Couples finding out now that they are expecting a child will be among the first parents eligible to take advantage of new shared parental leave rights.

The new rules, which apply to couples whose babies are due from next April (2015), will allow parents to choose whether they want to share the mother’s maternity leave. Shared parental leave can be taken at the same time so a couple would be able to be at home together for up to half a year following the birth of their child.

There are expected to be around 285,000 working couples that will be eligible to share the leave from April 2015. The changes in how maternity leave can be used will kick start a culture change in workplaces where fathers feel more confident to talk to their employers about taking time off for childcare.

Employment Relations Minister Jo Swinson said: “Any couples receiving the happy news that they are due to have a baby from 5 April onwards can now start planning ahead safe in the knowledge that they have the option to choose to share the care of their child and time off work in the way that suits them best.

“Introducing shared parental leave is a significant step towards changing workplace culture, making it just as normal for fathers to take on childcare responsibilities as mothers.

“From April next year mums and adopters will have real choice about when they return to work, dads will have more time to bond with their children and employers will benefit from lower staff turnover and having a workforce that is more flexible and motivated.”

Acas Chair Brendan Barber said: “Many employers recognise that they can retain talented staff by offering a flexible approach to work and a healthy work life balance can help business success and growth.

“Shared parental leave will enable working parents to share maternity or adoption leave to allow both parents greater involvement with their child’s first year whilst employers have the potential to remain productive by agreeing new arrangements that works for their organisations.

“As workplace experts, we have published a new free online guide on shared parental leave to help employers understand how the new changes will affect them. We are also working on detailed guidance to help employees and employers manage SPL requests fairly.”

The government is introducing shared parental leave and pay for employed parents which will make the current system for maternity and paternity leave much more flexible. Families currently have very limited choices about how they can share leave and pay and often struggle to balance competing demands at work and at home.

Under the new system a pregnant woman will continue to have access to 52 weeks of maternity leave and 39 weeks of pay as she does currently. From April 5 2015, for the first time ever, working families will have the opportunity to share the leave much more equally and flexibly.

Eligible couples can take shared parental leave when the mother opts to end her maternity leave and pay (or maternity allowance) early. The remainder of her statutory leave and pay may be shared between the mother and her partner as shared parental leave and pay.

Real life case study:

Hannah is a Senior Project Manager in the e-learning industry and her husband Chris works for the Civil Service. When their son Euan was born they decided to split their leave entitlement. Hannah returned to work on a 4.5 day week when Euan was 8 months old at which point Chris took 7 weeks of additional maternity support leave to look after Euan. Both Hannah and Chris feel that sharing leave has been a very positive experience for themselves and their son.

Hannah said that knowing Euan was at home with Chris was very reassuring when she returned to work: “Chris and I felt that this would be one of the few opportunities we would get to spend an extended period of time with Euan before he started school. Going back to work it was nice for me to know that Euan was with Chris rather than going straight into childcare and when I returned to work we were able to meet up for lunches as a family which was great. Sharing leave is something we’ll definitely do again.”

Chris said that having father and baby time together during the period of leave he took was very special: “During the 7 weeks I had with Euan we were able to take part in a range of activities like swimming, music and baby sensory sessions. It was brilliant to have that father and baby time together. It’s something very special and I felt that both Euan and I gained a lot from it. I’d really recommend it to any other dads-to-be.”