At long (long) last, time to analyze this survey on Breastfeeding vs. Return of Menstural Cycle that just blew me out of the water with all of the responses it received!

So… what is the relationship between breastfeeding and the post-partum return of fertility?

I thought that the answer would become more clear, but although I feel like there are some definite trends and general aspects of the relationship between the two, overall my answer would have to be “Well, it really depends…”. How’s that for clear as mud?

I did manage to confirm something that I already thought, which is that I have a pretty crunchy readership- over 75% breastfed for more than 12 months, and over 36% breastfed for 18 months or longer! Mamas, you rock!

Let’s dig in and see what the survey said:

I'm going to apologize now that these charts are not as clear as I would like them to be-- I couldn't increase the size any more without cutting off the chart!

This is one of the results that blew me away. Those fuzzy numbers say that over 39% of moms were still nursing at night when their cycle returned! Additionally, less than 40% were feeding baby any sort of solids, only 15% offering a pacifier, and 6% offering supplemental bottles.

What that means is that significantly more than half of breastfeeding moms see the return of their fertility while they are NOT offering bottles, NOT using a pacifier, NOT feeding solids, and CONTINUING to nurse through the night!

The next part of the survey asked moms when their cycle returned, in comparison with how long they breastfed in total. You can see that there is definitely a significant holding-off factor that more extended breastfeeding offers. For those moms who continued to breastfeed past the 6 mth mark, another 7.5% of them managed to stave off the return of their fertility.

BUT, for the great majority (over 80%) that didn’t seem to make a difference.

In fact, if you look also at the two charts below, which are for moms who breastfed for 12-18 or 18+ months, most moms still get their cycle back by the time their baby is 6 months old. A whopping 72%, according to my oh-so-scientific survey!

Extended breastfeeding does make a difference, obviously, as a much greater percentage of these moms who breastfed for 12 months or longer saw their cycle hold off for much longer. As many as 10-15% of moms did not regain fertility until after baby was 1 year old.

When I look at these results, I have to extrapolate the fact that perhaps we North American women (brace yourself for the broad, sweeping generalization…) are NOT practicing the kind of ecological breastfeeding that naturally prolongs the return of fertility.

What exactly constitutes “ecological breastfeeding” anyways?

Glad you asked! I did a bit of research and found these 7 basic tenets of ecological breastfeeding, as put forward by Sheila Kippley, author of Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing

7 Standard of Ecological Breastfeeding

From an article on the La Leche League International site, by Sheila Kippley

  1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months.
  2. Pacify Your Baby at Your Breasts
  3. Don’t Use Bottles and Pacifiers
  4. Sleep with Your Baby for Night Feedings
  5. Sleep with Your Baby for a Daily-Nap Feeding
  6. Breastfeed Frequently Day and Night and Avoid Schedules
  7. Avoid Any Practice that Restricts Nursing or Separates You from Your Baby

Anyone want to do a quick run-through of the standards and see how your breastfeeding practices matched up, according to when your cycle returned?

For me personally, with my first I was only practicing #1, 6, and 7 completely when my cycle returned at 12 months (though fertility didn’t return until 15 mths). She was in our room for night nursings as well (#4) until she was 6 mths and night-weaned at 11 mths. With my second, I was practiced #1, 2, 3, 6 and 7. He also slept near me until 6 months. He was 18 mths old and still getting one early morning (3-5am) feed when I caught the first egg and conceived my third.

Currently, I’m nursing my 12 mth old frequently, but just night-weaned (naturally- I didn’t force it) about a week and a half ago. I’ve practiced #1, 2, 4 and 6 with her, but have had times when I’ve had to pump and use bottles for her while I was away. She also slept near us until about 11 mths old, as I continued to night feed. My cycle is just showing signs of returning.

That’s just my story, though. As I said earlier in this post, my true answer as to the relationship between fertility and breastfeeding is that there are definitely some practices that seem to have a fairly consistent effect on the return of fertility. And there also seem to be a whole lot of women for whom there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason, but their bodies just seem to work in a particular rhythm of fertility no matter what.

Image by tedsblog

Here are a sampling of the interesting additional comments from moms who took the survey:

  • My cycle returned as soon as I started offering my baby solid food–even though it was just rice cereal. Offering food means the weaning process has started, no matter how little you offer or how long you breastfeed at the same time (in my case, 20 months). My body just seemed to know that it wasn’t the “one and only” any more, and lo, my period came back.
  • I have breast fed all 7 of my kids. With each of them, my cycle returned around 7 months. With each child, they had somewhat different habits.
  • Both I and another breastfeeding mom I know found that the return of our cycles took longer with each successive child. So I had the longest break from my cycle after my third child was born.
  • For me, my cycle returns withing a month of baby night-weaning.
  • I always breastfeed on demand around the clock and my cycle always returns around 3 -4 months postpartum!!
  • I was actually tandem nursing my 15 month old and my newborn and my cycle returned at week 5 post-partum. It return the same time with my first baby as well.
  • My period returns when I quit nursing.
  • My cycle hasn’t come back with any of my 5 children until i was down to about 2 nursings a day….just my experience….I’ll be interested in your finds.
  • I have had three babies and it was different every time. My first nursed until she was four, and my cycle came back when she was 14 months old. With my second, I was tandem nursing a LOT, and was shocked to discover I was pregnant again when he was only seven months old. With my third, I was again tandem nursing and my cycle returned when she was nineteen months old. At that point, I was just two months shy of having gone four entire years with no period.
  • My baby is exactly 18 months old (to the day). I’m still breastfeeding – several times during the day and also at night. My menstrual cycle has not yet returned.
  • I transitioned my son to a crib when he was almost 1yo. Previously we had been co-sleeping. As a result he nursed less at night – though he was still not STTN. A few weeks later and my cycle returned.
  • From my own research and the info I’ve received from fellow NFPers (from our ministry site, a HUGE reason for an earlier than expected return to fertility is due to baby sleeping through the night. A woman could be breastfeeding exclusively (no pacifiers, no solids) for an entire year but have a early return to fertility (when baby is 9 mo old, for example) because baby began sleeping through the night at 8 mo. I’ve advised young moms who want to delay fertility to co-sleep or wake up the baby to nurse in the night.
  • I was breastfeeding TWINS full time when my cycle returned after only 3 months. :-)
  • I found with all three of my kids that my menstrual cycle returned when I completely cut out nighttime feedings (so baby would go about 8 hours without a feed during the night)- for my first two this was around 6 months, and the third it was around 9 months.
  • I have birthed four babies at home. We have nursed on demand (rarely more than two hours apart even as they approached one years old), co-slept, practiced babywearing, etc. Our babies do suck their thumbs, but we’ve never encouraged it over breastfeeding, and they have all nursed a LOT during the night. With my first three pregnancies, my cycle returned at 2 mo. After my first, I got pregnant when he was six months, then we waited until our second baby was one to conceive. We got pregnant for the fourth time when our third was five months old. Just sharing all of this info, because it is something I’m so greatly interested in. I struggle to come to terms with the fact the my body is allowing me to become pregnant when my babies still need my milk. Couldn’t be happier with our four little ones, so a mixed blessing :)

It’s a whole lot of food for thought. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there is no conclusive answer.

I’m quite certain that trends in the North American diet, environmental toxins, etc. play a role in our hormones and fertility. I also think that (as a general rule) most of us don’t practice true ecological breastfeeding, as it is practiced in many other cultures.

After all this, what do you think about the issue now? How do you think that breastfeeding practices and individual differences between women account for the timing of the return to fertility?