While France has the highest birth rate in Western Europe, it has a surprisingly low rate of breastfeeding when compared to its neighbors. Only about two thirds of French babies are ever breastfed and very few babies are breastfed exclusively for six months, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, in France’s neighbor Germany, 90% of babies are breastfed and 21% are breastfed exclusively for six months. American rates also exceed France’s. 76% of American babies are breastfed and 16.6% are breastfed exclusively for six months.
Dr. Kathleen Skoczen, a professor of anthropology at SCSU, aims to find out what in French culture could be causing the low rates of breastfeeding. Dr. Skoczen studies breastfeeding cross-culturally, looking at how cultural attitudes influence whether or not mothers choose to breastfeed. Before her work on France, she investigated breastfeeding in the United States, Chile, and the Dominican Republic.
Breastfeeding has been attributed with an impressive list of benefits for babies and mothers. According to scientific studies, breastfed children get sick less, have fewer allergies, and are less likely to be obese. For mothers, studies have indicated that breastfeeding helps lose post-baby pounds and promotes bonding.
France is well known for its emphasis on aesthetics. Although her research is still too preliminary to draw clear results, Dr. Skoczen suspects that hyper-emphasis on beauty dissuades women from breastfeeding. “The low rate has a lot to do with ‘preserving the body.’ I think that is a cultural value here [in the US] but it is more practiced in France. There’s a real fear about sagging breasts. And I think doctors in France reinforce the belief that that could happen,” she said.
Dr. Skoczen also believes that a lack of organized advocacy could be hampering the breastfeeding rate. “There is a very strong pro-breastfeeding advocacy movement in the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. that is, I think, in a nascent state in France,” she said. What breastfeeding advocates there are in France have difficulty getting support from those who have the most contact and influence with new moms. “What I was told is in France there is not a lot of vertical support from doctors, nurses, OB-GYNs, pediatricians, etc. You can find that sporadically there will be advocates, but it just isn’t developing in terms of systemic advocacy,” she said.
In order to research, Dr. Skoczen spent time in France. She conducted open-ended interviews with expats in order to get their outsider perspective on the culture. “I was able to talk to moms from Australia, the UK, Senegal, and more. It allowed me to access a really interesting and unique perspective on French culture,” she said.
Dr. Skoczen believes that breastfeeding advocates need to look beyond the individual and examine how culture impacts behavior. “We need to take more into account than just the mother and the baby. We need to expand our lens… How we get that message across needs to be contextualized in the larger culture. It needs to include dad and doctors and everyone,” she said.