Monday, 26 September 2016

My Experiences of Breastfeeding

When I was still in the early stages of pregnancy, I remember having an intense conversation with Understanding Frenchman one night about the fact that I wanted to breastfeed our baby and how worried I was that in France that might be a difficult thing to do. Among my family and friends it in the UK it is very much the norm, and when I was still living there, it was, as it is now, very much promoted as the healthiest option for mother and baby. In France, on the other hand, I could not recall ever having seen a woman breastfeeding. In addition the internet had led me to believe that I was living in a nation of bottle-feeders where the top priority for women was getting back to work fast and keeping their assets in shape for their husbands (or lovers, or whoever). And we all know that the internet is always right. Right?

Well, not really.

As I mentioned before, I gave birth in a "hôpital ami des bébés", so I was, as expected, well-supported there. To be honest, though, one of the most important aspects of the support was the fact that I was still in hospital on the third night when my milk came in and feeding really hurt, as is the norm in France. I was able to buzz for a friendly nurse who assured me that the pain was to be expected and would pass. (This is one of the many medical situations when all the information you receive beforehand talks about "some discomfort" when what they actually mean is that it can be agony.) Had I been already at home, which in the UK I probably would have been, it would have been a long wait until the next day to get expert advice.

Like many new mothers, I was also nervous about feeding in public. In both the British and French media, you can find stories about women who have been told not to feed their babies somewhere and it's caused a huge furore. When I read forums with people's everyday experiences however, most of the French mothers only had positive experiences to share. An interesting difference, I thought, was that the British websites were more militant about promoting right to breastfeed openly and anywhere, the French forums were more likely to contain tips about how to be discreet if you wanted to. While I don't think the militants are wrong, I found it easier to think about feeding my baby as something personal that I could just get on with in the way I felt comfortable than to consider it as a political act. Anyway, in my actual experience over the past three months, once I got over the initial awkwardness, it has been absolutely fine and I've never registered any sort of judgement other than smiles.

My experiences among family and friends have also been different to what I expected. It turns out that many French women, including a lot of our friends, do breast feed their babies, just not for very long, as there is a culture of going back to work quite early here. As a result you're less likely to see nursing in action, but that doesn't mean it's not encouraged. In UFM's family, most of the children were bottle fed, so I initially felt quite shy around them and tried to find quite corners every time the baby got hungry. That didn't last very long, however, as we kept ending up at random people's houses at unpredictable moments, and a hungry screaming baby is definitely more difficult to deal with than hitching up a t-shirt, so in the end I just went for it and nobody batted an eyelid. (The one exception was UFM's little nephews, aged 5 and 6, who were both fascinated by the process and insisted on coming to watch!)

Sadly, I've also learned along the way that in the UK, despite the promotion of breastfeeding to the point where many women experience it as pressure, the support once the baby is born is not necessarily all that wonderful and, despite the fact that maternity leave tends to be longer than in France, many mothers give up early on despite wanting to continue, so my vision of how things would have been over there was also somewhat rose-tinted in the beginning. The grass is not necessarily greener, and all that. I've also realised that the choice between breast and bottle is not always as straightforward as it is often presented to be, and that people make their decisions for any number of (valid) reasons, so I hope that nobody reading this post feels there is any judgement implied.

As a result, I feel very grateful for the mostly positive experiences I've had so far, both practically and socially. And perhaps the one good thing to come out of the infamous burkini affair is that the prime minister himself has provided the perfect riposte for when anyone ever criticises mothers for getting their breasts out in public (even if his art history turned out to be incorrect). If Marianne can freely show her naked bosom to feed the people of La République, then so can we all!


  1. To my surprise, out of the five women in my midwife classes, I'm the only one who really wants to breastfeed (three of the others were definite nos). Most of my colleagues who breastfed stopped before going back to work (or didn't breastfeed at all). I'm not taking the congé parental so I did have a talk with our school nurse a few weeks ago, who amazingly is a former midwife, about where I could pump if I manage to successfully breastfeed, and she was happy to help... but I'm pretty sure I'll be the only teacher who works there to have ever bothered!

    I get the impression Americans are way more into breastfeeding long-term, and I wish there were more women in France who did that. As it is I think I'll have to stop in order to go on a school trip I'm dying to go on in late spring.

    Crossing my fingers it goes reasonably well in any case.

    1. I've heard that in France there are quite big regional differences. Brittany has the lowest rate, so maybe where you are just a bit further south is similar. I was really impressed when I read the statistics for the US, especially as maternity leave isn't great there. Maybe there's a lot of pumping going on!

      I hope it all goes well for you, and even if you only do it for the length of your maternity leave or up until the trip, that's still a great start. I found the La Leche League website really helpful for advice and I've also been along to one of their meetings and the people were really nice. A friend who had more trouble than I did found she got the best advice from a lactation consultant, who picked up on a couple of big issues that the doctors and midwives had all missed, so that's worth considering if you do run into difficulties.

      If you want to chat any more, feel free to send me an email at englishprof at hotmail dot fr. I'm no expert, but I found it really helped to be able to discuss things with people who'd been there too!

    2. We have a Leche League in Poitiers that I will probably check out. What's the French for lactation consultant though? I wasn't even sure if they existed here! Thanks for the e-mail address too!

    3. It's a consultant en lactation. My friend found hers privately but our local PMI also has one.

  2. Most French women I know breastfed for at least the first few months. None of them mentioned any awkwardness or pressure (including those who chose not to breastfeed).

    I found that in Canada (and in the US as well), the pressure to breastfeed is INTENSE. Like, I had nothing against breastfeeding, I was all for it, and by the time I was ready to give birth I almost had an adverse reaction to it after being pretty much forced by the medical staff to just do it. Fortunately, I still wanted to experience breastfeeding and it went very well for us. I stopped after three months, when it became obvious that I couldn't physically keep up with Mark's cluster feed. He would eat non-stop for four or five hours at night and I had no milk left after a while. I didn't want to use a pump and I wasn't interested in breastfeeding clinics (!) my doctor tried to send me too. As far as I was concerned, the most important was for Mark to eat and gain weight. We did bottle + breastfeeding for a while, then switched to formula and that was it.

    I think each mom should do what works best for her and her kid. If you feel like it, breastfeed for a few months, a few years even. But let's keep it judgment-free... it really is a personal decision.

    I was guilt-tripped (I should have breastfed longer! I should have tried harder! etc.) but at this stage, I no longer cared. It was a beautiful experience for us and it ended and you know what? I was okay with that.