I recently posted on Instagram about starting my TTC journey for baby #2 and so many people shared their own stories and supportive words. The topic of breastfeeding while trying to conceive came up a couple of times so I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve researched because it seems there are some conflicting opinions and misconceptions.
Most of my research has come from La Leche League International, the leading breastfeeding support organization, as well as from certified lactation consultant and well-known gentle parenting author, Sarah Ockwell-Smith. I recently began reading her new book, The Second Baby Book, and it explains this topic extremely well.
For reference, I am currently breastfeeding my 17 month old son about 6 times in 24 hours and I don’t plan to wean unless he chooses to during my (hopeful) second pregnancy. There is a chance I could experience some intense aversion during this time and if that’s the case, I will deal with that when it happens. At this moment, I feel incredibly grateful and proud to have breastfed my son for nearly 18 months but am still striving for the WHO recommendation of a minimum of two years.
OKAY, let’s get into the misconceptions:
Misconception #1: If you’re breastfeeding, you can’t get pregnant.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains this well, but I will give you the rundown. Basically, this is not true. Every year, thousands of mothers get pregnant before their first postpartum period. In fact, even if you are breastfeeding exclusively (meaning no food or formula), there is still a 22% chance your period will return by 6 months postpartum. If you are not giving other milk, then the chances increase to 80% by 12 months, and 92% by your baby’s 2nd birthday (Smith, 37). If you are not breastfeeding frequently or are supplementing with other milks/foods, this increases your chances of your cycle returning earlier. La Leche League International states that most breastfeeding mothers will get their cycle back between 9 and 18 months postpartum. Personally this was true for me as my cycle returned about 14 months postpartum, even though I was breastfeeding frequently both day and night.
Misconception #2: Even with your cycle back, breastfeeding reduces your chances of conceiving.
This is a complicated one because there is some research saying that this is true to some extent. Women who are breastfeeding exclusively (again, meaning no formula or food) have a slightly higher chance of experiencing an anovulatory period (ovulation but without an egg) when their postpartum periods return, compared to those who are supplementing with formula or food. Exclusively breastfeeding mothers are also more likely to experience a shorter luteal phase (the time between ovulation and your period) than those who are supplementing (37). This shorter luteal phase also decreases the chance of your body being able to sustain the pregnancy because of inappropriate hormone levels.
But remember, these statistics are comparing EXCLUSIVELY breastfeeding mothers to those supplementing, including with food. Most babies begin to eat solid food around 6 months of age. Therefore, if your baby is older than 6 months, these statistics may not apply to you.
Full fertility is considered to be restored once breastfeeding is no longer affecting the follicular phase (egg growth), ovulation, or the luteal phase. This is usually around your 7th postpartum menstrual cycle (38). Therefore, breastfeeding does not reduce your chances of conceiving once full fertility has been restored. It can, however, take longer for your cycle to return if you are breastfeeding and therefore appear that breastfeeding is inhibiting your fertility. If your cycle returned at 6 months postpartum, your body could be ready to conceive by around 13 months. But, if your cycle returned at 14 months postpartum, it might take until 21 months postpartum for your hormones to be at the appropriate level to sustain a pregnancy.
Misconception #3: I need to stop breastfeeding at night in order for my cycle to return.
This one is SO common, and something I believed as well. However, research has concluded that it is not necessarily night time nursing that prevents your cycle from returning, but the total amount of time spent nursing in 24 hours. Researchers found that fertility was most likely to return if nursing was limited to a total of 65 minutes in a 24 hour period. Some other ways to increase the chance of your cycle returning are to reduce the length of feeds to about ten minutes or less, and reduce non-nutritive suckling (comfort nursing). Also, keeping the amount of day time feeds to a maximum of three. This means you could nurse for three times during the night (for about ten minutes each) with two daytime nursing sessions and one bedtime session for to reach this goal of about 65 minutes or less. Of course, this is a good guideline but you may find you need to reduce your nursing more or less in order for your cycle to return (38). Personally, I did reduce night nursing to two times per night (see how I night weaned here) but I kept my daytime and bedtime feeds their usual length (15-20 minutes or so) and my cycle still returned at 14 months postpartum.
Have you experience trying to conceive while breastfeeding? What was your experience like?