Fertility Signals While Breastfeeding

Guest Post by Kate from Modern Alternative Mama

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.

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!

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.

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 will 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.)

Fun story: I know a handful of women for whom Vitex worked in only one cycle. One used it because of a luteal phase defect while breastfeeding (i.e. her LP was too short). The other, I’m not sure why she used it. But I do know in her first pregnancy (no Vitex) she was on bedrest for months and her baby was born at 34 weeks. She’s nearly 36 weeks pregnant this time with absolutely no complications. So, while that’s totally anecdotal, it sure does give hope!

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 likelihood of neural tube defects and decrease morning sickness. It’s great while pregnant, and not a bad idea while trying to conceive, either!

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.

Sources:

http://www.tryingtoconceive.com/bf.htm

http://www.mothering.com/discussions/showthread.php?t=440370

http://www.babyhopes.com/articles/vitex.html

http://www.fertilityfactor.com/infertility_trying_to_conceive_fertility_charts.html

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I am not a doctor and don\'t pretend to be one. Use everything you read only to inspire you to do your own research and be an advocate for your own health. Please read my disclaimer in full.

About Donielle

Donielle is an amateur herbalist and natural momma to two littles (with another babe in heaven) after dealing with being less than fertile. She has a passion for nourishing nutrition, natural living, and spreading the word on how food truly affects our health.

Comments

  1. I’m not sure it’s a great idea to get pregnant while breastfeeding. There is a reason it’s so hard. Our bodies need to rest and rebuild between pregnancies, for the breastfeeding baby, the more nutrients in the milk the better, and the developing fetus needs all of mom’s nutritional resources. Unless you are one of those people who is fertile while breastfeeding, it seems like a recipe for everyone being much less healthy than they otherwise would be. So, why would you want to get pregnant while breastfeeding?

    donielle Reply:

    @annie, Annie, In many ways I completely agree with you. I’ve been putting my thoughts together to give another viewpoint as well. :-) Stay tuned!

    Melissa Reply:

    @annie,
    Annie – My baby is a year old. My body HAS rested and rebuilt after pregnancy with her. I have fallen pregnant with my other kids (I have four) at this stage traditionally, however, I had also stopped breastfeeding by now too. Unfortunately, because I am still breastfeeding my 1yr old (and quite regularly as she demands – and despite her being on solids) my period has yet to return. Me falling pregnant at this stage wouldn’t make anyone less healthy. But I am not yet at the stage where I am willing to give up breastfeeding solely so I can get pregnant, when my daughter so obviously isn’t ready yet to wean.
    To add to this, alot of mothers successfully breastfeed whilst pregnant and go onto tandem feed even once the second baby is born. It isn’t unhealthy for any of them. You seem to be making ‘assumptions’ based on homegrown logic, however there is absolutely no research to back up your stance on this.

    Cornelia Slotiuk Reply:

    Though I agree with the information in your blog, I also believe that our bodies/nature spaces children for a reason. I don’t have the stats in front of me but I seem to remember that, world wide, children are spaced close to 3 years apart. In cultures that use biological nursing (child decides when to wean) you see more spacing between kids than in our culture. These cultures tend to also practice and support co-sleeping = night time breastfeeding.
    What I am missing in your blog is just how advantageous the slow return of fertility is for mothers. No early return of periods help restore iron levels in women. As well, the demands of caring for and meeting the needs of a baby/young child are great enough without adding the additional energy demands of pregnancy and a newborn. Nature protects the mother and, by happy association, also the baby/child. A breastfeeding baby/child is more likely to continue to breastfeed when his/her mom isn’t pregnant.
    There are many parents who choose to have their babies close together (or don’t plan for this but it happens), I am only pointing out that in a biological, evolutionary way this may not be the best model for women and babies.

    donielle Reply:

    @Cornelia Slotiuk, Yes, I agree. :-) This was a guest post by a friend and I have yet to write my own thoughts, as it can be controversial at times…..

  2. Annie — some babies continue to nurse for QUITE a long time. My daughter is still breastfeeding at 2.5 years! Naturally she doesn’t breastfeed very often anymore, only about 2 – 3 times during the day and none at night. Should I (and many, many other women like me) have chosen NOT to conceive again because my older child (who no longer relies on me for nourishment, but mainly eats food) is still nursing?

    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. And there’s definitely a need for this information for those women!

    Thanks Donielle for allowing me to guest post!

    donielle Reply:

    @Kate, Thanks Kate! And I agree with a lot of what you say too. 😉

  3. Amanda Clements says:

    Great job, Kate! Lots of good information to consider and store away :)

  4. Another side of the story, is people like me who found themselves pregnant when their nursing baby was only 6 months old. My baby was still nursing exclusively, not sleeping through the night, etc…so it is definitely a myth that you *can’t* get pregnant while nursing!

  5. I agree with Annie. God made it difficult to get pregnant while breastfeeding for a reason. Our nursing babies need the nutrients in the milk, yet the fetus needs nutritional resources. I really don’t understand why someone who is nursing would go to the trouble to track temperature, mucus, etc. before their baby was over 2. What is the rush? Let nature take it’s course, and let God decide when the next baby is conceived.

    RuthAnne Reply:

    @Tonya, I don’t think that some women go through the “trouble” of tracking and charting because they are solely trying to get pregnant. I track and chart because for years I did not know how my body “worked” and was curious. I started tracking and charting after I experienced a stillbirth about 9 years ago and have continued primarily out of habit. I have been pregnant 3x since that stillbirth and still track and chart. I even found myself tracking throughout my last pregnancy.
    Tracking and charting is a skill that allows a woman to see how unique and complex her body truly is.

  6. Vitex and vitamin B helped me to regulate again after breastfeeding. On the other hand, there are side effects of vitex and you do need to be careful. I would suggest going to a naturopath who specializes in fertility to help you out. Especially if you do need to go for fertility treatments, they will NOT want you using vitex. For me, I had to stop it because my periods became so scant that I only had a day a bleeding. I read that it can cause that as a side effect.

  7. I hope someone can help me! I have 3 little girls the youngest being 8 months who only nurses once at night. I have had years of issues with my ovaries. When I was 17 I had the left ovary surgically cut in half due to a 19cm cyst. Then smaller cysts on and off through out the years. But in my last pregnancy, when I was 14 weeks along, they found a 13cm cyst on my right ovary. They went in Laproscopically and drained it and “took care of it” It was pressing on my kidney and larger than my womb at that point. 2 weeks later it returned measuring 15cm so when I was 17 weeks along they went in again this time a full surgical procedure and rolled my womb to the side and removed my whole ovary. Now my husband and I are trying to conceive again but I am worried that with the one “injured’ ovary I wont be able to. Like I said I only nurse once at night and my period has not yet returned. I have been doing what I can to boost my fertility but I would really love some advice or helpful comments. It would break my heart if I was unable to conceive again. Thank you!
    Alyssa

    donielle Reply:

    @Alyssa, Alyssa – I’m so sorry for your health issues! How troublesome.

    But many women don’t ovulate while nursing. I don’t even when my my kids went down to nursing once a day. In many ways, that’s the way it’s supposed to be – our body protects us from nourishing more than it can handle. In traditional cultures they routinely went 3-4 years between children as they weaned around 3 years and then spent a few months building nutrient reserves. So while you may be ready to conceive again, your body may not be.

    I know it’s not really what you wanted to hear though, right? 😉 But being patient with our bodies is really important and with your youngest being just 8 months old, your body is still recovery from pregnancy. And with only one injured ovary, it may need more time before you start ovulating again.

    I would look into a no sugar diet and maybe adding something like red raspberry tea to help prevent any further cysts. And the good thing is, both can also help to increase fertility. :-)

    Alyssa Reply:

    @donielle, Already on a 0 sugar, 0 gluten diet! And the raspberry leaf tea also! Thank you for your thoughts :)

  8. I don’t think anyone wants to get pregnant again when they have a very young, exclusively breastfed baby. My youngest is age 2, and I’m still breastfeeding, but want to get pregnant. I have had my period back for a year. I was still breastfeeding my oldest child (past a year) and easily got pregnant with my second. Your body does need a rest between pregnancies, but naturally most women get their periods back around 12 months postpartum. Conceiving while nursing a toddler is not bad.

    donielle Reply:

    @Alison, No, it’s not always bad. But for some women it could be. :-) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. I’m asking mainly to avoid pregnancy while nursing. Since I’m nursing full time with no periods yet. I just wanted to know what to look for and exactly where each step is going to be.
    Thanks.

    donielle Reply:

    @IMF, I guess the best thing I can tell you is that it’s different for every woman. Some don’t ovulate at all while nursing, and others start back very soon after birth. Try checking out the Creighton model of charting and also grab a copy of “The Art of Natural Family Planning”. And basically, if you ever have a noticeable amount of cervical fluid and want to prevent pregnancy, it’s best to abstain.

  10. I allways get preg while feeding.and have twelve live babes ! interested in lots of feed back.

  11. The issue I seem to be having is that I had a period at 3 months pp when I went back to work full time. That was the one and only period I’ve had in a year. I pumped 3 times and would nurse mornings and as soon as I got home from work. I also demand fed on the weekends. I began weaning my pumping down when son was 11 months old and completely stopped pumping during work when he turned a year, in May. I still nursed mornings, nights & demand fed on weekends. when son turned 14 months old I only nursed him mornings & nights. I was taking the mini pill and stopped on August 4th (over 4 weeks ago). I’ve been having cramping, but still no period. I was on the mini pill for about 9 months. We are trying to conceive our 2nd child, but it seems tough when I don’t have my period. I’m still only breastfeeding mornings & nights.

    donielle Reply:

    @gina, It’s tough, because every woman’s body is so different! Many don’t truly ovulate (though they may still have a period) until after full weaning. Others begin much sooner. Paying attention to cervical fluid is really key when trying to predict ovulation. The more fluid you have, the nearer to ovulation you may be.

  12. Can anyone tell me what you mean by rebuiling nutrient reserves? I am breastfeeding my 13 month old and get the general idea, but would like to know more specifically.

    donielle Reply:

    @Michelle, Check out the Fertility Diet tab here – http://www.naturallyknockedup.com/start-here/table-of-contents/
    I basically mean that we need to eat a nutrient dense diet to make sure we get adequate amounts of essential fertility nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K. Following something like the fertility foods checklist will give you a good start. (free for subscribers – just look at the bottom of your emails)

  13. I am researching becoming pregnant while breastfeeding because my husband and I are ready to have another baby, and our 20 month old still nurses 1 or 2 times per day. I feel that my body has fully recovered (except that it looks different now than before baby…dang!), and we feel emotionally, financially, and physically ready to add a second child to our family. I have pcos (polycystic ovarian syndrome), so it is difficult to become pregnant anyways, so I want to be prepared and be as healthy as I can for my son and future child(ren). I haven’t weaned my son because it’s a very useful thing to be able to do when he needs comfort, and he really doesn’t want to give it up 100% yet. He has gone 2 days ever (not in a row) of no breastfeeding, so we are eventually going to wean, it just hasn’t happened yet. You make a totally valid point though, breastfeeding is a “natural birth control” for a reason!

  14. Great info!
    I am currently nursing my 14 month old 3 times a day. If and when I get my period (I’m in the dreaded 2WW right now!) I will drop her afternoon feeding so we’ll be down to just morning and night nursing. Unfortunately I have a low AMH level so the quality of my eggs isn’t the greatest. I had to take Clomid to conceive my daughter and fear that I will have to take it again for baby #2. DD enjoys nursing so I do not want to wean her simply to take Clomid again, but at the same time, I fear that I will not be able to get pregnant as long as I’m nursing. Do you have any tips or suggestions for me? Thanks!

    Donielle Reply:

    @Mallory, Many women don’t ovulate well when they are nursing, in fact many don’t ovulate at all until weaning is complete. Personally it has taken me 6 weeks to ovulate after each child weaned.
    If you aren’t pregnant, I would really focus on getting a lot of nutrient dense foods to help boost egg quality, especially if you continue to nurse. While many women do get pregnant while they are nursing, it can be more difficult on the woman’s body, depleting her of necessary nutrients that can have lasting symptoms.

  15. Hello, I have a 21 month old, and for the past 4 months I have been trying to conceive. She is still breastfeeding and I get a period every month and I have ovulated every month but it still is not enough. I am getting really upset and I am debating whether to stop breastfeeding all together just so that i can have another baby. Please let me know if you have any advice. I am really desperate. She really doesn’t want to stop breastfeeding it is really hard. She loves her night feeds and in the day she doesn’t ask for it and if she does i have band aids, on my nipples so she thinks they are hurt. any advice would be really appreciated. thank you

    Donielle Reply:

    @ames, Ames, I’m sorry you’re feeling kind of stuck. Have you confirmed ovulation by temperature shifts? Because while some women have a period while nursing, they still may not be ovulating. (breastfeeding often causes prolactin to remain high which suppresses ovulation)
    It’s also very common for women to be unable to get pregnant while nursing, whether due to annovulation, a short luteal phase or reduced egg quality.
    I wish I had some great advice for you, but the best thing you can do is nourish your body with the most nutrient dense foods possible in order to build nutrient reserves for a future pregnancy and to allow your body enough to support yourself, a nursing babe, and a pregnancy.
    I also don’t recommend trying to force the body to ovulate during breastfeeding by using a lot of herbs or bio-identical hormones. I’m also an advocate for allowing at least a few months between weaning and trying to conceive to allow for rebuilding lost nutrients and letting the hormones balance out again, though I know that many women choose not to wait, and that is a very personal decision.

  16. So I just had my first period three weeks ago , and then another one 5 days later. My husband and I are trying to concieve. Is it common to ovulate after such in irregular bleed. I am checking my cervix everyday and cervical mucus hoping and praying I ovulate and become pregnant with baby number 2!

    donielle Reply:

    @Misty, When coming off of breastfeeding – anything is possible. 😉 It can take awhile for the hormones to balance out again, sometimes causing odd cycles or break through bleeding during ovulation. If it happens again, so close together, definitely call your ob/gyn to chat about it.

  17. My son is 3.5 months old & a perfect little baby. He eats 6 times a day and sleeps 9+ hours straight each night. He never cries for food @ night, so I don’t wake him. Now my period has returned. I have been planning on breastfeeding @ least until he is 1 year. I don’t mind getting pregnant again soon, but guess I don’t feel quite ready for it. I don’t want to rob either my son or the child I would be carrying from nutrition. Also, I don’t want to rob my husband or me of intimacy & hurt our marriage in any way. I really just want to trust God in His sovereignty to plan out our family & I’m scared to take anything into my own hands. Is there something I should be doing? Am I maybe not fertile, even though I have my period? Anyone able to relate to this or help out? I still have 2.5-3 months left of exclusive breastfeeding & want that to go well. Is it even possible to conceive while exclusively breastfeeding? Thank you!!

    donielle Reply:

    @Naomi, It is possible to conceive while breastfeeding exclusively! Some women find that they become fertile within months after birthing, others don’t ovulate at all until the baby is fully weaned.
    I very much understand wanting to wait though – you’re concerns were all the same ones that I had. And I do think that they are very valid! You could start charting and paying a bit more attention to cervical fluid in order to abstain during fertile times to space babies out a bit. And I think it’s really up to you and your husband to decide if you’re “taking control” or not. I personally believe that God will bestow wisdom to parents to help them work through this issue. I also think that he gave us cycles like we have so that we can make the decision to abstain or not – we have plenty of signs of upcoming ovulation when you really pay attention! You could check out the Couple to Couple League for lots of info as well. I pray you find peace in whatever you decide!

  18. @Naomi,
    Hi naomi, i am in about the same boat as you. my LO is 18 months old. She night feeds and i pump during the day. My period has returned. I have had about 3-4 of them, not too regular, but definitely not ready for another baby yet. I believe that even with your period, ovulation still might not occur. So i AM HOPING that is the case with me. I am checking my cervix and fluids, but it is hard to tell sometimes. And since i am night feeding i find it very hard to take BT in the am. I have found through out the month for my cervix to be high and even open, but i have not to my knowledge have had the “right” cervical fluid for fertility. But i could be misreading everything as well. Here’s to hoping that i am not ovulating!!

  19. Very good info here. When my pp bleed returned finally at 22mth pp with my second we started ttc. My first cycle was 56 days long and my luteal phase only 8days .. 2 cycles I got light pos tests then bled … Cycle 3 I ovulated way earlier at CD 31 while on vitex but found I had sore boobs on this … The next cycle I took b6 and red rasp leaf (rrl only until o) . I of CD 49 but I had the most ewcm of all cycles. I also only bd 1 time and we concieved. I suspect my body ovulated yesterday for first time. Off to buy vitex b6 and red rasp tomorrow… :) ttc after my first bleed arrives.

  20. Cynthia Jones says:

    I love breastfeeding by baby girl she’s almost 6 months. I have had previous issues with conception, I have the ‘fantasy’ of conceiving naturally. I’m currently using Vitex for the first time.

    Donielle Reply:

    @Cynthia Jones, Just be aware of your milk supply while on vitex as it works in part by lowering the prolactin levels in the body. Some women find that it also lowers their supply quite significantly and then if/when they become pregnant that their supply lowers even more and breastfeeding can then be painful.

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