I was told by friends that I don't need contraception if I'm breastfeeding. Is this true?
This month parenting expert Rachel Fitz-Desorgher answers 'can you fall pregnant when breastfeeding?'
My mother used to tell me that she’d never planned to have children. Three children, later she said to my dad that she didn’t want to have sex again until she could find a reliable contraceptive. “Don’t worry, love, you’ll be safe - you’re still breastfeeding the baby”. And that, dear readers, is how I came to be conceived!!
What my poor mum (who, I should say, had 5 babies in total before she found a doctor who would agree to sterilise her) didn’t know was that breastfeeding is an exceptionally good contraceptive as long as you follow certain rules. So let’s have a good look at how you can manage your family planning alongside keeping your baby happily fed.
People the world over space their pregnancies about a couple of years apart simply by keeping their babies suckled. Babies, when left to their own devices, suckle frequently and not just for food. Those of you who join me for my monthly Mother&Baby Facebook Live sessions (tune in at 8pm on the 3rd Monday of every month) will know that I rarely refer to “breastfeeding” but prefer to use the term “boobling” as this more accurately reflects how our highly-evolved babies behave when we shove them, yet again, under our t-shirts.
Far from going on, glugging away and then coming off to doze for a few hours, they get on, faff about, suckle a bit, glug a bit, mess about for a bit, doze (without coming off) for a bit and then start all over again. When they do eventually finish and reappear from under our clothes, before we get a chance to push the hoover around or book the car in for its MOT, they’re rooting around again. This is just how our highly-evolved babies are and is not a sign of a problem. This frequent and somewhat erratic-seeming behaviour keeps certain hormones very high and these stop us ovulating. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that we can give all our attention to our baby until it is a bit more able to cope without us before the next one comes along. It ensures the baby’s survival.
Anything that we do which reduces the frequency and manner in which our baby naturally boobles can affect our hormone levels and, potentially, cause us to ovulate. People that tell you to jiggle the baby to keep them sucking or to take them off when they’re no longer actively drinking but simply faffing and dozing (“they’re just using you like a dummy!”) do not understand that this is the way babies are meant to behave at the boob, and interfering is just that - interfering.
In the early days, giving even one bottle could be enough to reduce our suckling hormones and women who exclusively formula feed risk pregnancy if they have unprotected sex from as early as 3 weeks after birth! And, although I know that most of you are wincing at the thought of having sex so soon after pushing a whole human being into the world, some women genuinely do feel able to enjoy sex that soon.
Maybe the most common culprit for causing an unexpected sibling to be conceived is a dummy. And I’m not talking about the person who got you pregnant! Using a dummy or soother quite simply reduces the time your baby spends boobling and that, in turn, reduces your hormones and makes pregnancy much more likely. I have known numerous women caught out this way and been astonished when I broke the news to them that, if they use one type of rubber (a dummy), they’d better use another (a condom)!
As we have seen, babies are evolved to suckle frequently and erratically so, if you notice that, as the first 3 months pass, your little one is beginning to go for longer periods between booblings, it is wise to start thinking about contraception. Babies who safely co-sleep are more likely to booble frequently through the night whilst mum is asleep and oblivious whilst babies who sleep in their own cribs are more likely to get rocked or given a dummy before being offered the boob and so suckling times can get reduced. If you want to enjoy contraceptive-free sex, continue to free-suckle your little one.
The most obvious time when suckling reduces is during the weaning stage. Sometime around the 6th month, most babies start to show readiness to explore family foods and, as their food intake gradually increases month by month, suckling times tend to decrease. At whatever age you decide to start offering family foods, it is a good idea to talk to your partner about contraception, and don’t wait until it’s too late - talk before you start weaning.
For the vast majority of women, whilst they exclusively suckle, their periods don’t happen. For some women, however, exclusive suckling doesn’t stop them having periods and it is possible that they are still ovulating and could get pregnant. Any amount of bleeding, even spotting, should alert you to the possibility that you’re becoming fertile again and you should take precautions to avoid getting pregnant if it matters to you.
So, can you still get pregnant if you’re breastfeeding?
Using breastfeeding as contraception, also 'known as the lactational amenorrhoea method (LAM)' is '98% effective so long as your baby is less than six months old, you have not experienced any vaginal bleeding since the birth, and you are breastfeeding your baby exclusively or almost exclusively', says GP Dr Sarah Brewer. However, the simple answer is yes, you can get pregnant while you’re breastfeeding, but the chances are much lower.
Dr Brewer explains further: ‘Hormone changes triggered by breastfeeding help to suppress ovulation.'
‘If you wish to rely on LAM, it’s important to be properly instructed in the method to prevent accidental pregnancies, so talk to your GP.’ Worryingly, some women even choose to use breastfeeding as their only contraceptive method.
The number of factors involved however make the LAM method an unreliable form of contraceptive, so should be used only when having another pregnancy is not a problem. If it is essential that you don’t fall pregnant, it is recommended to use another form of additional contraception. Alternatively, if you are interested in getting pregnant again soon after giving birth, find out here how soon you can welcome baby number two.
How to use breastfeeding as a contraceptive method:
If you want to reduce your chances of getting pregnant and don’t want to use contraceptives, you can follow the below guidelines to utilise the LAM method:
- Exclusively suckle your baby.
- Don’t give bottles.
- Don’t use a dummy.
Don’t try and space breastfeeds out or limit your baby’s time at the breast by taking them off as soon as you hear the glugging stop - it’s the natural glug, faff, doze, glug, faff, doze rhythm which keeps your hormones high and your chances of getting pregnancy low.
And remember, you could become fertile if:
- Your baby starts to suckle less frequently, especially overnight.
- You start introducing family foods (weaning).
- You start to experience vaginal bleeding, no matter how minimal.
- You stop breastfeeding.
Thank goodness my mum didn’t know any of this stuff or I might not be sitting here today...
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