I have always loved France. From St. Therese of Lisieux to the Louvre to “The Phantom of the Opera,” French culture has always had a soft spot in my heart. If you ask me, I’d have to say that this love was born on the day that I heard my first Madeline story. Since that day, I have read countless Madeline stories, watched multiple movies, owned at least two Madeline dolls, and even dressed up as Madeline for Halloween one year (with my mom as Miss Clavel). I think you could say that I was just a little obsessed with her as a child, and my love of all things French grew from there.
Fast-forward twenty years, and French culture continues to play an active role in my life. St. Therese remains one of my favorite saints (and was the focus of my senior undergraduate thesis), and one of the highlights of my semester abroad was visiting her home town of Lisieux (actually, the entire weekend in France is probably one of my favorite memories from that semester). “Phantom of the Opera” is still my go-to movie when I want something old and familiar, and just a few hours ago, I purchased a collection of Madeline stories for a Christmas gift for Felicity (that may or may not have been inspired by the topic of this blog post). I love all these pieces of French culture (okay, Madeline was written by an Austrian-American, but it does take place in Paris), but until recently, I didn’t know anything about French parenting. When I came across Pamela Druckerman’s book “Bringing Up Bebe,” it was completely random, but pregnant with baby #2, I was more than a little intrigued when I read the description:
When American journalist Pamela Druckerman had a baby in Paris, she didn’t aspire to become a “French parent.” But she noticed that French children slept through the night by two or three months old. They ate braised leek. They played by themselves while their parents sipped coffee. And yet French kids were still boisterous, curious, and creative. Why? How?
With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman set out to investigate- and wound up sparking a national debate on parenting. Researched over three years and written in her warm, funny voice, Bringing Up Bebe is deeply wise, charmingly told, and destined to become a classic resource for American parents.
Prior to this, I had heard that many European parents report being happier and having happier children. I knew that some of the factors were impossible to recreate in our country: many European countries provide a minimum of three months of paid maternity leave, and some countries provide free and/or inexpensive (but trustworthy) childcare options for working parents. Other factors definitely seemed to be caused by cultural differences, and I was eager to learn what the French did differently to create such happy children (and parents). As I read through Druckerman’s book, I took copious notes, focusing on four areas of parenting: sleeping, eating, education, and independent play.
Area #1: Sleep
At four months old, John was waking up a minimum of five times a night. Three of those were for bottles, while the remainder were because of a lost pacifier. When we sleep trained using the Ferber method at 4.5 months, we eliminated all wakings but those original three feedings. Two weeks later, we were down to a 2am and a 5am bottle. By six months, John was still waking up most mornings around 5 or 6am for a bottle, and then getting up for the day around 7am. We finally dropped that final bottle at around 7 months, gradually pushing him towards a 7am wake-up. After months of battling multiple night wake-ups, we were exhausted and thoroughly relieved that our son had finally begun sleeping through the night.
Those felt like a long seven months to us, but I know plenty of parents who have waited even longer to reach that coveted goal of sleeping through the night. I’ve known parents who couldn’t get their child to drop their final night bottle until they were well over a year old. I’ve known parents who were still nursing their two year old once a night, purely for comfort. On any given day, when scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I read countless stories of parents who were still waking up with their children on a nightly basis. I always felt like one of the lucky ones, until I read Bringing Up Bebe.
The average French newborn is sleeping through the night by three months. Three months. That’s twelve or thirteen weeks, and they’re sleeping about twelve hours a night, generally from eight to eight. French parents explain this phenomenon in two ways: (1) infants are capable of understanding in some way that their parents need to sleep, since maternity leave generally ends at three months, and (2) a parenting technique that the book calls “the pause” is a given. As far as this second explanation is concerned, Druckerman comments on how difficult it was to get French parents to acknowledge this technique, not because it’s some major French secret, but because parents take it for granted. Every French parent knows about the pause.
I have to admit that I’m a little skeptical about the first explanation. I’m not sure how much a three month old child understands, but I find it hard to believe that they understand their mother’s request for a full night’s sleep before returning to work. But maybe that’s just the American in me. I’m more inclined to believe that there’s a scientific explanation for this phenomenon- that three month old babies are physically and developmentally capable of going that long without food overnight, and that with some gentle encouragement to self-soothe, most babies will successfully do just that.
And this brings me to the second explanation: the pause. French parents have two core beliefs regarding self-soothing and sleep: (1) infants can and should be put down to sleep while they are still awake (i.e. they do not rock or nurse their children to sleep after the first month or so), and (2) when children stir during the night, parents should always give them some time to resettle themselves before intervening. Furthermore, when the child fails to resettle on their own, parents should offer some assistance (patting, stroking, shushing, etc.) before offering food.
Parents begin practicing the pause with their newborns fairly early on, sometimes even from birth. By three months, the vast majority of French infants can soothe themselves to sleep at bedtime and whenever they wake up throughout the night. From what I could gather from the book, French parents often use pacifiers with their children, though comments regarding pacifier use were only made in passing (for instance, when discussing childcare options for infants). French parents advocate watching newborns and becoming familiar with their unique cries. Oftentimes, just by looking before acting, parents can avoid disturbing a baby that simply stirred a bit in their sleep.
After a difficult first couple of months with John, we resorted to full-out sleep training using the Ferber method. French parents will use this technique, but only as a last resort. With Felicity, we decided to try out the pause, and we spent those first few days in the hospital just watching our daughter and learning her cries. Almost immediately, we realized that more often than not, if we waited just a minute before rushing to Felicity’s side, she settled down on her own just fine. She never got super worked up, but we let her fuss just a bit before coming to her aid. Whenever she woke up at night, I got into the habit of using the bathroom before attending to Felicity. Eight times out of ten, by the time I emerged from the bathroom, she had stopped crying and I just returned to bed. Temperaments definitely differ between my two children, but I also think Felicity’s good sleep habits (at seven weeks, she only wakes up once at night for a bottle) can be attributed to our use of the pause.
Felicity is a laid-back child in general, but we’ve also employed the pause method with John, and it works just as well with him. John has this unfortunate habit of letting out a single, drawn-out screech at some point between 9pm and 12mn. When it’s over, we don’t hear a peep from him until morning. Without the pause, I probably would fly to his side, but instead I wait just a minute. Nine times out of ten (and probably closer to 99 out of 100), he goes back to sleep, if he was even awake at all. If there was a single lesson that I needed to embrace from French parenting techniques, the pause would be it, hands down.
Area #2: Eating
John has always been a finicky eater. We started him on pureed foods at four months, beginning with rice cereal, followed by various types of fruits and veggies. As I tried to introduce more finger foods, he rejected most of them after barely tasting them. At eighteen months, I was still spoon-feeding him one or two meals a day, just to ensure that he was eating. I didn’t even attempt to have him eat what I made for dinner until he was nearly two years old. At two and a half, he only eats one or two parts of our dinner, and that’s only because I specifically ensure that he’ll eat at least one part of the meal, whether that be the carb or the veggie (we have had absolutely no success getting him to eat meat). It didn’t take me long to decide that we needed to do something differently with our other children. I just wasn’t sure what.
In the introduction to the book, Druckerman recounts a meal eaten at a restaurant while she was on vacation with her husband and oldest, and at that point only, child, who was a toddler at the time. She was fascinated by the behavior of the French children she saw eating at other tables- they all seemed perfectly well-behaved as they ate their meals, none of which featured the typical “children’s menu” fare that you would expect to find in American restaurants. They simply consumed smaller portions of meals that they specifically requested, or else they ate what was on their parents’ plates. There was not a single chicken nugget or French fry to be seen.
French children are not the notoriously finicky eaters that their American counterparts tend to be. They also tend to have better table manners. The reasons for this are fairly simple. From an early age, French children are taught to eat their meals in stages- an appetizer of some sort, the main course, and then a fruit (and/or a sweet at lunchtime). French toddlers quickly learn to expect this sequence of courses, and so they can move through their meals with some degree of patience. In addition, parents are reasonable with their expectations- toddlers are only expected to sit for a meal for a maximum of twenty minutes. They are not expected to sit at the table for a lengthy amount of time, but while they are there, children are expected to behave appropriately.
As far as what French infants and toddlers eat, an explanation can be found when you look at how French parents approach introducing food to their children. Infants are not introduced to food until they are six months old, and when they are, parents begin with foods that would typically be consumed by the rest of the family. French infants do not begin with bland cereals, but instead are introduced to various types of fruits and vegetables first. French parents believe that these initial flavorful experiences lay the groundwork for future good eating habits. Observations of French children seem to suggest that French parents are onto something.
After creating one finicky eater, we are not in a rush to create another. We still have another four months before introducing Felicity to food. We intend to introduce her to table foods right from six months, skipping the whole rice cereal stage. Science supports French parenting habits- there is no reason to begin feeding babies at four months (most, if not all, pediatric organizations agree that waiting until six months is preferable), and even at six months, babies will continue to get the majority of their caloric intake, vitamins, healthy fats, protein, etc. from breast milk or formula. Even up to a year, eating table food is more about experiencing new tastes and textures than consuming calories. This new approach to eating seems much less stressful and more enjoyable to me (minus the inevitable mess that will probably come with self-feeding). I’m sure you can expect posts about my experiences with this way of introducing foods in a few months.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this review in two weeks!
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!