Getting pregnant can be a challenge all by itself. But when you’re still breastfeeding your last baby, you may face some unique challenges in getting pregnant that you never expected. Clearly if you’re breastfeeding you’ve successfully gotten (and stayed) pregnant at least once. However, it may not be quite that easy the second time if breastfeeding is in the mix.
The reason is that your hormones are different while breastfeeding. You’ve probably heard that exclusive breastfeeding is pretty good birth control, right? Well, for some women, ANY breastfeeding is birth control and can make getting pregnant difficult. Even if that’s not the case, there are some unique signs and symptoms that can occur while breastfeeding.
Guest Post by Kate from Modern Alternative Mama
This article is written for women who are ready for another baby but whose previous baby may still have the emotional need to nurse. I wouldn’t recommend that women who are EXCLUSIVELY nursing a baby, or nursing a baby much under a year get pregnant again. But for many women, their babies are still nursing at or past 1 year of age and they are ready for another.*
While breastfeeding, the hormone in control is prolactin, which produces milk. This can interfere with the estrogen and progesterone that are needed to get pregnant. Prolactin suppresses estrogen, which can make it difficult to ovulate. And if you don’t ovulate, you can’t conceive. It also appears that progesterone levels can be too low in the second half of your cycle, meaning that your luteal phase (the time between when you ovulate and when you would expect your period) may be too short for your embryo (if one was actually created) to implant.
It’s kind of a “bad” cycle, if you’re trying to conceive anyway! Your prolactin levels interfere with your estrogen, so fewer follicles mature and you have less chance of ovulating. And if you do ovulate, the smaller number of matured follicles produce less progesterone, leading to low levels (progesterone is very important in sustaining a pregnancy and is responsible for a lot of the morning sickness and fatigue you feel during pregnancy) and possibly a short luteal phase (shorter than 10 days and the embryo doesn’t have time to implant before your period starts).
It’s why exclusive breastfeeding really can be VERY effective birth control for some women! It’s natural infertility if you will.
(though this doesn’t happen for every woman, so if you are trying to prevent getting pregnant, don’t use breastfeeding as ‘birth control’.)
There’s also the chance that even if your cycles have returned that they are still not normal and regular (for the above reasons!), which means it can be difficult to predict when you are fertile. Unless you want to have sex every other day ALL MONTH LONG (and maybe you do!), you could miss it.
But what is a woman who is trying to conceive to do?
First, take a deep breath. It may not be as “bad” as it seems. As your baby gets older and begins to nurse a bit less often, especially once your baby sleeps through the night (at least mostly), your body will begin to get fertile again. Many women are able to get pregnant once they are only breastfeeding 2 – 4 times per day instead of 10 – 12 times.
Fertility signs while breastfeeding
The best thing to do now is to start charting. That means you need to track your basal body temperature (BBT), cervical position, cervical texture, and cervical mucus. All of these, along with any other signs/symptoms (nausea, cramping, etc.) can give you some hints as to what your body is doing. Once you KNOW, then you can do something about it.
As a quick refresher, you are looking for your cervix to be high, soft, and open at ovulation, and for your cervical mucus to be either clear and watery (kind of slimy) or like raw egg whites and copious. You may also have headaches, feel tired, or feel a bit nauseous, and you may notice cramping. It’s a good idea to start having sex a few days before your ovulation if you know when it will occur. If you don’t, chart for a few months to figure out about when it’s occurring, as well as to get familiar with your body and your signs. If you are charting BBT, you will notice a sustained thermal shift (3 days or longer of higher temps) of .2 or .3 degrees AFTER your ovulation. This isn’t helpful in conceiving when you first notice it, as it’s “too late” at that point, but it does confirm that you ARE ovulating. Which means you get to try next month!
If you’re not ovulating, you may need to make a choice. You could simply wait a few months longer to see if your cycle normalizes (chances are, it will, in time). You could try to reduce breastfeeding sessions to see if that helps you start ovulating again. Others have sworn by grapefruit juice, cranberry juice, or fertility tea blends. Increasing your general nutrition (plenty of good fats and no refined sugar or flour!) can help. Also, there is a supplement called Vitex which may normalize your cycles, promote ovulation, AND fix luteal phase defects (more on that in a minute). If these don’t help, acupuncture may be able to help.
Once you ARE ovulating, then you have the issue of what’s happening AFTER. How long is it from the time you ovulate until your period starts? If it is less than 10 days (and ideally at least 12 days), your baby can’t implant. Most women end up taking Vitex* (also known as chasteberry), a natural herbal supplement that will help your hormones to normalize and will increase your luteal phase.
(PLEASE NOTE: I am not a doctor. There may be some women who are not helped by this, and a few may experience depression due to increased progesterone levels. It is not for everyone. But it is a common option and something you may consider.)
(pssst – note from Donielle here: Vitex is also good for lowering the amount of prolactin in the body, hence another reason why it may be successful in helping you ovulate while breastfeeding. But also know that while it’s a great help for some women, others find that it increases symptoms of hormone imbalance. Make sure to watch this video, or at least read the summary, if you plan on trying vitex – Expert advice on vitex.)
It may be worthwhile to look into taking B vitamins too. There are B-complex supplements, or Brewer’s Yeast is a great whole foods supplement (mix into smoothies, baked goods, or take as a pill). These increase energy and decrease the likelihood of neural tube defects and decrease morning sickness. It’s great while pregnant, and not a bad idea while trying to conceive, either! (B6 is known for helping lengthen the luteal phase.)
Be aware that even if the whole thing seems like a mess, you WILL get back to normal eventually. Night feedings are a real fertility killer, for more than one reason! My son (13 months) still sleeps with me and some nights still nurses 4 – 6 times. My daughter (2.5 years) didn’t do this so becoming pregnant the second time was easy. Not as much the third time. But, slowly, I’ve noted my signs getting back to normal. It’s just taken several months longer. Three months ago I was ovulating on CD 27 with luteal phase of only 9 days! Then on CD 21 with luteal phase 11 days. And most recently, on CD 15 and was hoping this was a pregnancy cycle (but not yet, unfortunately). As you can see – it’s SLOWLY returned to normal. I wasn’t regular from my first postpartum period (as I was with my daughter, who slept mostly through the night at 4 months and started solids early too), but, it IS happening.
Keep charting, consider some fertility herbs, and always make sure to have excellent nutrition! Donielle has many great posts here on exactly what to eat for a fertility diet.
Kate blogs at Modern Alternative Mama about real food, natural living, parenting, and other “natural” subjects. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Ben, and their two kids, Bekah, 2.5, and Daniel, 13 months. She also sells an organic skin cream that has a multitude of uses, from diaper rash to dry, cracked feet, to soothing burns! Kate enjoys everything that has to do with an all-natural lifestyle, even if most people do think she’s a little crazy.
*note from Donielle –
While I would never tell someone when they can and can’t try to conceive, I also think we need to look past our desire a bit and make sure we focus on our health if we do try to conceive while breastfeeding.
A slow return of fertility can be a good thing for mothers, allowing their bodies the time to replenish nutrients depleted during pregnancy. And nursing in and of itself also depletes the mother! Sometimes this natural infertility we experience is protective in nature, preventing us from getting pregnant when the body isn’t ready.
I personally think that waiting 3 months from the time of weaning (or at least until the previous baby is almost two) allows for the best outcomes as you can focus on rest and nourishment.
I know that seems like a long time, especially if you choose to practice extended nursing and breastfeed until your baby is two or three. I need to find the statistics again, but it seems that optimal child spacing is about 3 years between births.
As with any choice we have in family planning, make sure to take your health into account and change your diet and lifestyle when needed.