Can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? For most couples, getting pregnant right after having a baby is not exactly planned. In fact, most doctors discourage two pregnancies close together because it’s hard on the woman’s body. On the other hand, some families are actively trying to have children close to the same age. Whether you would welcome an immediate second pregnancy or dread it, you’re probably wondering how nursing affects the odds of conception.
Can You Get Pregnant While Breastfeeding? | What You Need To Know
In This Article:
- What is Lactation Amenorrhea?
- What Factors Increase the Likelihood of Conception?
- How Can You Make Breastfeeding More Effective as Contraception?
- What Are The Restrictions of LAM?
- What Are Good Ways to Detect Ovulation?
- How Do You Know if You’re Pregnant While Nursing?
What is Lactation Amenorrhea?
The belief that nursing decreases the odds of conception is not just an old wives’ tale. There is definite science behind the phenomenon. The way in which a baby’s mouth behaves while suckling puts a specific kind of pressure on the nipple. That pressure created during breast milk production causes a chemical reaction within the woman’s body.
Nursing sends signals to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is responsible for the production and release of hormones. These include one hormone known as prolactin. In turn, prolactin has the power to repress another hormone, GnRH, normally produced by the hypothalamus. Once GnRH is suppressed, two additional hormones are short-circuited. These two hormones (follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone) allow egg production and the release of the egg from the ovary.
When this “domino effect” of hormone disruption happens, ovulation is prevented. If you cannot ovulate, conception is difficult.
Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health has done extensive research into the correlation between breastfeeding and contraception. They conclude that the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM) can be as effective as a birth control pill. That translates to about 98 percent effective but the method must be followed with precision.
What Factors Increase the Likelihood of Conception?
The ability of nursing to suppress conception can be one birth control method but the conditions have to be precise. In fact, there are certain situations that increase the odds of pregnancy while nursing. If you want to avoid conception, there are certain things to watch for. These factors mean that if you’re not already using alternate birth control, now is the time!
- When you’re relying on breast pumps. There is something specific about the way a baby suckles while nursing that signals your body to release the ovulation-preventing hormones. A breast pump certainly exerts pressure but it doesn’t reliably produce the right conditions that signal your pituitary glands to release prolactin.
- When your baby begins sleeping through the night. Longer periods of time between nursing sessions means that the fertility-suppressing signals are disrupted.
- When you begin giving your baby a bottle. Bottles offer opportunities for nutrition or hydration that don’t come from you. Each one means a lengthened interval between nursing sessions. Formula, water, or other liquids from a bottle will mean your baby won’t be hungry or thirsty again for at least a couple of hours.
- When you begin feeding solid foods to your baby. When she’s old enough, your baby needs nutrition from more than just breastmilk. Some couples introduce solid foods earlier than six months. Of course, many mothers continue providing breast milk long after their babies begin eating solid food. But once babies and toddlers reach those milestones, the time between nursing will lengthen.
- When baby reaches six months of age. This is another way of saying the baby is now eating solid foods. By six months, a baby definitely requires additional nutrients. So it’s really a question of “when baby reaches six months or begins solid foods — whichever comes first.”
- When your period returns. For most women, it’s obvious that the resumption of menstruation means the ovulation cycle is in effect. But sometimes believing in the power of breastfeeding as birth control is so strong that this signal is ignored. Other women aren’t sure if they’re getting their periods or having post-delivery spotting. Has it been 56 days since your baby was born? Has the bleeding gone on for at least two days? If both are true, it means you have your period.
- If you’re having sex. At the risk of being obvious, it’s important to remember that only abstinence is foolproof. Women can still get pregnant even if they’re still nursing frequently and haven’t gotten their periods.
How Can You Make Breastfeeding More Effective as Contraception?
Breastfeeding as birth control is certainly not fool-proof but there are ways to make it less likely for breastfeeding mothers to get pregnant when no another form of birth control is in use.
Before even considering breastfeeding as your primary method of birth control, three conditions have to be in place:
- Your baby hasn’t reached their sixth-month birthday.
- You haven’t gotten a period or pinkish spotting.
- Your baby is on a nursing schedule that involves feeding her at least every six hours during the night, and every four hours during the daytime.
Once any of these conditions are no longer true, you may still have some contraceptive protection, but it’s far less effective. If these factors are in place, make sure to follow the guidelines that make breastfeeding as birth control as effective as possible.
The most important part of using LAM birth control involves your nursing practices. It’s been found to be most effective to feed your baby “on demand” — in other words, when she wants to feed. Even if you put her on a strict four-hour schedule, her suckling might not be as vigorous as it is when she’s genuinely hungry or thirsty.
On the other hand, if for some reason she doesn’t “demand” the breast after four hours during the daytime (or after six nocturnal hours), attempt to nurse. Frequency is just as important as the suckling itself.
What Are The Restrictions of LAM?
The LAM method only works if your baby isn’t being given any other options. This includes bottles of formula or other liquids. It also includes solid food.
Doctors stress that if your baby needs special medicine or vitamin supplement, they should not be withheld. By the same token, parents should resist extending LAM after their baby is old enough to need solid food, to ensure proper health and growth.
(Perhaps you do want to conceive, but are still producing breast milk? If that’s the case, don’t follow the guidelines. That way, you’re more likely to cause ovulation to happen, without giving up nursing.)
What Are Good Ways to Detect Ovulation?
Are you relying on nursing for birth control? It’s important to be vigilant about signs that you might be ovulating. With the return of mature eggs in your ovaries, you are now technically able to get pregnant if you have sex. Getting your period will erase all doubt, but menstrual bleeding doesn’t always appear as soon as you’re ovulating. There are more subtle signs to be on the watch for.
Consider taking your temperature every day. You might have done this while trying to conceive. Body temperatures rise during ovulation. In fact, a special basal thermometer, which is more precise than a regular one, can help detect signs of ovulation.
Are you seeing more vaginal mucus than you’ve experienced since your baby was born? Ovulation might be happening. Be on the lookout for when discharge turns from a thick and opaque consistency to thinner and more clear. In addition, you might notice some pinkish or brownish discharge. Rather than post-pregnancy spotting, it can signal a returning menstrual cycle.
How Do You Know if You’re Pregnant While Nursing?
Because periods can be so unpredictable in the months following your baby’s birth, actual pregnancy can go undetected. Of course, if you suspect you’re pregnant, make an appointment with your doctor. Otherwise, be on the lookout for the telltale signs.
- Your breasts ache in a new way. They may hurt more during breast milk production than is normal — even if your baby isn’t teething yet. Pregnancy causes a hormonal surge which leads to breast tenderness.
- You feel nauseous and exhausted. These are also tricky symptoms because new mothers are often deprived of sleep and proper nutrients but if either sensation feels new, it’s possible that pesky pregnancy hormones are the cause.
- You have increased urination. You’re probably already drinking more water to keep up with your baby’s feeding demands but if you’re providing plenty of breast milk and still running to pee more often, that could be a sign of pregnancy.
Can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? Watch this video from mlhealthunit explaining LAM and other birth control you can use while breastfeeding your baby:
So, can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? There are plenty of reasons to use breastfeeding as at least one of your birth control methods. Of course, no oral contraceptive chemicals will get passed to your baby through your breast milk. It can even help you and your partner put off decisions about male or female sterilization procedures. And — to be completely realistic — LAM can be useful during spontaneous intimacy when other birth control options aren’t available. However careful or careless you are about calculating your fertility odds, it’s important to use caution. Can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? No, but only if all the methods that make breastfeeding a birth control method are followed with precision.
Which birth control method worked the best for you? Share them in the comments section below.