6 Things Parisian Women Do Differently During Pregnancy

French moms make everything look so effortless – how do they do it?

By Evie Solheim6 min read
Pexels/cottonbro studio

A first pregnancy is supposed to be a relaxing time for a woman to transition into motherhood. However, here in the U.S., pregnancy can feel more like a research project that comes with a stack of books full of conflicting advice, strangers judging your every move, and medical providers who treat you like you’re a product on an assembly line. 

What if there were a better way? For years, many Americans have looked to French ideas about pregnancy and parenting for inspiration. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the unsolicited advice thrown at you as an American parent, maybe you’ll appreciate what you can learn from the French. While no culture has the perfect approach to motherhood, French parents have certainly figured out a thing or two, from helping babies sleep through the night to teaching them to enjoy healthy food.

An important concept in French parenting is the cadre, which literally means “frame.” This concept animates the French attitude toward child discipline, mealtimes, and more, and is a central part of American author Pamela Druckerman’s bestselling book Bringing Up Bébé, which explores the differences between French and American families.

Cadre means that kids have very firm limits – that’s the frame – and that parents strictly enforce those limits. But within those limits, the kids have a lot of freedom,” Druckerman writes. “The point of the cadre isn’t to hem the child in; it’s to create a world that’s predictable and coherent to her.”

So, without further ado, here’s how French mothers approach key decisions surrounding pregnancy, birth, and more.

Dietary Guidelines

Any comparison of pregnancy guidelines in two countries should start with the numbers, and France does have a significantly lower maternal mortality rate than the U.S. does. As most American women know, you’re likely to leave your first pregnancy appointment with a list of foods you can no longer consume, including deli meats, sushi, unpasteurized cheeses, and, of course, alcohol. French guidelines aren’t too different – many French women swear off favorites like liver pâté and red wine while pregnant. Instead, they snack on fresh fruit or cottage cheese while eating lighter meals during the day. 

In both countries, pregnant women are told to avoid raw meat and kitty litter because of the danger of toxoplasmosis. But unlike American women, French women are tested to see if they have had toxoplasmosis before and therefore have immunity (and can eat their steaks rare). Roughly 30% of pregnant women in France are immune to toxoplasmosis, according to a 2020 paper

But the thing that makes the biggest difference in French versus American women’s diets while pregnant is probably the overall food quality. The European Union has much stricter regulations on unhealthy additives and GMOs than the U.S. Even the processed food is just healthier there. Enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables is a huge part of French culture, as is nutritional education, giving French women a leg up when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy.

French doctors and U.S. doctors also differ on how much weight a healthy pregnant woman should gain. French doctors recommend about 26 pounds of weight gain for a healthy woman, while U.S. doctors recommend 25 to 35 pounds. Depending on the woman, that can be a big difference. Druckerman writes about the different attitudes that Anglophones and French women have when it comes to pregnancy weight gain in Bringing Up Bébé, explaining that French women don’t feel like they have a pass from society to gain an excess amount of weight during pregnancy.

“The main reason that pregnant French women don’t get fat is that they are very careful not to eat too much,” she writes. “In French pregnancy guides, there are no late-night heapings of egg salad or instructions to eat way past hunger in order to nourish the fetus. Women who are ‘waiting for a child’ are supposed to eat the same balanced meals as any healthy adult.”

Maternity Fashion

American women have long been fans of French girl fashion – and French maternity fashion should be no different. Monica de La Villardière, a Canadian living in Paris, wrote about how French women dress during pregnancy in Vogue, explaining that they still like to embrace a sexy look. Many of the Parisians whom de La Villardière interviews never buy pregnancy-specific clothes, choosing to wear dresses, leggings, and oversized tops instead. And they hate, hate, hate those stretchy-top maternity jeans that every woman feels resigned to wearing in the U.S.

“True Parisienne pregnancy style is when a woman has decided not to sacrifice her allure to the obviously tempting potential for a fashion wildcard that is pregnancy,” one mom tells de La Villardière. “Comfort is an obvious keyword, but the idea is to achieve it whilst maintaining one’s innate elegance.”

Of course, you can’t talk about French pregnancy style without talking about fashion designer, model, and it girl Jeanne Damas. Outlets from Vogue to Who What Wear have spotlighted her maternity style. A big part of her appeal is that she doesn’t completely change her effortless style to accommodate pregnancy – she just tweaks it. 

Birth Plans

If you talk to an American mom who’s expecting, she may tell you about her birth plan. While they are by no means required, a birth plan is a list of preferences for how mom and baby are to be cared for during labor. They’re used by women who deliver at hospitals, birth centers, or even at home. Doctors and nurses are not always excited about being handed a piece of paper giving them more instructions on how to do their job (and they don’t always follow them). The trend has definitely been gaining steam as more American women become interested in natural childbirth, which they sometimes feel puts them in conflict with hospital policy.

Birth plans aren’t really a thing in France, Druckerman writes in Bringing Up Bébé. Most women are happy with the standard of care at hospitals and expect to get an epidural during labor. Druckerman contrasts this with her Anglophone community that she says frets about giving birth in “overmedicalized” France and holds up unmedicated birth as the highest good.

“French moms often ask me where I plan to deliver, but never how. They don’t seem to care. In France, the way you give birth doesn’t situate you within a value system or define the sort of parent you’ll be. It is, for the most part, a way of getting your baby safely from your uterus into your arms,” she writes.

Despite this attitude, France has a much lower C-section rate than the U.S. – 204.5 C-sections per 1,000 live births compared to 320.5 C-sections per 1,000 live births, according to Statista. (France’s health care system often ranks better than the U.S. health care system in comparisons of countries’ systems as well.) There’s no one factor we can pinpoint as the reason for this, although France’s significantly lower obesity rate may be part of it. Interestingly, France and the U.S. had a comparable percentage of home births for years until 2020, when interest in home birth really picked up in the U.S. 

Breastfeeding and Formula

American women place a much higher importance on breastfeeding than French women do, although interest in extended breastfeeding is starting to pick up in France. Roughly 56% of American babies are still being breastfed at six months, but that percentage is much lower in France. Part of the reason may be that the French feminist movement of the 1970s attacked breastfeeding for compromising a woman’s autonomy, according to RFI

“My grandmother, who is 90 years old, said breastfeeding was normal. But my mother, who is now 70, did not breastfeed me very long,” Stephanie Habenstein, a French breastfeeding advocate, tells RFI. “She always said that she breastfed her three children, but actually she only breastfed us for two weeks or three weeks, which is typical for a mother in the 1970s.”

Breastfeeding has lots of benefits for infants. It boosts babies’ immune systems and gives them a lower risk of asthma, obesity, and type 1 diabetes. A mother’s breastmilk even changes to fit her growing baby’s nutritional needs. And, believe it or not, breastfeeding can reduce a mom’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer as well. 

French mothers see infant formula as a way to get more sleep and let their husbands bond with the baby through feeding. Using formula also allows them more freedom to be apart from the baby, whether it’s for work or play. Many of these mothers don’t receive much breastfeeding support from hospitals either, French pediatrician Pierre Bitoun tells the author of Bringing Up Bébé.

“[Bitoun] says many Frenchwomen think they just don’t have enough milk. Dr. Bitoun says this is because French maternity hospitals often don’t encourage mothers to feed their newborns every few hours. That’s critical, in the first few days, so that mothers produce enough milk to feed their babies…A recourse to formula seems inevitable,” Druckerman writes.

Whether a mom intends to breastfeed for two months or two years, supplementing with infant formula at some point is always an option. But there are differences between American and French infant formula, with the latter being much cleaner, writes Carmel Richardson of The American Conservative. Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has prevented easy access to seed oil-free formula for American families, some of whom turn to “black-market formula from Europe,” Richardson explains.

Mom Guilt

Many American mothers feel guilty just for spending time away from their children, whether it’s to go to work or to reconnect with their husband. The numbers bear this out. For example, a 2019 study by Kelton Global and Birchbox found that 39% of parents feel guilty for taking time to care for themselves through activities like exercising or napping.

“For American mothers, guilt is an emotional tax we pay for going to work, not buying organic vegetables, or plopping our kids in front of the television,” Druckerman writes. “If we feel guilty, then it’s easier to do these things. We’re not just selfish. We’ve ‘paid’ for our lapses.”

“Here, too, the French are different. French mothers absolutely recognize the temptation to feel guilty. They feel as overstretched and inadequate as we Americans do,” she continues. “The difference is that French mothers don’t valorize this guilt. To the contrary, they consider it unhealthy and unpleasant, and they try to banish it.”

The unspoken layer to this conversation is the American tendency to center children in family life versus the French tendency to balance the children’s needs with the parents’ needs. The French call a child who thinks that everyone in his family exists to serve him an enfant roi, or “child king.” Instead, they strive to raise their children to understand the needs of others, from siblings to parents to teachers. Much of this can be traced back to French parenting wisdom that emphasizes a child’s need for independence – which will be covered in the next section. 

Parenting Gurus

The U.S. certainly has no shortage of parenting gurus. From Dr. Benjamin Spock, who turned the world of parenting on its head in the 1950s and 1960s, to Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist who has 2.7 million Instagram followers, parenting experts hold a lot of sway with American families. (I will admit that I had never heard of Kennedy, who was recently declared the “the biggest parenting expert since Dr. Spock,” before researching this article.) Americans also love labels – “gentle parenting” and “attachment parenting” being two philosophies that often ignite online mommy wars. 

France’s historically important parenting gurus are a little different. In Bringing Up Bébé, Druckerman notes that French parenting advice often focuses less on practical tips and tricks and more on understanding what’s going on in a child’s mind. Take, for instance, the text undergirding the French approach to parenting: Émile, or On Education by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. In Émile, Rousseau argues that children learn more from their senses and life experiences than from books and societal conventions. 

A more modern figure in French parenting is pediatrician and psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, who reached a massive audience through her radio program in the 1970s. She insisted that even babies can understand the world around them, and therefore parents must do their best to communicate with them.

“Once I read Dolto, I realize[d] that so many of the most curious claims that I’ve heard French parents make, like the one that you’re supposed to talk to babies about their sleep troubles, come straight from her,” Druckerman writes. “But if you accept that children are rational as a first principle – as French society does – then many things begin to shift. If babies understand what you’re saying to them, then you can teach them quite a lot, even while they’re very young. That includes, for example, how to eat in a restaurant.”

Closing Thoughts

There’s no such thing as perfect parenting – but exposure to new ideas is always good. Perhaps you’ll fully embrace the French way of parenting, or perhaps you’ll weave in some of what you’ve learned. But whatever approach you choose, know that you’re capable of setting up your family for success by being intentional with your child’s early years.

Evie deserves to be heard. Support our cause and help women reclaim their femininity by subscribing today.