What the French can teach us about the Anglo-American obsession with breastfeeding

little schoolgirl having idea while reading book isolated on grey

David Foster Wallace gave the 2005 Commencement speech at Kenyon College. He started with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

He explained:

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

I’m an old fish!

I can see, in a way many younger people cannot, that the current parenting reality — the water in which we swim — is natural mothering ideology. And I remember when it wasn’t.

French women aren’t pressured to breastfeed; breastfeeding rates are low and their children are as healthy or healthier than ours.

Anglo-American parenting experts are currently obsessed with what they imagine to be a recapitulation of motherhood prior to the advent of technology. As part of that, they are obsessed with breastfeeding rates. To make sure that everyone else is equally obsessed with breastfeeding, they have massively exaggerated the benefits, ignored the risks, and elided its physical and psychological toll on women.

But natural mothering ideology is just one parenting ideology among many. It isn’t the truth as most people who ever lived and most people who live now could tell us … if we would listen.

As I’ve pointed out many times, the fact that are ancient foremothers had no formula meant that their babies died if they couldn’t make enough breastmilk. It is no problem from a population standpoint if up to 15% of new mothers can’t produce enough milk, just like it is no problem from a population standpoint if 20% of pregnancies naturally end in miscarriage (as they do).

And I’ve pointed out many times that two entire generations of American were raised on formula nearly exclusively. According to lactation professionals’ predictions that formula leads to an increase in infant deaths, health problems and healthcare expenditures we should have seen a massive increase in all three. Instead infant mortality dropped, infant morbidity dropped, and pediatric healthcare expenditures rose no faster than the rest of healthcare spending.

But there’s another instructive example closer to hand. French women aren’t pressured to breastfeed; their breastfeeding rates are low and their children are as healthy or healthier than ours.

Why don’t many French women breastfeed?

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.

Why such a low rate?

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.”

Feminist French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter wrote an entire book on the topic, Conflict: The Woman and The Mother.

…[Badinter] contends that the politics of the last 40 years have produced three trends that have affected the concept of motherhood, and, consequently, women’s independence. … “[E]cology” and the desire to return to simpler times; second, a behavioral science based on ethology, the study of animal behavior; and last, an “essentialist” feminism, which praises breastfeeding and the experience of natural childbirth, while disparaging drugs and artificial hormones, like epidurals and birth control pills.
All three trends, Ms. Badinter writes, “boast about bringing happiness and wisdom to women, mothers, family, society and all of humankind.” But they also create enormous guilt in a woman who can’t live up to a false ideal…

Ms. Badinter … says that the baby has now become “the best ally of masculine domination.”

Badinter decries a philosophy that effectively relegates a woman to the home, sacrificing her health, independence and autonomy in an effort to live up to a socially constructed ideal:

… The “green” mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of “a degenerated industrial civilization” that would deprive her of “an irreplaceable experience,” to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers — in other words, to discard the inventions “that have liberated women.”

Sound familiar? It’s the ethos aggressively promoted by midwives and lactation consultants in the US and UK. According to them, a country like France, where women reject the very notion that unmedicated birth and breastfeeding important and worth pursuing, should be a hell-hole of pediatric tragedy.

But it’s not.

Voila!

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How does that compare with the UK where pressure to breastfeed is so intense that Half of Women Who Struggle to Breastfeed Feel Like Failures?

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Or how about the US where there has been widespread adoption of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative with a concomitant increase in newborn complications like dehydration, severe jaundice, brain injury and death? Indeed, exclusive breastfeeding is now the leading risk factor for newborn hospital readmission; literally tens of thousands of babies are being readmitted each year at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Compare the three countries and it’s easy to see that breastfeeding has no impact at all. The country with the best outcomes for infants is France, which has the lowest breastfeeding rates and the least amount of pressure to breastfeed.

The French can teach us a lot about the Anglo-American obsession with breastfeeding. Our obsession with breastfeeding reflects the culture in which we live, not what is good for either babies or mothers.

Our obsession with breastfeeding is a result of multiple different trends including the monetization of breastfeeding by lactation professionals, a popular trend to create ever more work for mothers, and a fear within the larger culture of women’s legal and professional emancipation.

We can be sure, however, that it has nothing to do with babies’ health no matter how strenuously lactational professionals insist it does. Look again at the graphs above. Who benefits from aggressive promotion of breastfeeding? It isn’t babies and it certainly isn’t mothers who are encouraged to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to breastfeed.

Take it from an old fish: your baby doesn’t care whether or not you breastfeed!

  • Lisa

    Vive la France! Sanity

  • Eater of Worlds

    I just saw this article today and wanted to share it somewhere. This woman has no idea how damn lucky she was she went into labor early. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-6658039/First-time-mother-discovers-having-twins-LABOR.html

    And of course she plans to have no scans in a following pregnancy, even though they had no fucking clue why she was in agony in labor after having given birth already and was about to be stitched up.

    Then I saw her spouse is a chiropractor.

    • rational thinker

      The dangerous thing about this article is it is promoted as a happy heartwarming story and most laypeople who are reading it don’t know any better. It does not tell how extremely lucky she was to go into labor early. In fact if she had labored at 40 or 40+ weeks she probably would be at home with her midwife and there is a really high chance her son would be dead.

      • Eater of Worlds

        That’s exactly why it bothers me.

        • space_upstairs

          The problem, I think, is the media’s business model. What will sell more ads: “Astonished couple happy with surprise twins” or “Alternative health couple lucky not to lose one of their twins after months of substandard prenatal care?” The latter, while socially responsible, will rule out ad revenue from alternative health products and services and threaten the financial viability of the media company.

    • RudyTooty

      Were they planning a home birth? But she went into labor at 36 weeks?

      WHO WAS HER MIDWIFE?

      • Eater of Worlds

        Yep, planning a homebirth with only a midwife. But because she went into labor a month early they went to the ER where she got a quick ultrasound. I bet that they assumed she was just having one baby and didn’t look really hard for any signs of another. I kept on thinking how the midwife missed signs of the twin, even without an ultrasound surely there are some signs? Like how she measures, feeling to see if the baby has turned or not, etc?

        • Cristina

          Yeah, I have a hard time believing they would miss twins if they were measuring belly size, but maybe they refused to, knowing that would risk her out?

  • Hannah

    I believe it ‘s not “Leche League” but “La Leche League” (the abbreviation is LLL). La is the article but still part of the name.

  • StephanieJR

    I’m currently in Vietnam (on holiday, with my parents, visiting my brother and his wife, whom are both teachers over here); we went to a supermarket earlier, and there were shelves full of formula powder, more than I’ve ever seen in Britain. I don’t know what the Asian view on breastfeeding is, but I thought it noteworthy.

  • rational thinker

    In the US the good parenting thing has gotten so out of control that it is now an extension of ego. I am 34 and I see women my age with infants or toddlers and constantly bragging about things that women have been doing forever. They try to outdo each other constantly and are so proud of themselves for basic crap. I had my first at 17 and infant care hasn’t changed much and I don’t recall ever being proud I just did what was needed to take care of my son I did not ever feel the need to pat myself on the back for it. .Breastfeeding and vaginal birth have become the biggest accomplishment and I cant see why they are so proud of doing something a teenager can do or a cat.

    • aurora

      I know women that post pictures of their freezer stashes, or just post pictures of their pump with pumped milk. They legit want standing ovations for this stuff. I find it so weird!

      • rational thinker

        It does make one wonder how after pumping taking pictures of milk posting it and bashing other women for formula feeding how much time is spent with the actual BABY you know the one that made all the self glorification possible? lol

  • alongpursuit

    In my experience, this refreshing French perspective on BFing and parenting is not reflected in Quebec (where I am from). “Natural” motherhood is à la mode ici.

    I’ve overheard mothers discussing how to manage cloth diapering while on a one-week vacation in NYC (did it not occur to them to use disposables to save themselves the stink and the headache, if only for a few days?). I’ve also talked to a mom whose baby was in a very low percentile for weight but she decided that she would get up every night to pump while her baby was sleeping in order to continue EBF. I’ve seen many times how having a baby means a switch to doing everything pioneer style (making clothes and food from scratch, avoiding plastics, etc.). For me, it’s the anti-feminism. Why make your life harder? I am the fish swimming upstream here and it’s rough.

    • aurora

      Pioneer style while making sure to share every moment on their 1000 dollar iPhones! Heheh.

    • Daleth

      I feel your pain! Maybe you should go on some French mothering chatboards? You might find more kindred spirits. My French friends were the only ones who ASKED if I was breastfeeding instead of assuming that I was, and the French friend who had a child around the same time I did also had a maternal request CS and formula-fed from day 1. She’s a scientist BTW.

  • Tiffany Aching

    French here! Although it’s true that lactivism isn’t as organized and influential here, it is definitely on the rise, sadly. Many friends of mine were pressured into breastfeeding even if they were very clear about the fact they didn’t want to. I breastfed my baby and had my share of very bad advice (no pacifiers, no bottles) that I knew I shouldn’t listen to, thanks to this blog, and also of unwanted pats on the back for doing such a good job (I didn’t expect to be congratulated for, well, feeding my child). I have also received tons of shit on Twitter for commenting against lactivism on the thread of a doctor who shared your recent article for Slate.

    Still the pressure is Indeed much less strong here. I think that there are several reasons for that:
    – it is comparatively very easy here to find reliable, affordable daycare for your kids, which makes going back to work much easier: we have much less “I had to put my career on hold for a few years and I will ace the fuck of this parenting thing” type of mothers here. Having kids is not necessarily seen as an accomplishment in itself, it’s just something that you do.
    – we have a much more casual relationship to food, and I really think that it plays a part here. For many French still food is just something you enjoy and shouldn’t become a difficult problem – the same applies to what you feed your baby. I really think there is a link between eating disorders and obsession with breastfeeding, and (hope I’m not offending anyone here) I think that the US has a very problematic relationship with food.

    Side note: although I’m in line with what Badinter says about mothering, she has very problematic views about systematic racism and islmophobia (she basically claims both don’t exist).

    • Griffin

      I’m an Aussie but have lived here in France for 8 years, I agree with all of this. I have noticed pamphlets pushing BF in the pharmacy and pathology lab but they have some balance that is lacking in Anglo equivalents (e.g. they acknowledge that some women cannot or do not want to BF).

      An additional factor that might stop the rise of BF hysteria here is that people here seem to think it is perfectly normal and reasonable to make decisions based on convenience. My pregnant neighbor told me casually at a neighborhood street party that she was going to bottle feed her baby immediately because she wanted to smoke and drink again (she was hungrily eyeing a lit cigarette nearby). Everyone around me nodded, it seemed to make total sense to them. I can’t imagine the average Aussie woman saying that in public! (Although The Katering Show does do a good job of pricking holes in the nonsense https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCGc8JKl5EvE8IjZ_qprNcQ )

      • Cartman36

        I think its funny how the pendulum just seems to swing from one extreme to another. My grandmother raised her Dad (in the US) in a time when convenience was all the rage (think Swanson frozen meal delivery plan) and she didn’t breastfeed because (her words not mine) that was something only poor people did. Now eschewing convenience is all the rage.

        One of the biggest benefits for me of supplementing from the beginning was being able to leave baby and RTF formula with grandma wand go out for dinner and drinks. I gave up all alcohol and ciggys for 9 months and I wasn’t going to give up alcohol for longer to EBF. I did (thus far) permanently give up smoking but mostly because I don’t want to end up dragging an oxygen tank around behind me.

      • seenthelight

        U. S. South here, and yeah, if I admitted to wanting to quit breastfeeding so I could smoke and drink again, all my peers save a couple fellow degenerates would think i was pure trailer trash. Sanctimommies abound. Sadly, I joke at calling myself degenerate, though I don’t really believe so, but society here would.

        I did have even deeper-South cousins ask me once when I was going to have a baby (married kinda young, but was still really early twenties when they asked), and they blanched and could have used smelling salts when I joked “when the birth control fails!” Good thing I didn’t make an abortion joke, because those are always on the tip of my tongue.

  • demodocus

    My kids have no idea one was bf’d and one ff’d. For that matter, only the older one has any idea what the younger one ate.