The Stigma of Breastfeeding in France

By Olivier Gee

French women just aren’t that into breastfeeding.

In fact, the typical French mother who chooses to breastfeed will only do it for 17 weeks, according to 2015 statistics from France’s National Institute of Health, Inserm.

The study, based on interviews with over 18,000 French mothers, found that only 70 percent will start breastfeeding at all.

And those who exclusively feed their children with mother’s milk will only do so for an average of seven weeks.

The French health authority that carried out the study recommends women breastfeed “exclusively up to six months and at least up to four months”, as does the World Health Organization.

The WHO encourages mothers to give at least some breast milk until children reach the age of two. But in France, only 19 percent of children still get their mother’s milk at the age of six months, compared to 92 percent of Norwegian children and 43 percent of South-East Asian children.

These numbers make French women rank among the least likely to breastfeed in Europe.

Free to Feed campaigners breastfeed their children outside Claridge's hotel, in Mayfair, central London, to demonstrate in support of public breastfeeding, after mother-of-three Louise Burns complained that the luxury hotel asked her to put a napkin over her baby's head, whilst she was breastfeeding her baby in the hotel's restaurant.

Free to Feed campaigners breastfeed their children outside Claridge’s hotel, in Mayfair, central London, to demonstrate in support of public breastfeeding, after mother-of-three Louise Burns complained that the luxury hotel asked her to put a napkin over her baby’s head, whilst she was breastfeeding her baby in the hotel’s restaurant.

And while these figures might sound worrying to health experts, things have actually got a lot better in recent decades. In 1995, only around 45 percent of French women breastfed immediately after birth, aftereffects of a long-time resistance to breastfeeding that dates back to the invention of pasteurization in the 19th century.

Indeed, it wasn’t until a rise in obesity among children that the French government to take notice and began to encourage breastfeeding in the year 2000.

But 16 years on, French women still aren’t keen on the practice.

Why not?

One key difference is that parental leave is shorter in France compared to many other European countries. While French women can expect around 16 weeks off work, the number is more than double that in Norway, for example. French women tend to drop their children at the crèche and get back to work.

“I stopped breastfeeding after three months, and I’m not too sure why,” says 31-year-old mother-of-one, Victoire.

She says that while she was happy to stop, she felt “guilty and sad” for about a week after the decision.

“I think it was a mix of wanting to feel like my old self in my body again, and not having to worry if someone else took care of my son while I wasn’t there.”

“I started to use a pump to get my milk out, but then I felt like a cow. Carrying a baby for nine months sees a lot of changes to your body already, and breastfeeding doesn’t help you to get your body back.”

She adds that she thinks other French women are also keen to get back to work quickly.

Beatrice, a pregnant mother-of-one in Paris, says she gave up breastfeeding “after five minutes” due to breast pain.

“The pain in my breasts was so bad that I couldn’t sleep. And I wanted my body back after nine months of pregnancy,” she says.

She adds that the decision to breastfeed or not should be up to the mother.

“I think women should do what they want and nobody should judge them,” she says.

“It’s hard enough to be confident about your own decision, so I think what suits you is what is best for your baby and your relationship.”

Another reason French women don’t breastfeed is that they simply don’t like doing it, it appears.

A study in 2014 found that 41 percent of French women found breastfeeding in public to be embarrassing, compared to just 18 percent in the UK and US.

In the same study, French women were the most dubious of all when asked if they thought breastfeeding was the best way to feed their child. Just 81 percent said they thought “breast was best” for their child, compared to 93 percent in the US and 95 percent in Germany.

This idea of not trusting the importance of breastfeeding highlights a crucial part of the stigma in France – there is a fundamental lack of education about breastfeeding.

While women in some countries can expect a full walk through on how to breastfeed, and for how long to do it, in the hospital, that’s not the case in France.

“I was given a total of five minutes of verbal advice and a whole host of booklets and leaflets to read,” a journalist in Paris tells Women Across Frontiers, just days after giving birth.

“I emailed the ‘breastfeeding expert’ at the hospital, and it’s been four days and I still haven’t heard back.”

31-year-old Victoire says all she was told was “put your boob in his mouth”.

The lack of information available for French mothers has prompted the creation of the “Leche League France”, a group that aims to help anyone seeking information or support.

Charlotte Yonge, one of the group’s leaders, says that French women are “totally” uneducated when it comes to breastfeeding.

“If you asked the average Frenchwoman: Are you going to breastfeed – she’d respond ‘Yes, I’ll try’,” she tells Women Across Frontiers.

“They’ve been told that some women can’t breastfeed. But that’s simply not true.

“Only about one in 100,000 women can’t breastfeed, these are the women whose pores aren’t naturally pierced. Quite simply, however, if you have a nipple, you can breastfeed.”

She said that women in France didn’t “invent the idea of ‘trying’ to breastfeed”, rather that the concept was drummed into their heads by midwives and gynecologists.

On top of this lack of education, she says that France appears to have no interest in following the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes.

Photo credit: Flávio Correia Lima

Photo credit: Flávio Correia Lima

Despite being one of the 84 countries to have signed up to the health policy, the country is not a staunch follower of the rules.

While the code tries to shield women from commercial promotion of things like infant formula and breast milk substitutes, France isn’t playing along, says Yonge.

“The promotion of infant formula is blatant in France. It’s absolutely blatant infringement on the code, with advertising in hospitals, in YouTube ads, in pharmacies,” she says.

“As a lactation consultant, I’d say that although France signed the code, they don’t respect it at all.”

And one of the prime companies to capitalize from this rule breaking is Swiss food and drink company Nestlé, which makes baby formula and other baby foods.

So inflamed is the breastfeeding help group by Nestlé’s advertising that they refuse to carry out interviews with companies affiliated with the brand.

Nestlé says that children can have purees at the age of four months, and it’s Nestlé that is training France’s pediatricians, Yonge explains.

Nestlé has faced similar boycotts in the US since the late seventies due to what some consider to be “aggressive marketing” of the substitutes for breast milk.

In France, despite the general increase in popularity of breastfeeding, the Leche League France group is convinced that there is still a long way to go.

And leader Yonge says that for the meantime, the ball is in the mothers’ court.

“To a mother, I’d say that you have to try and get the information on your own,” Yonge says.

“You have to depend on yourself only, midwives themselves will often complain about the lack of breastfeeding training on offer,” she adds.

“When I gave birth, doctors told me that books in French about breastfeeding simply didn’t exist.”

She says that the key move to improve the lack of breastfeeding knowledge is to provide “free and reliable” information from an early age at school.

“It’s a biological question. Once you have a child you realize that breasts have a biological function, they’re not sex toys. Breasts are a child’s only way of communicating with their mother. The breast solves every problem for a child who has no words.”

“France needs to honor the ‘informed choice’ dictum of the international breastfeeding health policy. And at the moment, breastfeeding is not an informed choice in France.”

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