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Breastfeeding according  to the mother's social status

The promotion of breastfeeding is one of the concerns addressed by the French National Nutrition and Health Plan (PNNS). An INRA scientist in the ALISS unit based in Ivry-sur-Seine  has shown that this type of feeding is dependent on social factors, the advice given by specialists and the family environment of the mother.

baby's bottle © MAITRE Christophe
Updated on 06/28/2013
Published on 06/28/2013

Between following medical recommendations and perpetuating traditional family practices lies a real challenge: that of being a “good mother” or not.  Compliance with medical advice for some, respect for family traditions for others, constitute pledges of good practice when it comes to feeding newborns.  Therefore, habits in feeding practices sometimes follow principles which differ markedly from the health norms promulgated to the general public.

This research drew on several sources: a statistical survey circulated by post in 1997 to 1800 mothers with children below the age of 3 years and receiving a family allowance in the Val de Marne Department; observations in Mother and Infant Clinics (PMI), and interviews with mothers of young children between 1996 and 2002, carried out in Paris and the surrounding region.  

The status of the mother affected the incidence of breastfeeding after birth.  80% of women in the upper classes breastfed their infants in 2003, while the rate among skilled female workers was only 45%.  Women belonging to the upper classes, or those with higher qualifications in the middle class, were more aware of the recommendations concerning breastfeeding and were also more likely to visit a paediatrician and listen to his or her medical advice.  By contrast, among women in the lower classes, the transmission of cultural habits and recourse to PMI clinics tended to prevail.

Although there is consensus among medical professionals regarding the value of breastfeeding, how it is implemented varies considerably from one maternity clinic to another (duration and frequency of feeds). Women who followed family traditions would then be less unprepared to face up to such dilemmas than those who had no experience in this area and who were seeking to comply with medical advice.  The women who preferred bottle feeding were those who contested these norms or were indifferent to them.  
Approaches to motherhood therefore oscillated between women who had practical skills and could distance themselves from the recommendations they were given, and those who were more scrupulous in conforming with them.

This study highlighted four types of mother, two found among lower class women and two from the middle and upper classes. Those who advocated an “old-fashioned” education distanced themselves from medical advice.  The second model, those who “stood firm” included women who were little affected to the application of norms but considered that their management of a difficult everyday situation testified to their maternal skills.
On the other hand, women who followed recommendations “to the letter” had often broken away from their family model because of a rise in social standing, and those who adopted an “instinctive” approach might bring flexibility and adaptation to the advice given to them, notably because of their knowledge of the care required by newborn infants.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Séverine GOJARD (+33(0)1 49 59 69 93) INRA UR1303 Nutrition and Social Sciences Research Unit (ALISS)
Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment.
Associated Centre(s):