spouse or civil partner. Paternity leave rights apply to same-sex couples as well as heterosexual ones. As with maternity leave, your partner must have been working for their employer for at least 26 weeks by the end of the 15th week before the baby is due, and continue to be employed by the company until the baby is born.

Providing they meet this criteria, your partner can take 1 or 2 consecutive weeks of paid paternity leave (not odd days) within the first 56 days following your baby’s birth, or within 56 days of the due date if your baby is born early. 

Can you split parental leave between partners?

Some couples like to split their maternity leave. Alternatively, some new mums might want to go back to work quicker and are wondering if their partner can use the rest of their leave. Depending on the company you and your partner work for, you might be able to share your maternity leave after the first 2 weeks (4 weeks if you’re a factory worker). 

Shared Parental Leave (SPL) allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay if they both meet the eligibility criteria (which are similar to those for maternity and paternity leave). This option is designed to give parents more flexibility in how they share the care of their child in the first year following birth.

Am I entitled to maternity leave as a surrogate?

Yes. Regardless of whether you’re genetically related to the little person you’re carrying inside, as a surrogate you have exactly the same rights as any pregnant employee. Providing you meet the eligibility criteria, you’re entitled to take 52 weeks of maternity leave as well as receiving up to 39 weeks of Statutory Maternity Pay or Maternity Allowance.

If you’re an intended parent in a surrogacy, your right to time off may depend on whether you have a parental order or an adoption order (which is dependent on whether you’re genetically related to the child or not). If you have an adoption order, for example, you may be entitled to Statutory Adoption Pay. 

Am I entitled to maternity leave if I adopt?

As long as you’ve been matched with a child through a registered adoption agency and you’ve given your employer plenty of notice, you should be entitled to Statutory Adoption Leave. This works in much the same way as maternity leave — you’re entitled to 52 weeks of adoption leave and up to 39 weeks of Statutory Adoption Pay. Your partner should also be entitled to paternity leave.

You may also need to provide proof to your employer that you’re adopting or fostering (if you’re not going through an adoption agency or you’re adopting a relative or stepchild, you’re not legally entitled to adoption leave or pay).

Thanks to some pretty strict laws in the UK, maternity leave for mums is actually quite generous here compared to many other countries — while not as ample as some Scandinavian countries and Germany, mums-to-be in the US, for example, aren’t quite as lucky as us their across-the-pond equivalents.

Of course, when it comes to maternity leave and pay, the most important thing is to do your homework before deciding how much (or how little) you want to take. Our best advice? Do the sums, start planning early, communicate with your employer, and above all, know your rights. Here’s hoping for a relaxing maternity leave for you andyour partner — or at least as relaxing as life can be with a newborn to care for!