Breastfeeding Issues I’ve Encountered in France

When I got pregnant with Littlest I knew I wanted to try breastfeeding, and my initial thought was that I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to make it work if it really was too complicated. My boobs changed a lot during pregnancy and were the very first sign I was pregnant. I went up two cup sizes by the time my milk came in, though I seem to have settled back down almost a cup size since then. Everyone’s choice about this is personal, but to me it just made sense to put all these changes to the test and ask my boobs to do what they were physically preparing for.

There are a few things that have surprised me with this experience, and they may or may not be cultural, but I think they are somewhat specific to France.

  1. In France your employer legally has to give you an hour to pump every day at work. This is such a joke when you’re a teacher, and I’m sure it’s worse if you’re an elementary school teacher. I scoured the internet for personal experiences from other teachers on forums since the Education Nationale has apparently nothing to say about it. The two other teachers I opened up to and talked to about it had either not breastfed at all or had just quit when they went back to work (at 3 months). So I felt pretty alone in my quest to pump at work until I went to see the school nurse (a former midwife) back in September to talk to her about where I could pump. She was so supportive that I stopped feeling like such a freak for wanting to teach and give my baby breast milk. Maybe I’ll continue to feel like a freak when I’m pumping in the nurse’s room during both récrés and my lunch break… but I hope not.
  2. Out of the five women in my birth classes, only two of us tried to breastfeed. One of the other women is pumping and mixing with formula, which sounds exhausting to me. So even with these ladies (the other one who tried stopped after two weeks), I feel a little bit on my own. My colleague who had a baby last year didn’t breastfeed either.
  3. I chatted a little with some of my colleagues and acquaintances, or they opened up about it on their own, before Littlest was born. At least two women said they either got stressed about the baby not eating enough or didn’t have enough milk for the baby. I took them at their word until I realized people love suggesting to breastfeeding moms that they don’t have enough milk. Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration—but here’s a tip for everyone out there: Never ever say to a breastfeeding mom that she might not have enough milk for her baby, unless you are a certified lactation consultant! I mean wtf? Two of J’s family members suggested to me at completely different times that I didn’t have enough milk based on absolutely nothing. (For the record, I’ve always had enough milk and I’ve never been worried about it.) It’s infuriating and heartless and irresponsible. So many women get stressed out about this and so few of them really don’t have enough milk for their babies.

I get that breastfeeding is a big constraint that some women don’t want to put up with, and there are obviously other personal and health reasons why women wouldn’t be able to or wouldn’t wish to breastfeed. I did actually almost give up at two months because Littlest’s evening feedings were becoming a real PITA, and was surprised at how sad I was to think we were stopping, so so much for that chill attitude I’d hoped to have when I was pregnant. But here are the advantages I’ve found, and I try to remind myself of them when I get the impression that all the bottle-fed babies in the world are already sleeping through the night.

  1. One of my colleagues said she stopped because she stressed about not knowing how much the baby was eating. I LOVE not knowing how much the baby is eating. We give him one bottle every evening (occasionally he takes another one in the morning if I’m too tired) and we never worry too much about him eating a specific amount because we know he got what he needs the rest of the day out of the breast. FREEDOM.
  2. Along those same lines, it’s much easier to pack my nipple shield and washcloth with me when we go out than the formula, bottle and bottled water. (Though I would also love if it he would learn to regularly latch and give up the freaking nipple shield.) Also in the middle of the night there’s no mixing to be done.
  3. Antibodies: babies are protected by their mom’s immune system for the first three months after the birth anyway, but breastfeeding gives extra help, such as last week when Littlest barely got the stomach flu I was dealing with, because my new antibodies were streaming through the breast milk. (My understanding of this is fairly limited, but I think it works something like that.)
  4. I’ve already lost more weight than I gained during the pregnancy (though I think this counts way less than reasons 1-3) and I haven’t gotten my period yet.
  5. Also, Littlest is really cute when he’s breastfeeding. I mean it is a really sweet moment for just the two of us, especially at night.

Anyway, the takeaway for me from all this is that I actually feel pretty alone in breastfeeding among women of my generation, which is weird, because when we looked up the official numbers, the rates are no lower in France than in the States. I do think it picked up later on here than in the States (J and his sister weren’t breastfed, for example), but most women of that generation have since learned about the benefits so other than the careless remarks about milk supply, everyone’s been supportive. So I try to remind myself of the advantages to help feel less lonely about it.

Anyone have any other experiences (your own, other people’s…) to add to this list?

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18 thoughts on “Breastfeeding Issues I’ve Encountered in France

  1. Reb says:

    I’m sorry to hear you’ve felt so alone in breastfeeding–and that people have suggested you should be worried about not having enough milk. N’importe quoi! It sounds like it’s been a positive experience for you and has contributed to your bond with your son. I’m planning to do so, too, (the little one is expected in June) and like you, I’m also worried about finding ways to pump during the work day, despite knowing my employer is required to give me an hour to do so. I work with a bunch of 20- and 30-something guys in high tech software development… There’s no nurse and no precedent for breastfeeding in my company, and trying to get the 20 fewer minutes per day my convention collective gives pregnant women has led to my commitment being subtly called into question.

    That said, it has seemed so far to me like everyone here breastfeeds! My husband thought it was a given. Almost of my friends with kids have breastfed exclusively for 3 months, and most have continued after returning to work. But we’re becoming increasingly aware that our circle of friends is full of parents who tend strongly towards a bobo-ish, new age take on parenting, from natural/non-hospital (!) births to cloth diapers… I’m not sure if breastfeeding is a characteristic of that sort if attitude, or if it’s more general than that in France. Funny how experiences vary from one place to another. Maybe I’ll have a different impression in 9 months, though.

    (My husband and I live just outside of Bordeaux and we both work in the Metropole, and if you’re planning on still being in the area in the evening, we’d be happy to have the three of you over for dinner. I know that can be complicated if you have a long drive home, and especially with the petit, but if by any chance you’re up for it, let me know!)

    • Congratulations on the upcoming little one! My brother is having a baby in June too (early June so maybe May) and we are planning to go visit at the end of July.

      It’s surprising how much of a difference it makes to have just that one person supporting you at work. Turns out my boss is very supportive too. I hope you find someone to motivate you even if that person isn’t at work. It helped me so much just to feel normal about it. (That said, I haven’t actually started doing it yet!) I’m lucky in that teaching is what they call a “feminized” profession and so pregnancy is really common, but it can go both ways—people were really surprised I pushed back my maternity leave since almost everyone even gets the “congé pathologique” nowadays. I am really glad I did as it’s given me two more weeks with the baby (and also gave me some time to get to know my students).

      We also were under the impression pre-baby that practically everyone breastfed. The friends we know who’ve had babies have at least tried, and J’s cousin breastfed her babies up till a year. We have another friend who’s still going strong at almost 2 years. But we don’t see these people every day or even all that often… and it would have helped to have someone going through it at the same time!

      I would have loved to have dinner but travel and evenings are complicated with the baby. We try to get him down around 8 or 9 and we have to time departures according to his last feeding so it would just be too complicated. Some other time though, I hope!

      • Reb says:

        Absolutely: I wouldn’t be surprised to find that pre- and post-baby impressions are so different. I’m really glad to hear your boss is supportive! My fingers are crossed that the return to work will go smoothly for you, in all aspects.

        I can’t tell you how much I’ve been appreciating the baby-related posts.

        Congratulations to your brother, as well! That’s exciting to have cousins who will be so close in age!

        I figured dinner plus travel would be a bit much, but wanted to offer anyway. If you’re interested, please do let me know the next time you’re in the area!

  2. My main obstacle wasn’t so much people my age, but my mother-in-law, who hadn’t done it (and had a fairly traumatic experience trying, apparently). She had no idea about it, and while she wouldn’t say anything about my milk, she would say things like “Of course you can drink wine!” (which of course you can, just not whenever you want…) There was also the tension of knowing more about something than her, and her not being super comfortable seeing me do it. I would go upstairs and feed him all alone while they ate downstairs… by around 6 months though, I was like, whatever, and just sat in the couch facing the other way so they didn’t see, lol.

    I was the first to pump in my office, since in Luxembourg, the 1.5 hours to do it is so that you can go home/daycare to do it. I was in the unlocked infirmary room with my back to the door during lunch every day. I did find that I simply couldn’t pump enough after the first month back (stress perhaps?), and ended up having formula with the nounou and then me whenever we were home together. I agree that it was much easier to be out and about without a bottle, and nighttime was easier too without worrying about mixing! While I initially felt like a “failure” for not exclusively breastfeeding (which seems so ridiculous to think about now), it worked out fine. And I was able to continue to about 11 months, which surprised my gyneco, since he said most of his patients did usually stop at 3 months.

    When I did finally one night around 11 months tell hubby “omg I’m just so tired, please go get a bottle” he ended up starting to sleep through the night two days later! So something to think about in a few months if you’re feeling ready to night ween! Not a guarantee he’ll do it, of course, but I do wish I had tried it maybe a month earlier and gotten a bit more sleep!

    • Oh mother-in-laws. I have almost the opposite problem: she is TOO Interested in everything and it’s really tiring. The first weeks the questions were about how much he slept, how many times he ate at night, which was just too complicated to explain and also I didn’t feel like giving her every detail of our existence. Also I think the concept of feeding on demand is foreign to her and the idea of sleeping through the night far too important. I would hate having to hide to breastfeed at their house, but I may have to soon as last time she started stroking the baby’s head while I was feeding… so either I have to find a way to tell her not to do that or go hide.

      Our infirmary room door does lock so hopefully I can let the nurse know when I’m in there so she can avoid coming in with students.

      I needed some sort of approval from someone else in order to go to “mixed” feeding… in my case it was the midwife who suggested it so that we wouldn’t stop breastfeeding. It’s weird though how I needed someone other than my husband to suggest it in order to feel okay with it. Not sure how pumping will go at work—I’ll be leaving formula at the nanny’s too and telling her to start with the breastmilk and go to formula if there’s not enough.

      And I’ll keep that in mind about the night weaning, thanks!

  3. So interesting – I noticed a difference between the U.S. and France in terms of breastfeeding too, although of course my experience is purely anecdotal. People I know in the U.S. seem extremely pro-breastfeeding – some people I know breastfed their kids for over a year and even seem to frown on formula, saying it can cause digestion problems. In France, it seemed normal not to breastfeed much at all, and an American friend of mine who had her child in France said that breastfeeding was discouraged after a month or two because the goal is to get your baby to sleep through the night. I don’t think any of the moms I know in France own a breast pump, even if they do breastfeed, whereas it seems to be a staple for American moms. However, I can see from the comment above that what I’ve observed isn’t universal throughout France, and certainly the U.S. is very diverse as well. It’s so personal – I think that every family just has to do what works best for them and their baby, and everyone else should respect that it’s none of their business. Who goes around telling moms they don’t have enough milk?!

    • To be fair, formula is really gross and it is way less easy for babies to digest, so there is truth to all these things that hardcore breastfeeders believe. But like all the rules and guidelines about babies, you gotta make choices that allow you to live your life! I didn’t plan to ever put the baby in bed with us (doctors advise against it for SIDS) and guess what, the first week, it happened.

      I have felt the emphasis on baby sleeping through the night in France, though I can’t say if it’s stronger than in the US since I’ve never had a baby in the US. I read a good article about how sleeping through the night is just something non-parents think about before they have kids, since kids wake up during the night their whole kid lives: nightmares, being sick, etc. And I also read recently that for a newborn, 5 hours straight is considered sleeping through the night. If that’s the case, then ours “slept through the night” last night from 9 pm to 2:30 am for his first feeding (not gonna lie, it would be great if he did that every night but he usually wakes earlier).

      A couple of our friends/relatives have pumped at home and/or at work, and it is really easy to rent one from the pharmacy, and it’s completely covered by the sécu. So that’s awesome. But I do get the feeling that exclusively pumping is mostly an American thing.

      Thanks for for your comment and the support on the not-enough-milk comments!

      • I keep hearing that once you become a parent, you never get to sleep again until your kids are teenagers! It seems to me that in the U.S. it’s expected that your baby won’t sleep through the night. At least, that’s what parenting memes on Facebook tell me. 🙂

        So cool that you can rent out breast pumps and that it’s covered by the sécu ! I would so prefer to have kids in France instead of the U.S. It’s so great that so much of the medical stuff is completely covered, not to mention maternity leave!

  4. While I have seen women out and about here breastfeeding or pumping – no idea in the US as I haven’t spent huge chunks of time there in years (but from American friends on FB, it seems most of them do formula) – even my husband seems pretty ignorant on the subject. At least when it comes to pumping. I know my SIL was breastfeeding, but I don’t know how long she did it for.

    This is a conversation we’ve had:
    J: When we have a baby, we’re getting an Amazon subscription for diapers and formula.
    Me: Well, hopefully, we won’t need formula right away.
    J: But then how will I feed the baby if you’re sleeping?

    • I actually don’t know what most of my American friends have done since they’ve had their babies since I moved away and I haven’t communicated with almost all of them in such detail about it.

      In general my husband was less up to date on all current baby stuff like pumping, but we talked about a lot of things while I was pregnant and he came to a couple of my midwife classes, which was good. And he was super supportive of my breastfeeding plan.

      It’s been interesting generationally talking about this stuff with my mom, who “pumped” when we were little by expressing by hand into test tubes in the lab she worked in. I don’t know if that would work for me, but goes to show, technology isn’t always all that necessary.

      I didn’t know Amazon subscriptions for diapers existed in France! We may have to look into that.

  5. I have some FB friends who share every little tidbit of their lives, but I do know my best friend who had twins just used formula.

    I have know idea what my own mother did. It would be interesting to learn.

    I have no idea if the subscription exists for diapers, but we do have one for bags to clean up after our dogs so… maybe?

    • Just clicked on a few random diaper packs on Amazon, and some of them do have subscription offers! But then it would depend on how fast his size changes. You really have to pay attention to dates when it comes to changing your subscription. Like, I changed my doggie bag subscription from every 2 months to every 3 months in December, and it won’t go into effect until after the February delivery!

      • You’re right, Pampers definitely does them. We don’t buy brand name diapers though so I don’t know if it would save us money… he went from size 1 to size 2 to size 3 really fast. Maybe he’ll slow down now.

  6. So you know this is a subject close to my heart, but I won’t go on about it too much here! The obsession with knowing how much the baby is taking strikes me as quite French. It’s the same when you get on to weaning – you’re supposed to measure amounts, not just trust the baby to regulate his or her own appetite. But sadly I think that the unhelpful comments are everywhere, they just take a slightly different form.

    I’ve been expressing milk at work and it’s going OK so far except that it’s time consuming. It takes me around 45 minutes to get enough for the next day with the nanny, so that means I have to fit in that 45 minutes of work somewhere else, and I never want to leave late because I want to pick up the baby as soon as possible. That, along with some other issues meant that I did end up buying some formula … and given that she is currently refusing to drink from a bottle most of the time and has therefore drunk very little of either the formula or the expressed milk, I don’t have too many regrets about that! I wish we’d done what you’re doing and got her more used to bottles earlier on.

    In terms of the nights, I read about a study that said that breastfeeding mothers get woken up more often, but bottle-fed babies are awake for longer (presumably because it’s harder to feed them back to sleep), and breastfed babies actually sleep 14 minutes longer per night than bottle fed. Personally I find not going back to sleep harder than waking more often, so I found that reassuring.

    • Good for you for those 45 minutes. I’m hoping to pump three times a day at the beginning and back when I was pumping just to make up a stock (I stopped almost three weeks ago) I was getting a bottle’s worth (between 120 and 150 ml) each time. It depended on the time of day though. I’m a little skeptical of my ability to completely furnish what he needs… but we’ll see.

      I actually read somewhere—some study—that bottle fed babies don’t actually sleep longer. When we started the bottle in the evening we thought he might sleep longer for that first stretch, but it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.

      Also, the baby won’t take a bottle from me as far as we can tell. I only tried once and had to give up because he just cried and cried and didn’t drink anything, even though he’d started the bottle just fine with Dad.

  7. Belated congrats on your little one!

    When my in-laws came to the US for our wedding, my sister-in-law was still breast feeding her youngest daughter. Over her week-long visit I think two or three American women stopped to tell her how great it was that she was breastfeeding and she was surprised by people being so positive about it.

    There also seem to be a lot of awareness campaigns about breastfeeding in the US and making it easier for moms in public places. The university where I worked even had several lactation rooms on campus. I haven’t seen the same sort of thing in France, but maybe I just haven’t noticed since I’m not the intended audience.

    • Thanks Kari! I haven’t breastfed much in public here—just at friends’ homes and at rock climbing competitions—so I don’t know what the reactions will be if any. I’ve heard of lactation booths in airports in the States but didn’t know about them on college campuses. Maybe I’ll get to try one when we fly to Boston this summer, if we’re still breastfeeding!

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