Many new moms are surprised to learn that breastfeeding can affect their fertility long beyond the first few months postpartum. Whether you’re looking to conceive while you’re still breastfeeding or you’re relying on breastfeeding as a form of birth control, it’s important to know the fact about your fertility while you’re nursing.
How Does Breastfeeding Impact Your Fertility?
In general, breastfeeding impacts fertility by suppressing ovulation in your body. Without ovulation, you don’t get a period (which is called amenorrhea) and you can’t get pregnant.
The female body is capable of incredible things, including regulating the time the body needs to rest and heal between birthing children. Lactational amenorrhea is a side effect of breastfeeding, in which the mother’s body pauses ovulation to allow the mother to care for her infant while she’s lactating, or producing milk. Essentially, it’s your body’s way of saying that it’s not time for another baby yet, because you are still providing nourishment to the one you have.
Scientifically speaking, the hormone prolactin plays a major role here. Prolactin is the milk-making hormone, which rises rapidly after birth and is kept high by regular feeding and draining of the breasts. High prolactin production is a key factor in the lower levels of fertility seen in breastfeeding women, because prolactin disrupts the hormones that trigger ovulation.
When Will My Fertility Return if I am Breastfeeding?
To be blunt, there is no way of knowing. For some women, the introduction of solid foods for baby will be enough to prompt their cycle returning. For others, returning to work and spending extended parts of the day away from baby will cause a change. And for still others, their cycle may return as soon as 6-8 weeks even with exclusively breastfeeding.
Yet, for some women who continue to breastfeed their babies into toddlerhood, they may not see the return of fertility until they wean completely at 2-3 years or beyond. The “normal” timeline for the return of a woman’s fertility varies greatly and is based on many different factors.
Factors that Can Influence Breastfeeding and Fertility
There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to breastfeeding and your fertility. Some mothers may see their cycle return earlier than others, even with exclusive breastfeeding, and others may not have their cycle regulate even long after they have weaned their babies.
Additionally, many other factors can affect your fertility while breastfeeding, such as your diet, stress level, and even the amount of sleep you are getting on a regular basis. (Sleep? What’s that?) Here are more factors that could affect your fertility while nursing:
Some exclusively pumping mothers may see the return of their cycle sooner than those who exclusively feed at the breast, especially as they begin to drop pumping sessions.
2. Your baby sleeping more at night
Any change in regular nursing sessions, such as your baby progressing to sleeping through the night, can impact your cycle.
3. Returning to work
The introduction of pumping, extended hours between sessions, and irregularity as compared to nursing on demand can definitely impact your fertility.
4. Introduction of solid foods
As soon as baby begins getting food from other sources, whether through supplementing with formula or introducing solids, the process of weaning begins.
5. Individual factors
The return of fertility is not only impacted by breastfeeding and additional foods your baby is eating. Other factors that can influence the return of ovulation include maternal age, the number of times you have been pregnant, nutrition, and the duration and frequency of nursing sessions. Typically, the more frequent and longer nursing sessions are, the longer lactational amenorrhea will last.
Can I Get Pregnant Accidentally While Breastfeeding?
It’s the million-dollar question, and the answer is, yes, absolutely. It is entirely possible for you to get pregnant before your cycle even returns. In fact, even if you’re an avid tracker, it’s very difficult to know exactly when you will first ovulate postpartum. Remember—you have to ovulate before your first period, so you could get pregnant without even realizing your cycle has returned. That’s why doctors advise not waiting for your period to show up before deciding on a birth control method.
And once your period returns, many women who are breastfeeding can experience irregular cycles. For instance, some breastfeeding women may ovulate one month, have a period, and then not ovulate the next month. Other women experience extremely long postpartum menstrual cycles (going from 28 days to 35 days, for instance), making it difficult to know if ovulation has occurred and when.
How to Get Pregnant While Breastfeeding
If you are looking to conceive while you are still breastfeeding, there are some strategies that you can try to boost your chances of getting pregnant, such as:
1. Changing up your feeding schedule
Sometimes, a change in the frequency or times of feedings is enough to prompt the return of your fertility. However, this process can take a long time to see results, and may not work for all women.
2. Weaning night nursing sessions
Providing your baby is old enough to drop after-hours nursing sessions, weaning at night may prompt the return of your period.
3. Increasing your caloric intake
Breastfeeding takes a lot out of moms—quite literally, so it’s important that you nourish your body and eat enough calories to ensure your body is able to function correctly. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), breastfeeding moms of average weight need about 2,500 calories per day.
4. Tracking your cycle
Although it can be difficult to pick up the signs that your cycle has returned or is getting near returning, you might find it helpful for you to learn your body’s sign of fertility. The ACOG has some helpful resources for you to learn the signs of fertility in your body.
Truly Mama Takeaway
Every woman’s fertility will look different while breastfeeding. Some women will see their cycles return sooner rather than later when they are postpartum, while others may experience no periods at all while they are breastfeeding—and still others may need time after weaning before their cycles return back to normal.
And just like no woman’s fertility journey while breastfeeding will look the same, your goals for your fertility during nursing will be different too. If you are looking to avoid pregnancy while you are breastfeeding, be sure to talk to your doctor about choosing a birth control method that is right for you, and don’t rely on just breastfeeding alone as a form of pregnancy prevention. On the other hand, if you’re looking to conceive while you’re still breastfeeding, know that it is possible, and there are some strategies that can help you succeed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it hard to get pregnant while breastfeeding?
Not necessarily. It really depends on your own cycle and fertility. Some women get their periods back while breastfeeding, while others won’t see their cycles return until their baby is weaning. However, it is very possible to get pregnant while breastfeeding.
What are symptoms of pregnancy while breastfeeding?
It can be difficult to tell if you’re pregnant while breastfeeding if your cycle hasn’t returned to normal, but you may notice a difference in how your breasts feel or you may be more tired than normal. The only way to know for sure, however? Take a pregnancy test!
How do I know if I'm ovulating while breastfeeding?
This one is tricky–you will ovulate before you ever get your period, so it’s technically possible to get pregnant before your cycle returns. You can do things like track your fertility symptoms and take an ovulation test if you want to be sure.
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