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CHILDREN

Pregnancy to maternity leave: What you need to know about having a baby in France

Having a baby is a big moment in your life wherever you're living but if you're away from home, you have the extra pressure of finding out about the French health system, maternity leave and benefits. Here's a guide of what to expect.

Pregnancy to maternity leave: What you need to know about having a baby in France
France offers an excellent medical system. Photo: Deposit photos
Having a baby is one of the most important moments in your life – and it can also be quite daunting, especially if you’re in a foreign country.
 
France is no exception but knowing how the system works and being aware of some of the cultural differences can go a long way in reassuring future parents. 
 
 
Let’s start with some of the positives. France is Europe’s most fertile country and statistically it is one of the safest places to give birth in in Europe.
 
Childcare for babies only a few months old and upwards is heavily subsidised, which takes a great load off working parents.  
 
As you set off on your pregnancy journey in France perhaps one of the first things that will strike you is that having baby in France is a standardised process, which may come as a shock to some future parents.
 
There is much less discussion (often none for that matter) over what kind of birth a mother might want (home births for example aren’t common and generally not recommended).
 
There’s less support too: although antenatal classes are available, the French don’t go in for mums’ support groups or networks in a big way, which may make pregnancy in France feel a little lonely.
 
With that in mind, the key to a successful pregnancy in France is to know what to expect, believes British mother of two Helena Amourdedieu, who lives in the Paris suburbs and gave birth to both her children in France.
 
“If you come to France looking for the UK system, you won’t find it,” said Amourdedieu, adding that she thought the French system was ‘fantastic’.
 
“In the UK, it’s more of a mother-centred experience, but I had great care here, it’s just different and I had a very positive experience.”
 
But Annabel Gray, an English mother of two who gave birth to both her children in Paris less taken by her experience.
 
“Medically, it’s more reassuring in France,” said Gray. “But in England it’s much better on a human level, it’s less of a production process.
 
“Here, you’re quite rapidly bulldozed into the system and you don’t feel you have much control. There’s a balance to be struck.”
 
These are the steps you need to take if you’re having a baby in France.
 
Once you’re pregnant
 
After your first antenatal examination, you will be given a declaration de grossesse. This is a form you will need to fill out in order to claim social security and health insurance coverage. Once the baby is born, it must be registered within three days of giving birth at the local town hall. 
 
Eight things you should know about being pregnant in France
Pregnancy support groups can be hard to find in France. Photo: AFP
 
The forms are to be filled out and sent as follows: The pink sheet to your nearest Family Allowance Fund [Caisse d’Allocations Familiales (CAF)] and both blue sheets to the Health insurance fund [Casse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie (CPAM)].
 
During your pregnancy, you are required to have at least seven appointments with a doctor or midwife. This is a good time to discuss all your needs and make sure to talk to your doctor if you have any queries.
 
You may also want to attend antenatal classes in your hospital. In France, pregnant women are entitled to seven sessions for free. You may not make lifelong friends there, but the classes provide a good opportunity to meet other women and talk about your pregnancy in an informal setting. 
 
Giving birth 
 
Most people in France give birth in a hospital and it’s important to book a spot in a maternity hospital as soon as possible which is something your gynecologist can help you with.
 
Your gynecologist can also help to find you a midwife who will help in the preparation for the birth, as well as birthing exercises.
 
If, like most, you are planning on your health insurance covering the hospital expenses, make sure you choose a public hospital as they may not be covered if you give birth in a private hospital. 
 
But if you’re wondering whether to go public or private, you may want to ask around before as the considerations may not be the same as they are in your home country.
 
In France private healthcare isn’t necessarily better, as Helena Amourdedieu found out.
 
“When I came to France, as a Brit I automatically though that if I wanted good health care I’d have to go private,”said Amourdedieu.
 
“So for the birth of my first child, I went private. It was a big mistake as private hospitals are much more medicalised here. With my second, I went to the state hospital and it was great.”
 
When it’s time to give birth you may chose to have your own room which an increasing number of French hospitals offer.
 
You’ll have to pay for it though – (between €50 and €100 a night in a state hospital). It may be worth it as in France, mothers stay on average between three and five days in hospital after giving birth and six days after a Caesarean birth.
 
 
Coming home
 
While mothers may have more time to get used to their newborn in hospital in France, they are pretty much left to their own devices once they get home. New mothers are entitled to two visits from the midwife in the first week home and two others during the first two months.
 
It can feel a little lonely and daunting once you get home and a good place to go if you want advice or is the drop-in centre (called the PMI) where you can bring your child up to six years old for medical advice and other queries.
 
At this stage, you probably already have a GP but you may also consider finding a good pediatrician near you. They may be harder to find in rural areas, but cities are usually well provided for. A consultation is more expensive (although this depends on your health insurance) than with a GP but it can be worth getting a specialist to follow and get to know your child over the next few years.
 
 
Finding childcare in France: Where is the best place to live?
Most women return to work quite quickly in France. Photo: AFP
 
Maternity (and paternity) leave 
 
At this stage, you may be thinking about when or if you’ll be going back to work, and perhaps this is when one of the real differences between parenting in France and the UK for example becomes apparent.
 
France encourages women to go back to work and there are a host of childcare options to choose from when our baby is only a few months old. 
 
It’s also part of the culture.
 
“In France, there’s a lot of pressure to be the perfect woman, and in England there’s a lot of pressure to be the perfect mother,” said Annabel Gray, who didn’t go back to work right away but said she felt there was pressure to do so. 
 
But before you decide what you’re going to do, in terms of maternity leave, this is what mothers in France are entitled to:
 
Maternity leave in France can vary according to how many children you already have and how many you are about to give birth to. 
 
For example if you are having your first or second child, you will get 16 weeks of maternity leave but if you already have two children and are expecting your third, you will get 26 weeks of maternity leave. 
 
 
Table: Service-Public.fr (government website)
 
 
Although this can change if you are expecting twins or triplets when maternity leave increases to 34 week and 46 weeks, respectively. 
 
The maternity leave usually starts around six weeks before the mother gives birth and ends ten weeks afterwards, although again this depends on your personal situation. 
 
During this time you will receive social security compensation. 
 
Fathers are also entitled to paternity leave in France which works out as 11 consecutive days off work. 
 
Birth and early childcare allowances 
 
In 2004 the French government came up with the PAJE (Prestations d’accueil de jeune enfant) which is essentially a set of benefits that simplifies the lives of new parents in France by helping with the cost of a new child in the family. 
 
The prime à la naissance is a means-tested allowance paid at birth, which is €941.67. It is meant to be used to cover the expenses related to the birth (or adoption) of a child. 
 
In order to receive it, you cannot earn more than the amounts seen in the table below. 
 
For example, if you are living in a couple and have just one child, you will only receive the prime à la naissance if you earn less than €41,425. 
 
 
Table: Service-Public.fr (government website)
 
 
Don’t forget that if you have a mutuelle (health insurance plan) it often pays out a lump sum when your child is born. You’ll need to contact them to find out the details.
 
To receive maternity pay you need to have been registered with social security in France for 10 months prior to the expected birth date.
 
On top of that you need to be able to show that you have worked 200 hours in the 90 days leading up to antenatal leave.
 
The daily rate is calculated on the average salary received three months prior to antenatal leave.
 
The maternity leave is paid every 14 days by the CAF  and the maximum you can receive is €76.54 per day. 
 
 
 

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LIVING IN FRANCE

Crèche to cafés: How to make friends with other parents in France

Moving to a new country is complicated for so many reasons, while raising small children can sometimes feel like an assault course. If you happen to be combining the two, you’ll definitely need a support network - here journalist and mum-of-two Helen Massy-Beresford shares some tips for making friends in France.

Crèche to cafés: How to make friends with other parents in France

I have often read descriptions of new arrivals in France struggling to break down the reserve of chilly French neighbours and colleagues or finding the parents at their children’s schools snobbish and even hostile. Perhaps I have just been very lucky, but this hasn’t been my experience at all.

There are plenty of opportunities to connect and make friends – both for you and for your children – but when you’re newly arrived it can be hard to know where to start.

The Baby Days

The early weeks and months of a new baby can be brutal, and having good friends around can make all the difference. Maternity leave tends to be short in France and many mums are back at work after three months.

While employees can request a congé parental d’éducation to prolong that leave, and more and more employers are wising up to the fact that dads can look after babies too and allowing for leave to be split, a short congé followed by crèche (the holy grail) or assistante maternelle for the baby remains the norm.

Pregnancy to maternity leave: What you need to know if you’re having a baby in France

Possibly for this reason, parent-and-baby activities can seem rather lacking here. When I had my first child in London we were spoiled for choice: baby cinema, baby music, baby sensory, baby gym plus regular meet-ups with fellow new mums and their babies to drink coffee and stare into space.

In Paris, with my second daughter, I found much less in the way of entertainment for parents with new babies in tow (because let’s face it, the whole point is to occupy the parents) but these activities do exist, you just have to seek them out.

Look out for posters for baby yoga, baby music and the like. The babies might only be interested in chewing the flyers but the classes can be great ways to meet parents of similar-aged children.

Facebook still has its uses – check out local parents’ groups for your area. These can be a hive of useful information, with everything from paediatrician recommendations to offers to sell and swap baby clothes and equipment.

I’ve also made good friends by replying to meet-up requests from fellow English-speaking mums. When you’re sleep- deprived, sometimes it’s nice to be able to chat easily in your mother tongue.

The childcare setup you choose might be one way to forge new connections in France: while you’re unlikely to cross paths much with fellow parents dropping off or picking up at the crèche, for a garde partagée – one nanny shared between two families – you’ll need to find a co-family you get on with and with any luck your children will become friends.

One alternative to the standard crèche municipale (where spaces are rarer than unicorns anyway) is the crèche parentale, run by an association of parents – here you would have no choice but to get involved alongside the other parents.

READ ALSO How does the cost of childcare compare in France?

Looking beyond formal weekday childcare, lieux d’accueil are, as the name suggests, welcoming spaces with toys and room to play, where staff (often volunteers) are there to lend an ear if needed.

My daughter met her best friend at our local one when they were just 18 months old, six years later the friendship – extended to the whole families – is still going strong.

In the same vein, ludothèques are public spaces where kids can play with or sometimes borrow toys. In the summer months ludothèques and libraries sometimes set up outdoor reading or play spaces in parks. Some crèches and school playgrounds open at weekends for play sessions with children and their parents or carers.

Look out too for posters by associations (charities) in your local area advertising events for families: these can be themed around certain activities or just casual meet-ups sometimes known as a café des parents – all good places to meet local families, exchange local tips and maybe strike up a friendship.

But if you’re struggling to the point that a cheer-up-coffee-and-cake won’t help, there are plenty of organisations that can provide more targeted support, whether that’s with practicalities such as breastfeeding or just for company and advice.

You may be familiar with your local Protection Maternelle et Infantile (PMI) from taking your baby to be weighed, but these organisations offer much more besides, with a team made up of childcare experts, doctors and nurses that can help with health checks, monitoring your baby’s development and providing advice and support, both practical and moral. They also put on support groups for future and new parents as well as baby massage classes.

Family-centred society: What it’s really like raising kids in France

Park Life

Once your children are a little older, and especially if you live in a city, you’ll certainly spend more time in the playground than you ever thought possible.

French parents are usually pretty hands-off with their charges, letting them get on with eating sand or climbing the wrong way up the slide while they watch from afar.

Don’t be afraid to get chatting to your bench neighbour – we’ve made several good friends this way over the years, with the parents getting on as well as the kids.

For rainy days, see if there are any kids’ cafés near you – indoor space where children can run wild and parents can access caffeine.

Extracurricular Activities

Whether your child chooses football, scouts, fencing or dance, extracurricular activities are often run by associations so there will often be chances for parents to get involved in the organisation, a great way to meet other parents and volunteers.

If you’re on the lookout for English-speaking activities, you’ll find plenty (particularly in and around Paris) from musical theatre to Brownies. Don’t forget activities for yourself as well – once you have a babysitting option in place (see below) you’ll be free to meet people who share your love of archery or woodwork.

If you’re in search of ideas, in early September (la rentrée) be sure to attend your local Forum des Associations, where sports, arts and anything-you-can-think-of clubs and societies gather to set out what they offer.

Birthday Parties

Once your child or children are a bit older, birthdays are a good way to get to expand your local social circle.

Forget the organised fun of British kids’ parties, French parties are Lord of the Flies with Haribo.

No need for a lovingly prepared, balanced birthday tea, the menu is bonbons, bonbons, more bonbons and cake. And they probably won’t eat the cake.

In my experience French children do enjoy classic British party games such as pass the parcel and pin the tail on the donkey but they don’t really expect this kind of organised activity or entertainment, they just want to crash around with their friends.

Above the age of about three, most parents are delighted to leave their little darlings in the care of the birthday child’s parents, so the social part for the adults comes at the end, when they will most likely be happy to stay for a drink at pick-up time. The host parents will certainly need one.

School Gates

If you already have children when you move to France, slotting into the school system might seem an intimidating prospect. But your children will make friends quickly (even if they also have to learn French at the same time) and their friendships might also help you widen your social circle, although it will probably take time.

Depending on how many children you have and whether their school does everything from maternelle to lycée or not, you might be crossing paths with other parents at your child’s school for 15 years or more – so you may as well be on friendly terms.

As anywhere, the morning school run is usually a fraught experience, and since Covid, many schools have kept their staggered drop-off times for different classes, making it more of a drop-and-run than a chance for a relaxed chat. In the afternoon, some kids will be picked up by babysitters and others will stay at afterschool club, again, making it unlikely you’ll see the same parents day in day out.

But a friendly bonjour goes a long way and you’ll gradually get chatting to the parents of your child’s classmates at school fairs, parents’ meetings and birthday parties.

If your schedule allows, volunteering to accompany school trips can be a good way to get to know your child’s friends, teacher and the other parent volunteers. You can bond over the stress of trying to prevent 20-odd tiny terrors from launching themselves into the traffic or getting lost on the Metro.

You could also try volunteering for your school’s Association de parents d’élèves – chipping in to help organise the summer fair or Christmas market will be a great way to make friends with other parents.

Babysitters

Even when you’re in the thick of it, maintaining your links with the wide world beyond child-rearing is vital, so getting set up with a babysitter you trust is a good move.

You can go with one of many nanny/babysitting agencies such as www.kinougarde.com or www.babychou.com or if you want a personal recommendation ask around other parents at the crèche or school or check out requests on your local online parents’ group (see above).

Our school parents’ association helpfully provides a list of older children looking for babysitting jobs. Yours might too.

Once you have a trusted babysitter in place the world’s your oyster – join a local club or activity or take up a new sport and you’re bound to make like-minded friends.

Expat Associations

Sticking entirely to an expat bubble won’t help you integrate with your new French neighbours in the long-run, but groups aimed at English speakers can be a godsend, especially when you’re newly arrived or when your children are small and the navigating the unfamiliar in a foreign language is just too much.

In Paris, Message (www.messageparis.org) offers everything from antenatal classes to trick-or-treating events for older kids alongside plenty of practical support and tips on how to navigate life and parenting in France for new mums and dads as well as parents of older kids. Members are organised into local groups by arrondissement or suburb, meaning it’s easy to forge links close to home – I met one of my closest friends here that way.

Facebook can play a role here too, there are groups for English-speaking parents linked to specific areas and one in particular, Mums Space France, covers the whole country, offering advice, meet-ups and virtual camaraderie.

Helen Massy-Beresford is a journalist, editor and copywriter who has lived in France since 2016.

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