There is one benefit to breastfeeding that I feel doesn’t get enough street cred. It is natural sibling spacing. It’s a topic I rarely hear discussed when talking about breastfeeding benefits. Maybe this is because there is so much misinformation circulating out there about breastfeeding and fertility. I’m sure you have heard one of the following statements at least once if you are a nursing mother: “It’s impossible to get pregnant while breastfeeding”, or in stark contrast “I have a friend who got pregnant 3 months after her baby was born and she was breastfeeding, be careful!”
In a society where the pressure is never off- not even with something as sacred and personal as creating life- we all are asked about our child-bearing plans. If you are married, before you even get back from the Honeymoon, people are asking when the babies are coming. If you have one baby, you’re asked when the second is coming before your stretch marks have even faded. And God Forbid you have two of the same gender- wouldn’t you feel you missed out if you didn’t have a girl/boy?
I am guilty of these questions myself, and I actually am never offended by them when they are asked to me personally (which believe me, I get my fair share). But I am a tragically transparent person, and I realize not everyone is as much of an over-sharer as I am. I know these questions may feel intrusive to some, but I do not feel they are ever meant to cause harm. I think people in general are just curious. Maybe trying to relate, find something in common, talk about something they’re interested in, etc. Or just plainly happy for you and excited for your next life step. But it’s inevitable that they affect our way of thinking. They may have some of us start questioning where we should be in life, second guessing ourselves and our decisions or make us not feel “normal”. But when it comes to sibling spacing, I’ve realized there is a huge information gap of what is biologically normal to what is considered “normal” today. Which of course, I’m not shocked, the way we raise infants in the industrialized society is far from biologically normal. The biggest being of course; my favorite topic: breastfeeding.
So I want to clear things up a bit.
First I want to put all of the rumors/myths to bed about breastfeeding and fertility.
Okay- here is the skinny.
#1- Can you get pregnant while breastfeeding?
The answer is yes – and no! The best indicator would be if your periods have resumed (even if it was just a little bit of spotting or one random period in the course of a few months).
The suppression of ovulation seems to be connected to how much nipple stimulation is received, not how high your prolactin levels are, or even the amount of milk you produce. The theory behind this is – if you have a baby who demands a lot of your attention, your body will make sure that you do not get pregnant before the baby you currently are taking care of is ready to share your time with a sibling. Or in more morbid terms, having a second child while still in the thick of raising your first- could mean survival for one and not the other.
If you are not ovulating, you are typically not getting your period. This is termed “Lactational Amenorrhea”. And it is a natural state of infertility. No eggy no baby. Cool fact: This period of natural infertility is actually linked to why breastfeeding mothers have a lower risk for ovarian cancer.1 (In traditional cultures, women actually go many years with only having a few periods between nursing and subsequent pregnancies).
#2- When will I get my period back?
It depends on your nursing habits among other factors. Remember it’s correlated to nipple stimulation. So as your baby gets older and eats more solid foods, and grows more independent and doesn’t suckle as much, your body will say…okay, you can handle another baby right now and will signal the return of ovulation which will then in turn bring back your periods. Once you have any type of period, you should consider yourself fertile again (and should prevent if you are not ready for another pregnancy). From everything I’ve read, there is a threshold that must be reached in your nursing relationship that signals the start of menstruation. If you practice Ecological Breastfeeding- the average return of fertility is 14.6 months post-partum.2 (I actually hit this average right on the head…. my period returned at exactly 15 months after being told by my OB that I would probably have to wean to get my period back-however my luteal phase has been short which is common while breastfeeding.) But as with anything in nature, there are no “rules”. Every woman’s body is different and reacts to hormone levels in different ways. Women can very well get their periods back at 6 weeks post-partum while exclusively breastfeeding, and some will not get it back until their baby has completely weaned at three years of age or longer. Other factors are involved, like your BMI, nutrition status, etc. But most will fall somewhere around this average.
So what about those crazy stories you hear about women getting pregnant before the return of their period? Well, especially if you are after 1 year post-partum (cycles tend to be more regular if they return later) you could ovulate before the onset of your first period (however this period is usually anovulatory- meaning no egg was released) and get pregnant. But the chance of this happening is only 6%!3
#3- What the hell is Ecological Breastfeeding?
Ecological breastfeeding is described as exclusively breastfeeding on demand (that means at night too), no supplementation, no bottles or pacifiers (to me the pacifier is a significant factor, think of how much nipple stimulation the pacifier reduces), and never really being away from baby for long periods of time. Now if we were back in the wild, this would be the norm and really, it is what our bodies are designed to do and what our infants expect. Remember our ancestors lived in hunter/gatherer societies where the women carried their babies most of the time, the infants were free to suckle/nurse from the breast whenever they wanted and weaned at an age much later than normal today.
#4 – Why does all of this matter?!?
Well.. how many women do you know would fit the criteria of ecological breastfeeding? I know not ONE! I myself, breastfeeding devotee who doesn’t even own a pacifier, pumped breastmilk and was separated from my daughter for 36+ hours a week for an entire year. But forget about ecological breastfeeding- the sad truth is not many women make it to even 6 months of breastfeeding at all. So I can’t help but wonder if we are getting our periods back before our bodies or our babies are ready for another pregnancy.
This isn’t just my opinion, either. Prenatal nutrition is known to affect fetal development. This is something we never really think about. We take our prenatal and go about our day. But did you know that it has been shown to take 18 months to TWO YEARS after pregnancy for the body to replenish its nutrition stores and recover? Having pregnancies spaced greater than 18 months apart has been shown to reduce the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and SIDS as well as lower the chance for uterine rupture, among a slew of other scary things. Having a less than 18 month gap between pregnancies even reduces your life expectancy!4 (Read a great article here that discusses the risk/benefit analysis of various sibling spacing with resources cited). I found it fascinating that the most well-known hunter/gatherer culture (The !Kung people) who do not have access to modern birth control average 4 years between births; and the chimpanzee (whom we share 98.5% of our DNA with) reproduce around every 4-6 years… It’s no coincidence to me that their young nurse beyond the age of four.5 ,6
Don’t kill me mom with a less than 2 year age gap – I’m not judging you – I know the decision to have another child is very personal and that “ecological breastfeeding” is sometimes impossible or just not desired. It is not how our society of today works. Some may view this as advantageous progression or some like myself may view this as the loss of something consecrated, it all depends on your perspective. I also know that for those of us privileged enough to be able to plan a pregnancy many factors go into the decision such as maternal age, financial or career concerns, or just plain intuition telling us to have another baby while we’re still “in the trenches”. With better nutrition and prenatal care today- chances are we will leave the hospital, (…or birth center, or midwife) with a clean bill of health and a healthy baby. I think what concerns me more is the women in lower socioeconomic statuses who may not have access to healthy nutrition or quality prenatal care. To the moms who may not have planned a subsequent pregnancy so soon and find themselves in a scary situation. Increasing breastfeeding success rates and normalizing more natural weaning ages could maybe save some of us from having to make hard decisions regarding our reproductive choices or create a more manageable life for those of us not prepared to have more than one small child at a time- not to mention less risky pregnancies and healthier babies. It is another reason I feel personally breastfeeding advocacy and support are very much-needed.
I also think this disconnect between what biological breastfeeding should look like and what the breastfeeding reality is of today’s modern society creates a somewhat distorted idea of what sibling spacing should be. In my experience it seems the couples who have a greater than 3 year age gap are asked why they waited so long and “why didn’t they want their children to grow up together“. When in actuality, a three+ year age gap might be closer to a more natural and healthy spacing.
So moms out there who are feeling the pressure to try for that second baby but still are nursing without the return of a period, take solace that your body and baby knows what it’s doing. Believe and trust in the purposefulness of this intricate relationship. I read something somewhere that said “The return of your fertility after a baby signifies a new chapter in your motherhood journey”. I never viewed it that way before, but when mine returned, this is exactly how it felt. Almost like something sacred was ending, and yet beginning at the same time.
But I too, am taking my own advice. Being that my daughter is now 18 months, I think people are starting to wonder when baby #2 will make an appearance. Especially since I am so enamored with the miracle of childbirth and motherhood enough to create a whole BLOG about it- like hello. But motherhood has taught me to listen and trust in nature. And the truth is for the first time in my life- I’m in no rush. Being someone who is always chasing the “next thing”, it is an indescribable feeling of peace to feel content with where I am for once. A part of me also knows deep down that my daughter isn’t ready to share my attention yet. She is still very much a “Booby Monster”, she still sleeps cheek to cheek with me and still demands a lot of my time. I’m also just NOW starting to have a little freedom now that my nursling isn’t so reliant on breastmilk and I would be lying if I said I was’t enjoying it. But that doesn’t mean I am not squealing inside with excitement with the thought of going through the ever enchanting experience of pregnancy and childbirth again, and of course to have another little miracle in my arms, because I am. (I think I’m most excited about giving birth again! Can you believe that?!) My husband and I can only hope that we will be blessed once more (or more!) and in no way preventing it. But for now, I am being patient and “zen” for the first time in my life and relishing in the happiness I have been given already.
And that’s okay.