Have well-meaning friends and family told you that breastfeeding means you can’t get pregnant? Think again!
Many mothers fall for the old wives’ tale that says you can’t get pregnant while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, believing this could lead to you getting pregnant much sooner than you anticipated. I’ve been told this myth dozens of times. I love telling people that I conceived my fourth while breastfeeding my third child!
Getting pregnant while breastfeeding is not unheard of in the parenting world, and it happens to thousands of women a year. It is not reliable as a form of birth control, and you should absolutely not depend on it if you do not want to get pregnant any time soon. You can even get pregnant right after having birth which is known as having Irish twins (because folklore tells that Irish families typically did not prevent any pregnancy, causing them to get pregnant faster). And you don’t even have to have your period to do so.
Let’s go back to eighth-grade sex-ed class. Your period happens when an egg is not fertilized but before that can happen, your body has to ovulate. So you can ovulate before your period even comes making it totally and completely possible to get pregnant while nursing before you even know that you’re fertile. So saying, “Well, I haven’t gotten my period yet so I’ll be fine” is not a reliable form of birth control.
The act of using breastfeeding as a form of birth control is called lactation amenorrhea or LAM. LAM is only effective when a mother is exclusively breastfeeding, and it is only a temporary form of birth control. And even then it is not completely reliable.
According to experts, in order for LAM to be effective, a mother must be:
- Practice exclusive nursing. That means you should delay introducing solids and avoid supplementing with formula or anything else.
- Nurse on demand. Follow your baby’s lead and let them nurse when they want — at least every 4 hours during the day and every 6 hours during the night. Pumping is not an adequate substitute when using LAM.
- Avoid using pacifiers. Instead, let your baby satisfy their sucking needs by snuggling up and letting them breastfeed.
Even then, LAM is only effective until your baby is about 6 months old when they are no longer nursing as often. Babies are usually sleeping for longer stretches of time around this age and solids are often introduced meaning that you have are not nursing for the required 4 hours. Most mothers can expect to not get pregnant during the first 6 months of her baby’s life if she is exclusively nursing, but it still happens to some– one to two in every 100 women still become pregnant while practicing LAM before their baby turns 6 months old.
The Dangers of Getting Pregnant Too Soon
There are some things to consider if you are not preventing pregnancy and you happen to get pregnant before your baby’s first birthday. Many doctors recommend that women wait to get pregnant until their previous child is over one year old, preferably 18 months old Why? There are a few reasons:
- Too little time between pregnancies increases the risk of premature birth for your next baby. The shorter the time between pregnancies, the higher the risk of a premature birth. Premature babies are more at risk to have health problems and low birth weight.
- Your body needs time to heal between pregnancies. If not, you could end up with severe health problems like a prolapsed uterus or diastasis recti.
Having two babies close in age is really hard, and can increase the likelihood of postpartum depression.
Myths Busted: Getting Pregnant While Breastfeeding
1. Breastfeeding Amenorrhea
The old wives’ tale started because many mothers experience breastfeeding amenorrhea. I am one of those mothers. These mothers have no or little periods while they are breastfeeding. I typically don’t have my first period after birth until nine months postpartum at the earliest! I have even gone over a year without a menstrual cycle.
However, women have to remember that a lack of menstrual cycles doesn’t mean you are not ovulating. At some point, you are going to ovulate, and this is when you risk getting pregnant.
The reason why breastfeeding holds off your period is because of the hormone prolactin. Prolactin suppresses ovulation. For some women, prolactin can make conception hard even after their period returns! Everyone is different; that is key to remember.
2. Ecological Breastfeeding
These women who experience amenorrhea typically practice ecological breastfeeding, whether they know it or not. Mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies up until six months old, typically not going longer than a four hour stretch of time. If your baby starts to sleep through the night (meaning five hours or longer), then you are at risk for ovulation.
Once your introduce solid foods at six months, the chances of ovulation occurring increases. Fertility starts to return slowly when you supplement feedings with anything, from formula to food.
3. Tracking Cycle Signs
If you aren’t on hormonal birth or skip barrier methods, you will need to track your cycle signs to detect early signs of fertility. Doing so can prevent you from getting pregnant breastfeeding when it is undesired.
- Cervical Mucus: As ovulation nears, your cervical mucus will increase and turn to egg white cervical mucus. Tracking your mucus lets you know that ovulation is nearing as you notice the changes.
- Cervical Position: Another indicator that ovulation is nearing is your cervix. The cervix changes position based on your cycle. A high, soft and open cervix lets you know that ovulation is about to take place or is taking place right then.
- High Basal Body Temperature: This sign won’t help so much, but it will let you know that you did, in fact, ovulate.
4. Getting Pregnant Breastfeeding
If you are content with the idea of getting pregnant now, then there is nothing you need to do. Every woman is different. Some have their menstrual cycles return soon, while others have to wait for 18 months or longer! While breastfeeding can be a form of birth control for some mothers, it is not a dependable form for everyone. Because of the uncertainty, pay attention your cycle and signs that could indicate a return of your fertility.