So, you have given birth and welcomed a beautiful bundle of joy into your life. They are wonderful, adorable, and oh so sweet…but also exhausting, demanding, and opposed to sleeping, right? Babies, especially newborns, can be a lot of work, and oftentimes new mothers are eager to postpone their fertility for the first year or more after having their child. However, the time for mothers to think about their fertility is before or right after delivery due to misconceptions that exist around getting pregnant while breastfeeding. Common advice that is given to new mothers is that as long as they are breastfeeding, their body does not ovulate and they cannot become pregnant. If that sounds like an old wives tale, it is because it is one. This belief that pregnancy is impossible while breastfeeding is one of the most widely spread myths about fertility, but it is just that, a myth. This means that yes, you can become pregnant even while breastfeeding.
Fertility after birth is a complex subject that is not easy to understand at times. It is true that breastfeeding your baby can delay fertility in mothers but how, how long, and why, can vary from mother to mother. This delay can be increased depending on specific factors such as having a baby under the age of six months, having a consistent feeding schedule, which includes feeding the baby throughout the night, and having a baby that is not being supplemented with formula or food. This method of using breastfeeding as birth control is known as the Lactational Amenorrhea Method, or LAM. Lactational amenorrhea refers to the natural postpartum infertility that occurs when a woman is not menstruating due to breastfeeding. Most experts agree that this lack of ovulation is tied to the hormone prolactin, which is released while the mother is breastfeeding, as it causes the body to delay menstruation and delay ovulation. There are very specific conditions that must be met in order for your body to be able to follow the LAM, as were mentioned above:
- Your baby should be under six months of age.
- Your period cannot have returned.
- Only breastfeeding is being used to nourish your baby.
- You should not be allowing formula or pacifiers.
- You should be continuing to breastfeed around ten to twelve times a day.
- You should not allow long periods to happen in between feedings.
- Ensure you are feeding throughout the night as well.
It is important to understand that while it is true that your body might prevent ovulation while you are breastfeeding, this is not a method that should be relied on. Women can begin to ovulate before their monthly menstruation returns, leading women to believe they are not fertile when in fact they are. Your first postpartum egg is normally released before your first period. The failure rate for Lactational Amenorrhea is around 2%, even if used perfectly. It relies on women having a complete understanding of their own body, which is hard after delivery, as your body is working in ways it has never done before. While 2 out of 100 women do not necessarily seem like a lot, for those two women for whom this method fails, it can be unhealthy. It is important to know when you might be ovulating to protect your health. It is recommended for women who have recently given birth to wait at least two years before choosing to have another child. Pregnancies that are closely spaced can cause health concerns such as preterm labor and low birth weight babies.
In order to prevent pregnancy until you are ready, it is recommended that you use alternative forms of birth control. Most doctors suggest using physical barrier methods of contraception. These methods work by blocking sperm from reaching the egg, and, should you ovulate, are effective at preventing pregnancy and most importantly, they cause no change in your ability to breastfeed your baby. The most common form of barrier method is of course the condom, both the male and female version. Other version such as sponges, cervical caps, or diaphragms can be used, but their effectiveness is lessened in women who have recently given birth. Other forms of birth control that can be used include abstinence, and even some hormonal contraceptive methods, although they are not often considered the first choice for breastfeeding mothers.
So how can you know if you are ovulating, especially if your period has not returned yet? Here are a few signs of ovulation and returning fertility to look out for if you are wondering whether you might be at risk of becoming pregnant while breastfeeding:
- Return of Period
This one might seem a little obvious, but the return of your monthly bleeding is a good indicator that fertility is returning. However, it is possible, in some women, for their period to start even though they are not yet ovulating.
- Discolored discharge
As your period returns, you might notice that it looks abnormal. It might be darker than your normal bleeding or be a different color, such as brown or pink. This discharge however, is normal, and will eventually transition into your normal period.
- An increased sex drive
Oftentimes while breastfeeding your libido can decrease. This is for several reasons, including physical exhaustion, feeling an overload of touching (as a baby seems to be always attached to you while breastfeeding), as well as having lowered estrogen levels. When you start to feel “normal” again in regards to your sexual attraction, it can be a sign that your fertility is returning.
- An increase of cervical mucus
While you are experiencing infertility due to breastfeeding, your mucus will be very thick and white. As your cervical mucus because clearer, thin, and almost elastic, you are probably ovulating or preparing to ovulate.
- Cervical Changes
This method will probably be more difficult than the others mentioned here for you to determine whether your fertility is returning, especially as your cervix might be experiencing other changes post pregnancy. However, as a general guideline, the shape and firmness of your cervix can show if you are ovulating or not. If your cervix feels wet, soft, and more open than normal, this can be a sign that your body’s fertility has returned.
- General Physical Symptoms
While ovulating you can also experience breast tenderness (which is hard to spot, as breastfeeding can also make your breasts feel very tender). You might also have an increased feeling of bloating, and cramps on one side of your pelvis.
Your Basal Body Temperature is the lowest temperature your body can achieve within a 24-hour period. When your body is preparing to ovulate, your Basal temperature will be lower than normal. After ovulation, your temperature will normally raise considerably. Tracking your Basal Body Temperature, especially over the period of a few months, will help you establish a consistent way for you to chart whether or not you might be beginning to ovulate, even if your period has not yet returned.
Despite being one of the most common pieces of advice given to new mothers, you can in fact become pregnant while breastfeeding your new little one. This old wives tale is only partially based in truth, and this misconception can lead you to becoming pregnant sooner than you may want. However, with a recommended method of family planning and being able to recognize the messages your body is sending about your returning fertility, you can take comfort in knowing that your future and the future of your family can be better planned.