Person shown from neck down carrying baby in wrap-style baby carrier with baby facing inwards.
Photo by Ambitious Studio* - Rick Barrett on Unsplash

Did you know that paternity leave was only signed into Belgian law in July 2002, and that dads (yes, only dads) could only take 10 days of paid leave? Or that it’s only since 2011 that co-parents are also entitled to birth leave? Thankfully, things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, even if the pace of change is slow. 

The number of days of paid birth leave (‘congé de naissance’ / ‘geboorteverlof’, formerly ‘congé de paternité’ / ‘vaderschapsverlof’) has been gradually increasing, from 10 days in 2002 to 15 days in 2021 and to 20 days as of 1 January 2023. The time period in which to take the leave has also been extended: the 10 days of leave originally had to be used within 30 days of the birth, whereas since 2009, dads (and co-parents since 2011) now have 4 months to use their entitlement. Since 1 May 2019, self-employed parents are also entitled to paid birth leave.

But have these changes been effective in encouraging dads/co-parents to take time off to be with their baby? 

How does birth leave work?

Unlike maternity leave, birth leave in Belgium is entirely optional and there’s a considerable amount of flexibility in how and when it can be taken. Available to both employees and self-employed individuals, the 20 days can be taken within four months following the birth and can be used all at once or spread over a period of weeks or months.

Some dads/co-parents stagger their leave, taking an initial block of one or two working weeks and spreading the remaining days over subsequent weeks. Others take the full 20 days in one block, with some even adding on other types of leave such as parental leave or career break to extend their time with the newborn and support the birth parent.

Are many dads and co-parents actually taking birth leave?

In a recent article by RTBF, data from INAMI, the National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance, and INASTI, the Institute of Social Security for the Self-employed, shows a positive trend: more and more dads/co-parents are taking birth leave, with numbers rising from 56,980 in 2020, to 59,684 in 2021 and to 65,035 in 2022. 


What’s more, the amount of leave taken is also cause for celebration. 2021 figures (so, when the leave was still 15 days) showed that 86% of employee dads/co-parents took their entire birth leave entitlement, with 8% taking part of their leave. For self-employed dads/co-parents the percentages were lower, with 53% taking their entire leave entitlement and 13% taking part of their leave.

Good uptake, but work to be done

While the developments in terms of birth leave have been generally viewed as a success, there are still areas for improvement. The financial aspect may still be a barrier, particularly for lower-income families: for employees, birth leave is paid at 100% by the employer for the first three days, with the remaining days paid by the health insurance fund (‘mutuelle’ / ‘ziekenfonds’) at 82% of the gross salary with a maximum of €144.34 gross; for self-employed dads/co-parents the daily amount is currently €99.51.

Lower uptake by self-employed dads/co-parents may be due to multiple factors; a survey by the Belgian Institute for the Equality of Women and Men (IEFH) found that 55% of independents had too much work or found it difficult to take time off, 27% didn’t know they were entitled to paid birth leave, while 25% were worried about losing work or clients.

Photo by Joshua Reddekopp on Unsplash

The bigger picture: towards equal leave for mums and dads/co-parents

La Ligue des Familles, Belgium’s francophone family association representing and fighting for parents’ rights in Brussels and Wallonia, recognises the progress made to date, but asks that we don’t have to wait another 20 years for real change to the birth leave system.

They call for at least part of the birth leave to become mandatory, and also ask for 15 weeks of paid leave, to match the current maternity leave. In the 2022 Parent Barometer Ipsos survey carried out by La Ligue des Familles, just under 66% of fathers were in favour of mandatory birth leave for fathers/co-parents and 67% of parents were in favour of an equal amount of paid leave for mothers and fathers/co-parents. 

Will the coming years reveal more changes to Belgium’s birth leave system? While no firm proposals are on the cards right now, La Ligue des Familles points out that 5 of the 6 francophone political parties have expressed support for birth leave of 15 weeks for dads/co-parents – just 5 years ago, none were in favour.

Whatever the future holds, the most important thing right now is the continued normalisation of taking birth leave. The first 100 days after birth are such an important time, not only for babies’ brain and physical development but also for parents to adjust to their new normal and have time to bond with and better understand their baby.