Very often online in various mommy groups or forums you’ll see someone comment on their period already having returned and how shocked they are since they exclusively breastfeed their baby. Inevitably a bunch of other moms will chime in that they too experienced a return of their cycle or even conception of another baby in just a few weeks or months after birth. The general consensus you will often hear is, “yeah, nursing keeping away your cycle is mainly an old wive’s tale.”
It isn’t a tale, actually, but there is something called Ecological Breastfeeding (aka Eco Feeding), and it is not the same as exclusive breastfeeding (EBF). Let me explain.
The Seven Standards
The average EBF mom is indeed only using their breastmilk for feeding their baby, but they may be doing several other practices that limit sucking at the breast, like using pacifiers or pumping and using bottles to feed.
Ecological Breastfeeding is when the mother practices the following Seven Standards:
Breastfeed exclusively for six months
Pacify your baby at your breasts
Don’t use bottles or pacifiers
Sleep with your baby for night feedings
Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding
Nurse frequently day and night and avoid schedules
Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby
Why do these practices make a difference?
Well it is what Sheila Kippley, the expert on Ecological Breastfeeding, calls “The Frequency Factor.” See, when baby is sucking so often, the body receives a signal that mom is not ready for another baby because she is so clearly in the mode of caring for one already. It releases hormones to suppress ovulation and the return of the cycle. This is known as “lactational amenorrhea.” (Note: Pumping is not the same as nursing. The release of hormones needed for this happens specifically when baby is sucking).
On average, practicing ecological breastfeeding will suppress fertility for at least 13 – 16 months for a mother, thus naturally spacing her children two or more years apart.
(Also, these standards may seem overwhelming at first, but at least for me they come very naturally. I’ve learned to nurse in a baby carrier which is super helpful. The safe co-sleeping that this requires also has provided us with amazing rest as far as life with children goes. Eco breastfeeding has resulted in incredibly content babies and has worked out perfectly for our family. I would nurse this way even if it wasn’t affecting my fertility and we don’t have to go through a painful binky weaning stage to boot! )
All The Standards
Some women need to follow all seven standards, and some don’t. My own mother used pacifiers and didn’t see the return of her period for two years after having a baby. Every woman’s body is different.
For myself, I got my first “warning” period at 9 months after Philomena was born, right when I stopped doing the daily nap nurse and she was starting to sleep for longer stretches at night. My periods seemed normal by about a year postpartum, and my fertility returned at 16 months pp when I conceived Zelie. This spacing was just the natural result of eco breastfeeding.
I am currently nursing Zelie using all the standards but the nap nurse. I technically have the ability most days for a nap nurse when Philomena is taking her nap, but I have a very hard time sleeping during the day. I do, however, nurse laying down with Zelie often. When she is ready for a nap, Philomena and I snuggle down into bed and read, letting Zelie suckle in her sleep as long as she naturally wants to.
She is almost 10 months and I have had no signs of a return to my cycle.
“I followed all 7 and it didn’t work for me” – Here Could Be Why
Historically, a woman who followed all seven standards had a tiny chance of seeing a return to her cycle before a year, however there is an increasing number of women who say it simply isn’t working as long, even when they follow all seven standards.
And I have heard a very interesting hypothesis why.
A few years ago I was chatting with a home-birth midwife with over forty years experience. She explained to me that it was practically unheard of back in the Seventies and Eighties when her midwifery practice was young for moms to get their cycles back before twelve months pp.
So what changed? Hormones, that’s what.
See, we are exposed to a drastically higher level of hormones in our world today. Most factory farmed meat is pumped full of it. Our water has incredibly elevated levels of estrogen in it thanks to all of the artificial contraceptive pills being consumed and getting into our water system. (We literally have the feminization of male fish happening. More on the water estrogen problem can be found in this study here). We are using plastics full of endocrine interrupting chemicals, and cheap food is loaded with non-fermented soy.
In turn, our bodies are being exposed to an unnatural level of hormones that affect how it operates. Just think of how early puberty is happening for more and more girls. (I had my first period at 11 years old and now it’s becoming more common by 8 or 9. Yikes!). Dr. Mercola has vital information on this phenomena here.
Ecological breastfeeding functions by releasing lots of prolactin to suppress ovulation, but if that proloactin is being run over by shockingly elevated levels of estrogen and synthetic hormones in our toxic environment, it may not work as it should. Thus, an increasing number of women are seeing an earlier and earlier return of their fertility, even if they are ecologically breastfeeding.
So, you may find that eco breastfeeding doesn’t suppress fertility for you however, don’t rule it out until you have tried following all or as many of the standards as you can. You may be surprised!
There is so much more on this topic than I can cover here, but if you’re interested in some further reading you can look at the following:
“The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factory” by Sheila Kippley is the most comprehensive guide around, and full of fascinating, easy-to-understand, well-researched information. It is relatively short book and can be read very quickly. Find it here on Amazon.
This article here entitled “Breastfeeding and Fertility” over on Kelly Mom has lots of statistics and facts of interest.
The “Breastfeeding and Fertility” page over at Ark Dr. Sears also has more information on lactational amenorrhea.