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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]French women aren’t pressured to breastfeed; breastfeeding rates are low and their children are as healthy or healthier than ours.[/pullquote]

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.



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?


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.


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!