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Why don't many French women breastfeed?

Joshua Melvin · 7 Oct 2014, 15:09

Published: 07 Oct 2014 15:09 GMT+02:00

Breastfeeding might be all the rage for Anglo mothers, but in France it appears it's a radically different story.

A new report from France’s Institute for Public Health Surveillance shows that just under a quarter of French newborns are still being breastfed by the time they hit six months old.

It’s a rather anemic rate when compared to 33 percent of breastfed newborns in the Netherlands and a whopping 82 percent in Norway at the same age.

Data from Paris-based think tank OECD show the percentage of babies who've ever been breastfed--even for a day-- was above 95 percent in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. While the United States and the United Kingdom topped 75 percent.

The data put the number of French kids ever breastfed at some 62 percent. 

“France is not only the European country where the breastfeeding rate is one of the lowest but it's also one of the countries where mothers chose to breastfeed their child the least time possible,” the institute wrote in an article that appeared with the numbers.

Half of the 3,368 mothers in the study breastfed - full or part time - for less than three weeks. Yet for the mothers who continued on with breastfeeding all but 23 percent had given it up by the time the baby hit six months old.

French national health authorities says mothers should breastfeed for at least four months and note six months of breastfeeding is the best for the child’s health. According to the World Health Organization breast milk is the “perfect food” for newborns because it contains all the nutrients a child needs.

SEE ALSO: 'Breast is definitely not best if you live in France'

'French feminism equates breastfeeding with slavery'

But the WHO also attributes a range of other benefits to mothers’ milk including children with healthier immune systems as well as lower rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The reluctance of French women to breastfeed has been well documented in the Anglo press. One commentator writing in the Guardian newspaper summed up the attitude to breastfeeding by saying: "In France its regarded as something akin to drinking your own urine."

So, in a country known for trim waistlines and long life expectancy, why don’t French women breastfeed?

The "Leche League France", a breastfeeding support organization, said the reasons are historical and also tied to a curious strain of French feminism.

"There is a significant movement in French society which says breastfeeding is tantamount to slavery and exploitation. So to promote breastfeeding is to be against women’s liberation," Leche League spokeswoman Claude-Suzanne Didierjean-Jouveau told The Local on Tuesday.

"This brand of French feminism renounces breastfeeding because they consider motherhood slavery for women."

On top of that, the roots of the French reticence to breastfeed stretch back centuries. In the 17th century the well-off hired wet nurses to breastfeed their children.

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"It was a means for mothers to get out of breastfeeding, but also to not have to deal with their children as well. It, however, resulted in a very high infant mortality rate," Didierjean-Jouveau said.

By the 19th century pasteurization had been invented, rendering cow's milk safe for children and prompting a rise in the use of bottles. It was another blow against breastfeeding in France.

Didier-Jouveau added: "People began to associate breastfeeding with children dying, but bottles came to symbolise a healthier child."  

It wasn't until the dawn of the 21st century that the French government forcefully stepped in to encourage breastfeeding.

"In France it was not considered a public health problem, but a question of personal choice," she added. "That started to change in 2000 due to the increase in child obesity. The government was looking for anything it could to counter this epidemic."

France now sees nearly 70 percent of mothers breastfeed immediately after birth, where the number was closer to 45 percent in 1995. The trouble seems to come in the weeks and months after birth, where a number of factors push women to drop the practice.

One of which could be the fact that mothers receive 16 weeks paid maternity leave in France, meaning many women return to work around 10 to 13 weeks after the birth, making breastfeeding much more difficult.

Catherine Salinier, a paediatrician from Bagatelle Maternity hospital in Bordeaux says there other reasons beyond feminism for the low breastfeeding rates.

“In our country women work more than anywhere else. Because of that there is a large network of crèches in France, and it’s also down to tradition. The image of a woman who stays at home seems demeaning to us.

“It’s the French paradox. We have one of Europe’s highest birth rates but nothing is done to enhance the allowances paid out for parental leave,” Salinier told Europe1 radio.

Salinier also says not enough support is offered to mums in France to help them continue breastfeeding when a problem arises, citing a lack of training for mid-wives and doctors.

“It’s not their own mothers that will help them because in the 70s and 80s we mostly fed babies using the bottle,” she added.

Story continues below…

According to Salinier any length of time the mother spends breastfeeding is beneficial to the baby so “we must not make them feel guilty if they stop after one month”.

A previous study found women who had not gone further than the baccalaureate in school were 12-15 percent less likely to breastfeed.

Older, married mothers who didn’t smoke during pregnancy and took pre-birth preparation classes were also far more likely to breastfeed.

Though an expert in the field believes it’s also outside pressures that push French mothers to give up breastfeeding in a hurry.

“The baby formula industry is highly powerful, too few professionals are trained to aid mothers who would like to breastfeed and the result is that a lot of women quickly give up breastfeeding,” Marie-Camille Fonteniaud, a mother and breast milk proponent told French daily Le Parisien.

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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