Guest post: Childbirth in France is both baby friendly and mom friendly

View on Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

A reader shared her childbirth experiences in France with me and I was fascinated. I thought my other readers would be interested, too, and she gave her permission for me to share this, though she prefers to remain anonymous.

I live in France, and after having given birth twice here, I thought you may be interested in hearing about my experiences with what I consider to be a true baby (and mommy) friendly hospital. Granted, I gave birth twice in the same hospital, so my sample size is limited but I can say my experiences were consistent both times, and with those I’ve heard of friends who’ve birthed at other hospitals as well as friends who work in maternal care in other areas of the country.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]With my son, I knew we were going to formula feeding immediately, but I wanted to give him colostrum early on, a common practice here; they call it a “tetine d’accueil” – welcome nipple.[/pullquote]

First of all, I was required to give birth at a real hospital, neither a home birth nor even a clinic were options for me. With my first pregnancy, my daughter, I stated that I didn’t want an epidural upon arrival at the hospital, and no one tried to change my mind otherwise. The midwives who admitted us and got us settled in were completely understanding, the only caveat was that I wasn’t eligible for the “natural birthing” suite, I had to stay in one of the “medical” birthing rooms. The hospital is equipped with 14 private birthing rooms (plus the natural birthing suite, which apparently sits empty most of the time), each with a private bathroom and shower, and about half have bathtubs as well.

I finally gave in to the epidural with my daughter, after over 24 hours of back labor, and with my son, I asked for the epidural as soon as we arrived at the hospital as things seemed to be progressing more quickly with him. Again, in neither situation did I feel coerced into one choice or another, and I truly felt the choice was up to me. In both cases, as we were waiting for me to dilate enough to start pushing, we were taken through a questionnaire asking about any special requests during the delivery – extended cord clamping, skin to skin (and whether it would be me or my husband to go first, what would happen if I was unable to interact with the baby immediately after delivery), who would pull the baby out (my husband or me – totally left that one up to him!), whether we wanted any special music or mirror so I could see what was happening, feeding choices, etc.. In each case, our answers were listened to and clarified, with it being made clear that our requests would be honored as much as possible, as long as neither I nor the baby were in any danger. Luckily, I had relatively problem free deliveries in both cases, with both babies arriving after minimal pushing.

Both of my births were attended by 3 members of hospital staff: a midwife (which here is a nurse who does additional training in midwifery), a nurse specializing in babies and a student midwife. I did not see a single “real” medical doctor either time as there was no need for one, although I was reassured knowing that there were several doctors on site for emergencies and the operating suite was just down the hall. Our daughter had to be taken away to the NICU for some breathing problems (having swallowed some amniotic fluid), so she was seen by a pediatrician within her first few hours and her father was allowed to stay with her the whole time. Our son had no problems, and we were left alone in the birthing room, lights dimmed, for at least his first 2 hours to begin to bond with the baby, perform skin-to-skin contact and try his first feeding (more on that in a moment) with the midwives and nurses only entering when we called them.

With my daughter I had planned to breastfeed; however, after several days she was screaming non-stop, I was miserable as I HATED the feeling of breast-feeding, wasn’t getting any sleep and was actually dreading taking my baby in my arms. The midwives checked her latch, and even tried to feed her with a little tube running from a formula bottle to my nipple so that she would be getting milk while thinking she was breast feeding. I realize now that she probably wasn’t getting enough to eat and the poor thing was hungry. In the end, it was actually one of the midwives who was honest enough with me to say just to give her formula, explained that it’s just as good and pointed out that if I’m this miserable now, continuing breastfeeding and trying to pump would only make me more miserable and that I’d regret it later if I didn’t enjoy this early time with my baby.

After talking it over with my husband (who was 100% supportive of formula feeding if that was what I felt was best), I said I would have him bring some formula in the morning. Imagine my surprise when she said no, that wasn’t allowed. The hospital actually provides ALL of the formula while the baby is there, so that they know exactly what the baby is eating and that it’s prepared properly. Throughout both of our hospital stays, all the formula both of my babies ate was provided, in 70ml pre-mixed, disposable bottles, with sealed sterilized disposable nipples. When giving birth to my son, I found out that the various formula companies rotate in providing samples to the hospital and the hospital isn’t allowed to recommend any one brand over another, they instruct new mothers to just buy any formula from the grocery store or pharmacy for “premiere age” – birth to 6 months, or of course to consult with a pediatrician or family doctor.

Luckily, we made the decision to switch my daughter to formula when she was not even 3 days old, so I don’t have a lot of guilt from thinking I starved my baby for very long; and I was struck by the concern that was shown for my psychological well-being, not just the health of the baby. This was also true with the other nurses and midwives who rotated throughout the shifts and later noticed we had switched to formula – no judgment or lecturing, mostly just comments that each mother needs to do what works for her, and even a few congratulations for being willing to make the decision so early for both mine and the baby’s benefit (yes, MY benefit was included in those comments).

With my son, I knew we were going to formula feeding immediately, but I wanted to give him the colostrum early on (yes, I realize the research on this is inconclusive but I figured it can’t hurt; this is actually a common practice here in France for mothers who don’t want to breastfeed, they call it a “tetine d’accueil” – welcome nipple J). The midwife who was going through our requests with us was completely supportive, helped us to get set up to do his colostrum feeding and then brought in the formula samples in case he was still hungry.

I stayed in the same maternity ward with both babies, which is comprised of private rooms with bathrooms, and space for the baby’s cradle as well as an extra pull out recliner for dad to sleep on if he so wishes. The maternity ward is staffed 24 hrs/day with midwifes and nurses specializing in infant care, with a pediatrician and OB-GYN on call. This was a university hospital, so there were several students of these varying specialties as well. Babies can stay with the mom in her room, or there is an optional nursery next to the nursing/midwife stations where babies can be left in their cradles for however long mom needs. With my daughter, the midwives were concerned that I wasn’t sleeping the first night or two and encouraged me to leave her in the nursery for a few hours. I refused, however I did leave the babies there when they were sleeping and I wanted to take a shower, and the nurses and midwives were completely non-judgmental and simply told me how beautiful the babies were J

With my daughter we were in the maternity ward for a week, as they were concerned that she may have an infection from the amniotic fluid she swallowed and they wanted to monitor her. Anytime a baby under a certain age is admitted to the hospital, one parent has the right to stay with them 24/7 so we spent 7 days in what I call “baby boot-camp” – I learned to change diapers, give her a bath, measure her temperature, burp her, you name it. There was always someone on call to answer silly questions and to help as much or as little as I wanted. With my son, we were only in the maternity ward for 4 days, which is the minimum for someone with my health issues as they wanted to monitor me afterwards. In fact, the shortest maternity ward stay possible here is 48 hours, and that’s only authorized in cases of non-first birth where everything has gone exceptionally well with a vaginal delivery and mom has no pre-existing medical conditions, but there is a mandatory follow-up home visit with a midwife within the first week of the baby’s life.

And how much did all of this cost, you may ask? My husband and I paid a total of about 15 euro when leaving to take my daughter home, and that was for 2 meals that my husband ordered at the hospital to eat with me. We also had to pay out of pocket for a follow-up test during her first month, and I was mentally planning to take money out of savings to cover it until she would be registered with the health care system which would reimburse us – imagine my surprise when the bill arrived for 11 euros!. I’ve been closely watching the health-care debate in the US, and I have a friend who gave birth this past December at a clinic that apparently sends mothers home within 6 hours of giving birth, even with a first baby. When my daughter was born I had no idea how to care for an infant, and I am eternally grateful for that week in the maternity ward where I was able to learn how to care for my baby without any pressure or financial stress from worrying about the cost. By the time we took her home, I was confident in what I was doing. I’m also grateful for the support in giving up breast-feeding so early as it allowed me to really enjoy my daughter in those precious first days and weeks rather than dreading every feeding.

This is all on top of the fact that I was put on medical leave with both of my pregnancies for the last 3-4 months. Medical leave is paid 50% by the state here in France, with my private employer health insurance topping off the rest until maternity leave benefits kick in 6 weeks before the due date (paid at 100% until 10 weeks after the due date – 16 weeks total). This meant that I was able to truly rest during the last few months, without worrying about finances or job loss. Medical and maternity leaves are very strongly protected by the labor law here, and the overall culture is such that an employee giving birth is something to be celebrated, not dreaded.

I was raised in Canada, so for me a public health care system just seems like the obvious way to go; I also spent several years working in the US, and although I had good health insurance through my employer, it was odd and unnerving to always have the spectre of being uninsured (if I were unemployed) hanging over me. I realize that we pay much higher taxes here in France and that the idea of “being taken care of” by the state is antethema to the US mindset. But I don’t mind the higher taxes so much, as I see what I get for paying them.

My kids are now 16 months and 3.5 months old (the close age difference was on purpose, however termination of the second pregnancy was presented as an option in case it was an accident) and thankfully in perfect health. They’re both fully covered by the social medical system here, meaning that all doctor and specialist visits, and part of all their prescriptions, blood tests and vaccines are covered by the state; the remainder is picked up by my health insurance through work. I honestly can’t imagine how families can survive and thrive living under a cloud of fear that any medical problem can send them into financial distress or even bankruptcy (and now, even leave them with a pre-existing condition that may put their health insurance further at risk).