Many women, especially first-time mothers and first-time breastfeeding moms, have questions regarding their period while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding will impact a woman’s menstrual cycle but the extent of this influence generally differs from woman to woman. Although you may know people who never had a period while breastfeeding, this may not be the case for you. In fact, there have been instances in which nursing women ovulated as early as nine days after giving birth! Everything about the female reproductive cycle is dependent on hormones, and delivery and breastfeeding will upset the balance of reproductive hormones for a while. If you are planning to breastfeed or if you are thinking of doing so then you are likely mulling over some conflicting information that you may have read about or been told by a friend. The following sections address some of the most common changes that can affect your period while breastfeeding and provide valuable information for anyone who is considering nursing.
Breastfeeding May Cause Infertility for Several Months
The menstrual cycle is ruled by specific fluctuations in hormones which occur at certain times throughout a 28 – 32 day period. While breastfeeding, a woman’s ingeniously-crafted body translates breast stimulation caused by nursing into a signal that is then transmitted to the brain. The brain takes this information as a cue to create and release lactation hormones called prolactin which trumps the hormones that would typically kick-start ovulation and eventually a period, particularly estrogen and progesterone. Basically, the brain recognizes the act of breastfeeding as a sign that the body has (recently) given birth and will use its hormone-secreting powers to induce infertility. This way, mom’s body gets the chance to recover from giving birth and also to produce nutrient-rich milk for her infant without having to expend resources preparing for and growing another offspring.
This is generally how the body works while nursing, but no one will be able to predict your exact situation because each woman’s body creates and manages hormones differently. The average time that breastfeeding mothers generally experience infertility after giving birth is about six months, but this is by no means a rule written in stone. As mentioned earlier, some women can begin ovulating as early as nine days post-birth and others may not experience a period until they wean the baby. If you end up going several months without a period (and you are taking precautions to prevent pregnancy) then there is little cause for worry – your brain is likely producing a sufficient dosage of prolactin which prevents the renewal of your menstrual cycle.
Your Cycle May be Jump-Started by Birth Control
Birth control products such as pills, patches, injections, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) all contain hormones that suppress your body’s ability to produce the ovulation-triggering surge of luteinizing hormone. When taking a hormone-based contraceptive your body will receive its cyclic cues from the hormones provided by the contraceptive which at certain points in the month tell the body to skip ovulation, shed the uterine lining, and start the cycle over. Contraceptives often override the body’s own signal to halt the ovulation process (caused by nursing) and forces menstruation to occur the way that it would normally occur. This means that once you start taking birth control, you are likely to resume your menses within about four weeks.
Some forms of birth control force a different cycle in which both ovulation and uterine shedding are suppressed for several months at a time, in which case the woman will only have a period about four times per year. If you take this form of contraception then you will probably continue to be period-free for about three months after starting this birth control. Although contraceptives can have a somewhat normalizing effect on the body, you have to remember that you will still be experiencing postpartum hormone fluctuations. This tends to last for about three months and can contribute to mood swings and “baby blues” (postpartum depression).
Weaning or Supplementing Will Speed-Up the Return of Your Period
As mentioned earlier, every time you nurse your child your brain will be given the signal to release prolactin. In order for these hormones to be potent enough to delay the onset of menstruation, a mother must breastfeed about every three hours. If you nurse your child exclusively then you may stand a greater chance of postponing the return of your monthly. Night-time nursing also plays an important role in staving off Aunt Flo. The longer your baby sleeps throughout the night, the fewer feeds he or she will require which means that your body will have less prolactin in the bloodstream.
If you begin to supplement your child with formula then your body will recognize the decrease in breast stimulation and demand for milk which will result in the renewal of your menstrual cycle. The same can happen when you begin to introduce solid foods to your infant’s diet, as his or her demand for milk will decrease as they fill up on proper food. Offering your child a pacifier instead of soothing him or her at the breast may also increase your chances of seeing a speedy return of your period. As soon as you notice a decrease in the number of times you nurse your child you should take any family planning precautions that you feel are necessary, as it is possible to get pregnant before your first actual postpartum period if ovulation occurs around the same time that you have unprotected sex.
Hormones Will Likely Throw Off Your Cycle Predictability
After giving birth, a woman’s body will go through a series of radical hormone changes that can be unpredictable, to say the least. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year for a woman’s menstrual cycle to return to “normal.” Even if your cycle was spot-on before you became pregnant, you may find that breastfeeding affects your menses in a big way. Fluctuations in any one of the reproductive hormones in your body could cause menstrual irregularity such as failure to ovulate, early periods, late periods, and even skipping a period (or several). Even your doctor can’t tell you when your menses will return or whether your cycle length will change – these are little surprises that each woman will have to find out on her own.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a very common and uncontrollable occurrence in nursing women. While it is usually a temporary phenomenon, lasting only while breastfeeding, it can also make one’s family planning, sex life, and general comfort a little more difficult to accommodate. If you suffer from severely unpredictable cycles then you may decide that taking oral or intrauterine birth control is the best solution to this problem. It is true that cycle unpredictability can also occur with contraceptives, but some women find that their menses is easier to plan for when taking birth control.
Breastfeeding is NOT a Reliable Form of Birth Control
You might be surprised to learn that breastfeeding is not always a reliable method of contraception. There are strict guidelines, in a sense, that must be met in order for breastfeeding to be considered an efficient method of preventing pregnancy. Such guidelines include exclusively nursing about every three hours (even though the night), avoiding the use of bottles and pacifiers, and delaying weaning onto solid foods and cow’s milk. As is the case with many mothers, you may find that these guidelines become much more difficult to meet as the months go by. Your infant will naturally begin to sleep through the night which is to be encouraged. Disrupting your baby’s sleep in an attempt to offer milk may seem thoughtful but in actuality, it’s best to let your baby’s body do the talking. If he or she needs to nurse then they will let you know; otherwise, your baby’s need for sleep should trump a midnight snack. Your little one may also naturally let go of any comfort nursing habits that might have been developed in early infancy. Also, and it is to be expected, your infant will begin to develop a hunger that is beyond what your milk can satisfy. Excessive nursing or a seemingly insatiable hunger can be a sign that your child is ready to begin taking solid foods. This usually occurs around six months of age but may start as early as four months in some children. All of these factors will influence the effectiveness of nursing as contraception and it is important that you consider your infant’s growth and development above the desire to hold off menstruation.
Hormone Changes Can Affect Your Milk Supply
You may have questions regarding how your period can affect breastfeeding. There is no reason for you to stop nursing during your period, but you may notice a few changes around the time that you are due to start. For instance, you might discover that your milk supply seems to wane a bit just before your period arrives. This happens to a lot of women and it isn’t anything to worry about; it simply means that you might have to extend the duration of your feeding sessions or feed your little one more frequently for a few days until your supply returns to normal.
Nutritionally speaking, your milk will still be just as healthy for baby during this time as it is throughout the rest of the month. That being said, your baby may be able to notice a slight change in the flavor of the milk which he or she may initially protest to. The milk is neither sour nor foul and the variation is caused by rapidly-changing hormones. Don’t worry – most babies will quickly accept and forget about the minor taste change. Even if your infant has a stubborn disposition, he or she will eventually grow hungry enough to accept the change as long as you do not break down and offer an alternative such as formula. It is important to continue nursing as normal during your period because it only takes three days of decreased nursing to affect your milk supply. After about a week without nursing your brain will begin to release the prolactin inhibiting factor which tells the body that milk is no longer necessary.