Wait? What did that title say?
Breastfeeding is amazing birth control. This may be a shocker to you (it was to me), but this is a true statement for more people than you may think. Me, being one of them. I wanted to share my journey to discovering this hidden truth because the road was pretty bumpy for me. I'm hoping I can spare someone the emotional roller coaster it took to get here.
Adulthood has been filled with discovery, the biggest one being that the ideal images of my future life that I dreamt up when I was younger, often just aren't reality. Here's my reality. I will never be able to be pregnant and breastfeed. I will never breastfeed through a pregnancy. Tandem nursing is not in the cards for me (unless I have twins). My body simply refuses to lactate and prepare itself for pregnancy at the same time. I'm not sure if the energy burden is too much or if my body was simply programmed not to ovulate or allow an embryo to implant until I have weaned my previous child. Why, I don't know. But the facts remain.
In medical school, I was taught that breastfeeding is one of the least effective methods of birth control. The minute you stop feeding your infant throughout the night and all through the day, it becomes an even less reliable form. But be advised, once you start table food, you better have another method handy because breastfeeding is pretty much useless as a pregnancy prevention. My OB even personally warned me of this, telling me that she herself conceived her second baby accidentally when her first was 7 months old because she didn't heed the well-known warnings and used breastfeeding as her only birth control. We've all heard these stories. I don't need to detail that some women can and do get pregnant while breastfeeding. I think this concept gets plenty of attention. If you don't believe me Google: pregnancy and breastfeeding. You'll easily find articles on breastfeeding failing women as birth control.
What you won't find unless you dig and what I feel doesn't get enough attention, is the other side of the coin. I feel that, in general, our country is often most focused on pregnancy prevention. To the point that trying to conceive (TTC) is minimized and overlooked. Our first baby was conceived easily so I've never seen the other side either until now. I realize from personal experience that all the attention given to prevention makes those of us having trouble conceiving feel like outsiders, as if something is wrong with us. Facts are often hard to find and we're reduced to searching message boards where women vent their own frustrations (which has its place but is an inadequate replacement for reliable scientific facts).
My husband and I have always wanted our children to be close in age. My husband wanted this because his sister is 18 months his elder and I wanted it because my brother was 7 years my elder. Growing up, my husband and his sister were close friends while I often felt like I was an only child or lived with an uncle (by no fault of my brother; the age gap was just enormous. He made plenty of attempts to reach across, but he graduated high school when I was in the fourth grade so... as you can imagine, we were in completely different stages for a long time).
Because of this desire to have a sibling near Liam in age, we started TTC before he was even 12 months old. I knew I didn't want to wean him at that point because I wanted to breastfeed until at least 12 months. My plan was to let him wean himself after that point.
During the first few months of TTC, I started noticing that my cycles had gotten longer than before I had had Liam. At first, I gave this no thought other than that it made the months of waiting stretch even longer. I was having periods so I assumed I must be fertile.
By the time Liam was 12 months old, I stopped pumping during the day and we went to only nursing in the evening after work, before bed, and in the morning. Still no luck getting pregnant. I started thinking maybe that two evening feeds so close together were reducing my fertility so we cut back the next month to only nursing in the morning and at night. I still sent breast milk with him to daycare (we had quite a stock in the freezer that I figured we might as well use that up). It was a good compromise. My baby was still getting breast milk three times a day and hopefully my cycles would adjust and we could conceive.
Still no luck so I started researching. I found all sorts of articles on women getting pregnant while breastfeeding. People telling their ooey gooey stories of tandem nursing and how wonderful it is and how people shouldn't judge them. Trust me, I wasn't judging. I wanted to be there with them. I was actually starting to freak out that something was wrong with me. 5 months of trying to get pregnant and all we'd had was a chemical pregnancy. And instead of regulating themselves, my cycles just seemed to get longer and longer each month.
At this point, Liam was 14 months old and showing no signs of desire to wean. After a lot of discussion with my husband, we decided that maybe since I had lost so much weight from nursing that my body couldn't handle a pregnancy on top of lactating and that we'd cut Liam's feeds back by one each month.
We decided this together but I was hesitant. My attachment to nursing my baby boy was obviously more emotional and less rational than my husband's view. What we decided made sense but I still hesitated. I figured I'd do some reading and find something to back our theory up and then I'd be good to go. Plus, surely I'd get pregnant when we cut back to once a day feeding, and Liam could then wean himself from there. At least I'd have my night time bonding and cuddling with him. That was the most special time in my eyes anyway.
I did a lot of research. The vocal, well-broadcasted answer to my question: "Do I need to wean to get pregnant?" was clearly stated as "No" and sometimes as "Most likely not." And everything I read said structured feeds that are limited to the daytime only are least likely to interfere with your fertility. I also unfortunately found out that a myriad of women online bash women who consider weaning one child in hopes of having another. Calling such Moms selfish. I was obviously even more of an emotional wreck after researching and was still wavering back and forth in our decision.
Then I finally came across something I could hold on to. Despite this article sending the same message that stopping breastfeeding is probably not necessary to get pregnant, I found something useful in the article Breastfeeding and Fertility by Kelly Mom. It stated that several studies have shown that there is an intermediate stage between menstruation resuming and full fertility. It is a stage in which you have ovulation without luteal competency. In other words, the uterine lining is inadequately prepared for the fertilized egg and it fails to implant. This really spoke to me because it is what we believed occurred with our miscarriage. My pregnancy tests were lightly positive then faded away instead of darkening, seeming like a failed implantation.
I started connecting the dots as I read more. My late ovulation and long cycles were a sign of this luteal phase defect, as I learned it was called. But everything I read on the topic talked about people with PCOS or other fertility problems. Breastfeeding was never mentioned. So, did I have a fertility problem? Was force-weaning Liam going to help my fertility at all?
I loved nursing. Liam loved nursing. It really did feel cruel to tell him and myself no without any assurance that I was accomplishing anything by it.
So I hit those message boards I told you about earlier and I found one story, only one, that gave me the reinforcement I needed. I wish I had saved the link but the gist of the story was that a mother had a 3 year old she was still breastfeeding, very sporadically. She said it wasn't even every day but maybe every other day or so, strictly on demand. She had been trying to get pregnant for over a year and had talked to her doctor and read everything online like I had done. Everyone told her that sporadic feeding like that couldn't interfere with fertility. Since she was in her 30s, she was getting concerned that another baby just wasn't in the cards for her. She was convinced by others that forcing her son to wean was cruel and selfish so she waited. Then, he self-weaned randomly and she got pregnant that same month. After nearly a year and a half of trying, she felt it couldn't be coincidence. She wanted to share her story because she too said she had no idea such little breastfeeding could actually serve as birth control.
That month, our 6th month trying, I had a 44 day cycle with ovulation on day 28 or something crazy like that. I went and talked to my OB who said that with numbers like that, pregnancy was unlikely.
So, I did it. I stopped nursing my son. I cried. He was confused. My breasts swelled and hardened. I cried from pain and from sadness (and I now know also from hormonal changes). I gave into one last feed to reduce my physical pain to a bearable level and we stopped for good. I cried some more but remained resolved. I kept thinking of that woman with the 3 year old and hoping I was like her. That breastfeeding was birth control for me. Amazing birth control.
And it was. I will never know how long that first cycle post-weaning would have been, but I do know that I ovulated around day 14 (yes, textbook perfect ovulation timing). And now, I am almost 12 weeks pregnant and very happy with our decision to wean. My son still loves to cuddle with me. He gets cow's milk before bed. He has had no increase in sleep disturbances. He is happy and the biggest Momma's boy you've ever seen!
I wish I could go back in time and reassure myself. Tell myself that something horrible hadn't happened to scar my uterus during delivery or from the Mirena I had for 9 months. That I wasn't infertile. But that I just needed to stop my birth control--breastfeeding. To ask around and maybe I'd hear that sometimes breastfeeding is actually amazing birth control.
Because, since I've made this discovery independently, I've heard other stories like mine. My pediatrician/lactation consultant informed me that she could never conceive without weaning either (and she has four kids). She knows others like me as well. My mom also vaguely remembers my great-grandmother saying that her mom used to breastfeed her kids as long as they were willing simply because the minute she weaned, she was pregnant with the next. The stories are out there. They just aren't as vocal as the "I got pregnant while breastfeeding" stories.
So I'm putting my story out there. I hope it reaches someone who is going through the same thing I went through and that it gives you the courage to ignore all the hatred people express toward weaning to conceive and that you feel empowered to do what you feel is best for your family. Because I know that regardless of what others may think, that is exactly what I did. I stopped my birth control so that we could get pregnant and Liam could have a sibling near his age. That birth control just happened to be endowed upon me for free from Mother Nature. And what a beautiful birth control it was for those 15 months that I was able to take advantage of it.