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Breastfeeding | A French vs. American Perspective

Updated on May 30, 2012

French and American mothers approach breastfeeding very differently. While American mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for as long as possible, for French women the emphasis leans towards getting back to their former shape.


Growing up in the melting pot that is New York City, I was constantly exposed to cultural diversity. One neighbor was Greek, one Chinese while another was Italian, just to name a few. Familiarity with multiple cultures was normal to me. I found the cultural interplay to be fun and fascinating. While one day at my Greek friend’s house enjoying baklava and the next day I would taste fresh homemade egg rolls from my Asian friend’s Mom, and on yet another day, I would overhear a debate about what makes a perfect pasta sauce and how to sliver a clove of garlic. This diverse exposure made me curious about the origin of these and other cultures and later in my life, inspired a passion for international travel. After college, my first European tour was only good enough to whet my appetite for further learning and understanding of the cultures of the world. I have often heard it said that as human beings, underneath the outward differences, we are all the same. This idea is something I consider and reconsider, but I am still not so sure.

I have observed that our cultural experiences, especially those of our childhood, DO make us different, even at the core. This is because we see the world very differently and make choices based on these views. This concept is underscored in the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant. In this story six blind men are asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, and so on. They are all touching the same animal but experience and describe it differently. Each individual is able to see the world as a different experience based on their perception of what the world is and this is a metaphor for life.

The idea of differing perceptives presented itself to me recently while flipping through the pages of French Vogue Magazine with a French American friend of mine. Many photographs in this iconic Women’s Fashion Magazine reveal bare breasts. Just seeing this might surprise any American who is accustomed to a more puritanical choice of images from American media. Comparatively, there are no topless women in American Vogue Magazine, but the differences between French and American women don’t end here. My friend also mentioned that the emphasis on maintaining a woman’s body is so great that even after having a baby, French Women are discouraged from breastfeeding as this would negatively affect the firmness of the breast. If a French woman does breastfeed it is typically for a brief period of time. Most French women will have stopped breastfeeding by time they leave the hospital.

The French believe that breastfeeding causes the breasts to lose their youthful erotic shape, although American experts believe that it is heredity that determines the shape of the breast, not breastfeeding. The French priority is on the sexuality of a woman’s body, with more per capita lingerie shops than any other country, spending time feeding a baby instead of caring for sexual appeal goes against Parisian priorities.

The differences between the American style of Parenting and the French doesn’t end here. Along the same lines, French women are also encouraged to space themselves from their baby which is the opposite of the American encouraged 'attachment style' of parenting which is greatly encouraged here in the states. Here are some other parenting differences:

United States
Up to 7 day hospital stay
24-36 hour hospital stay
Feed on a schedule
Feed on demand
Minimal breast feeding
One year of breastfeeding recommended
Difficult to find a nursing bra
Nursing bras readily available
Start solid food early
Delay solid food
Free physio sessions to regain waistline abs and kegels
Women are on their own getting back in shape
Get back to your pre-pregnancy body quickly
Allow time to get back to your shape
Breasts are primarily sexual
Mixed feelings about breasts

It is fascinating to think that two cultures can do nearly the opposite thing with the belief that they are doing what is right. Maybe the women in each country could learn from one another. American Mothers could benefit from more support and time to heal from pregnancy and French women could lose the stigma that longer term breastfeeding seems to carry.

The different attitudes toward breastfeeding and a woman’s body are only a small part of the varying attitudes towards sexuality in general between French and American women. Recent studies have shown that French women are more sexually active even after they reach age 50 than their American counterparts and that French men and woman remain in longer term relationships than Americans.

According to Alain Giami, director of research at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research

The French are also less attached than Americans to marriage as the unique option for living together. The French have more “premarital cohabitation,” “nonmarital cohabitation” and even “noncohabiting long-term relations.” This seems to make it easier for men and women age 40 or older to have companionship after having experienced the burden of marriage and cohabitation.

The contrasting views between French and American women on breasts, breastfeeding and in a greater sense, sexuality, reveals how cultural perspectives lead us in making personal choices. Having an open mind to look at and make sense of the cultural differences helps us to learn and understand both ourselves and others more deeply.

© Copyright 2011 Tracy Lynn Conway with all rights reserved.

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