Thousands of mothers have been forced to cut short their maternity leave to pay soaring bills, in some cases returning to work just one month after giving birth.
Families with young children are struggling to afford rapidly rising housing, energy and food costs after inflation surpassed 10pc in July.
Almost half of new mothers or women who are at least 20 weeks pregnant have been, or will soon be, forced to reduce their maternity leave because of the cost-of-living crisis, according to analysis by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed.
All pregnant employees have a right to 52 weeks maternity leave and those who qualify for statutory maternity pay receive it for the first 39 weeks – the remainder is unpaid unless topped up by an employer.
A growing number of companies now offer maternity pay above the legal standard, but employees who receive only the statutory minimum have found it falls well short of covering rising household bills.
Mothers on statutory maternity pay receive 90pc of their average weekly earnings for the first six weeks and for the remaining 33 weeks get £156.66 a week or 90pc of their earnings, whichever is lower.
More than 2,415 women this month told Pregnant Then Screwed they either had or intended to return to work early due to the cost of living crisis. A third intended to take seven months or less maternity leave.
Joeli Brearley, of the campaign group, said there were cases of women returning to work a month after giving birth because they could not afford to stay off any longer.
She said: “Even with energy costs temporarily capped this week, people will still really struggle and are fearful of how they will survive or stay out of debt this year.
“Single parents in particular are in a real mess and those who are self-employed because their maternity allowance is often less than the statutory.”
Those who do return to work must contend with soaring childcare costs. One mother, who did not want to be named, returned to her job in facilities management this year, three and a half months after giving birth to her first child.
She said: “I went back because the statutory maternity pay wasn’t coming anywhere close to covering our bills. My employer agreed I could go back on a flexible basis two days a week and this helped with costs. But now they are rowing back on that agreement and have told me to find childcare and come in full time – my child is ten months old.”
She and her husband currently pay £600 a month for two days of care each week. She must drive a 60-mile round trip to drop off and pick up her child because care in her area is so scarce, so rising petrol prices have added to the cost.
She added: “Care is already costing us a fortune. I work with a lady who can’t have children because she can’t afford the cost of childcare.”
Parents in the UK face the highest care costs in the developed world and two-thirds now spend more on childcare bills than their mortgage or rent.
Ms Brearley added: “The cost of care has risen dramatically, in some cases parents have seen their bills jump 50pc this year, and it is stopping families from having more children because they simply can’t afford it.”