Trying to Conceive
Isle of Man
From: New Beginnings, Vol. 29 No. 4, 2009, pp. 12-13
Our son Henry was over a year old, and I was "still" breastfeeding him, when my husband and I began to yearn for another baby. There was no sign that my fertility had returned, or would be returning in the near future. We felt anxious and frustrated. While we became pregnant quickly with Henry we have never taken this good fortune for granted and knew that it could take longer the next time, or perhaps might not even happen at all. I was 27 when Henry was born, relatively young by today's standards, but biologically not a spring chicken. In fact, my own mother had her first child at about this age and was called "granny" on the maternity ward!
My midwife had educated me in the Lactational Amenorrhea Method of contraception, which has been found to be better than 98 percent effective. * Indeed breastfeeding was the only contraceptive we had used. However, after the introduction of solid foods -- for Henry this was at six months of age -- the contraceptive effect of nursing becomes decidedly more hazy; although breastfeeding as a contraceptive was working rather too well for us.
La Leche League was a great source of information and support. In fact, my desire to learn more about the effect of breastfeeding on fertility was one of my main reasons for seeking out LLL. I must have bored my LLL Group to tears on this subject, month after month.
Within LLL it seemed there was a huge range of experience of lactational amenorrhea, with one mother I spoke to memorably resuming menses six weeks after her baby's birth, despite breastfeeding on cue. Curiously, some mothers reported considerable differences in the time it took to return to fertility with each of their babies. My impression was that most LLL mothers regained fertility about a year or thereabouts after birth. Rather frustratingly, it seemed I was the mother who was waiting the longest in our group. My dear LLL friend, Nannette, in particular, listened to me with great patience and understanding. I tried very hard to count my blessings.
My husband and I researched breastfeeding and fertility on the Internet. We learned of remote African tribes with natural birth intervals of about three years. We read about nutritive and non-nutritive sucking ("guilty" of both!) and their impact on fertility. We read Sheila Kippley's Natural Child Spacing, where our nursing pattern is characterized as "ecological breastfeeding," and that means exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with no bottles or pacifiers; the baby is pacified at the breast; there are unrestricted night feeds, and mother and baby take daily naps together. Fertility resumed for most such mothers generally between 9 and 21 months.
Reading Toni Weschler's Taking Charge of Your Fertility, I blanched rather at the idea of temperature taking and monitoring cervical fluids; it seemed rather futile at this time, to say nothing of unromantic! We read Elizabeth Pantley's No-Cry Sleep Solution but, despite learning at LLL meetings that night weaning could well be the key to the resumption of fertility, my heart simply wasn't in it. I was more than happy to continue breastfeeding my bed-sharing toddler.
Rather depressingly, we learned of some mothers, a tiny percentage, who needed to cease breastfeeding completely in order to become fertile again, despite the nursling being over three years of age. Somewhat irrationally, I was worried that this would be the case for us and we felt this was too long to wait as, even upon the resumption of menses, there was no guarantee of a pregnancy, much less a baby.
Of course, many people, especially outside LLL, simply could not understand why I did not just wean my boy. After all, most babies of our acquaintance were long since weaned by Henry's age (if they had been breastfed at all). However, I felt very strongly that Henry was not ready to wean, nor was I ready to end our nursing relationship. We did not have the easiest of starts as a nursing couple -- an epidural and ventouse (a suction device) delivery saw to that. We were separated for two days (starting when Henry was four days old), while my precious baby was in the special care baby unit, where he was fed with expressed milk by tube. We had together faced down the literally countless doubters and had now relaxed into a wonderful, natural breastfeeding relationship. Henry was "still" happily feeding despite the sadly predictable outside pressures to wean. I was not prepared to sacrifice our hard won gains for anything, even a much-longed-for new baby.
Indeed, breastfeeding for us was not just a matter of what we did: it was a part of who we were. Moreover, it was a panacea. I could not even begin to imagine what our life would be like if I weaned Henry. As an exclusively breastfed baby, Henry had always enjoyed very good health. I did not want either Henry or me to miss out on the many health benefits of so-called "extended" breastfeeding. Indeed, although Henry was enjoying solid food, he continued to need to breastfeed from a nutritional point of view. Henry would nurse to sleep and we were -- still are -- bed sharing very happily. The closeness of our relationship was incredible: we both adored breastfeeding and one another, the most indescribably lovely love. It seemed perverse to even think of weaning in these circumstances, even though we badly wanted another new baby. After an exhausting few days of "don't offer, don't refuse," I gave up trying to wean altogether.
Then, one day, I felt a bit different and, as Henry's feeding was starting to ease off a little bit, I did a pregnancy test and it was positive! Sadly it proved a false positive and I felt more troubled and anxious than ever.
However, I needn't have worried as we conceived our next baby (lovely Phoebe Elizabeth) before my menses returned, when Henry was 21 months old. Much mirth ensued when I informed my physician and midwife that the date of my last period was well over two years ago, and one midwife rather charmingly likened me to an elephant!
My fertility resumed, of course, at a time when Henry's need to breastfeed was diminishing naturally. Indeed, he weaned entirely of his own volition when I was four months pregnant. Furthermore, by the time Phoebe was born he was clearly developmentally ready to have a younger sibling: separating from me easily and naturally, using a potty without any training. Truly there is infinite wisdom in nature, and in LLL philosophy, too: ideally the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need.
Phoebe has just turned a year old and here we go again, but I feel more accepting now, and will try to trust my body and lovely Phoebe to work it out.
* Lactational Amenorrhea Method of contraception. Three main criteria must be met in order for this method to be effective: i) the baby should not be receiving any supplemental foods or artificial infant formula, ii) the baby must be less than six months old, and iii) the mother must not have resumed her menstrual cycle.
Kippley, S. Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: How Ecological Breastfeeding Spaces Babies, 4th edition: Couple to Couple League Intl, 1999.
Kippley, S. The Seven Standards of Ecological Brastfeeding: The Frequency Factor 2008.
Wechsler, T. Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health, revised edition. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.
Adapted from a story in LLLGB's Breastfeeding Matters.