If you ever want to start a heated discussion, ask an an expat mom about her experience breastfeeding (or not) in France. You’ll hear about hospital staff who secretly gave formula to baby or the outdated “advice” from well-meaning midwives. You’ll also hear how moms appreciated that they could pull out a boob (or bottle) in public without feel judged. And that they could actually afford the follow-up support often needed to have a successful breastfeeding experience.
There isn’t a strong tradition of extended breastfeeding in France. According to France’s National Institute of Health, most French mothers breastfeed an average of 17 weeks. The Institute for Public Health Surveillance reports that fewer than 25% of French moms breastfeed for six months or more. There are both cultural and historical reasons for this trend, which our Frenchwoman can explain.
My impression of breastfeeding in France: It’s seen as a personal choice, not a social mandate. Some moms go for it, but there’s no pressure or guilt if you choose not to. The upside: If you don’t want to breastfeed (or want to wean after a few months), you’ll get zero criticism from friends and family. The downside: If you do want to breastfeed, there isn’t the strongest support system to help you be successful.
When I gave birth to my son, I went to the maternité fully prepared to defend my God-given right to breastfeed. When the nurse asked if I wanted to nurse my just-born baby, I enthusiastically replied, “Je suis Americaine. Nous allaitons!” (I’m American. We breastfeed!)
If only I’d been able to maintain that level of enthusiasm. Like many new mamas, I had a lot of problems breastfeeding. I received terrible, outdated and conflicting advice from the team of medical professionals in charge of my and my baby’s care. At one point, the hospital’s lactation consultant grabbed my (okay, small) breasts and said, “You expect to feed him with these!?”
I’ve spoken with expat moms who hail from pro-breastfeeding cultures about their experiences trying to breastfeed here. Many of us have the same story: We went in wanting to breastfeed longterm, but many of us were unable to due to lack of support. Many of us have faced the same basic questions when faced with breastfeeding in France: If we can’t breastfeed exclusively, are we really failures? Would we have a more successful experience if we lived in our home countries? Is formula really the devil? (French kids seem to be doing okay, after all).
Here are a few of the stories these mamas shared with me…
“I felt obligated to cover up when feeding my son in the US, but in France, numerous women came up to me and told me to uncover him so that he could breathe or see the world while feeding. It seemed so natural and normal just to whip my boob out in any situation and no one blinked an eye! Even more, it seemed encouraged.”
– Sasha, American in Paris
“I gave birth to my first baby in France and my second in the U.S. There is much more pressure to breastfeed in the U.S., but there’s also more help for you to be successful at it. It seemed to me like the French doctors were more concerned about the mother and the Americans more concerned about the baby.”
– Kerri, American who lived in Lyon
“My first was born in Paris and my second in New York. Both of my boys had tongue and lip ties. If I were to focus on one difference that stands out: the costs and access to solutions. It’s hard to defend the position that France’s laissez-faire attitute about breastfeeding doesn’t impact moms who are trying to find support. Of course it does. Usually it means tapping into your small network, but you have time in the hospital (assuming you choose a pro-breastfeeding one), the PMI for free daily access to weighing/on-call nurse, etc… I did have to go to London with a 3-week old to have a procedure done, but when I totaled all the breastfeeding and tongue tie-related costs I faced in France, it’s still less than doing the same in New York City. There’s a lot to be said about the American pro-breastfeeding stance, but being kicked out of the hospital within 48 hours means the costs for breastfeeding support are private expenses that aren’t covered by insurance. I remain grateful I could afford to pursue my options in the US because so many others can’t.”
– Malena, a Cuban-American who lived in Paris
“I really feel formula is pushed so much over here, which is basically the opposite of back home in Australia. I often wonder if I would have had a much easier time if I’d been back home, if I would have received the proper support over there. However, once you are a formula feeder, it’s much better in France as there is a lot less judgment. I’ve had many friends back home have to hide their formula feeding and feel ashamed of it because people have given them a lot of judgment—without even knowing the reasons why they are formula feeding. Really, the best baby is a fed baby!”
– Louise, Australian in Paris
“I had twin boys who were premature so needed to be bottle-fed from the start. I felt the need for formula was pushed on me a lot at the hospital, as the medical professionals have the stance that “fed is best.” In New Zealand, I’m sure I would have been encouraged to breastfeed as much as possible and made to pump ‘round the clock to ensure I was giving them as much breastmilk as possible. Most of the pressure I’ve felt to breastfeed has been from myself, which is largely influenced by the societal expectations back in NZ. In France, I’ve been encouraged and commended the entire way for whatever I achieved, even if it wasn’t exclusively breastfeeding. I’ve come to the conclusion that nobody is in a place to judge me and my situation, especially as I have two babies to feed. Maybe the French attitude has rubbed off on me more than I’ve realized!”
– Rebecca, Kiwi in Lyon
“I grew up in America with all the benefits of breastfeeding drilled into my head and saw it as an obligation to being a good mother. When I got pregnant in France, I started hearing people express their unfavorable views towards nursing. My French mother-in-law told me she found it to be “unnatural” and “indecent.” Once my son got a bit older, she felt that by continuing to nurse I was being overly possessive of the baby because I wouldn’t let him spend the night with his grandparents. I nursed around my MIL with a coverup but often went into another room as it made her so uncomfortable. This part is beyond my comprehension, the woman goes topless on the beach but is bothered that I’m feeding my baby!
– Melanie, American in Paris
“I worked for a well-known video creator when my first daughter was born. Most of the other women at my company came back to work when their babies were 10 weeks old and, as far as I know, they all weaned their babies at this time. I felt strongly about breastfeeding until at least six months, so when I returned to work I talked to human resources about arranging a space to pump, 1-2x per day. No one had ever made this request before, but they were very understanding and eventually found an unused mini bathroom that they converted to a pumping room for me. I stored my pumped milk in the communal refrigerator and everyone was cool with it.”
– Mary Beth, American in Paris
“I went back to India to have my first baby. As a bottle-feeding mother there, I felt like I had failed my son. I was constantly asked why I wasn’t breastfeeding. People would advise me to feed my son in a closed room so no one would realise I wasn’t nursing. My experience after coming back to France has been the exact opposite. I’ve never been judged for feeding my baby with a bottle nor has anyone ever suggested, even subtly, that I should be breastfeeding instead. It’s seen as just another acceptable way to nourish a baby. It’s made me so grateful I’m living in Lyon and not in Delhi!”
– Aparajita, Indian in Lyon
What was your experience like with breastfeeding (or not) in France? Tell us in the comments or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And sign up for our newsletter for the best stories about women, culture and France.