Many women, especially those who wait until they are older to start having children, are concerned about their ability to get pregnant if they breastfeed. For those looking at being classified as a high-risk pregnancy due to "advanced maternal age," had difficulty getting pregnant or are concerned about the increased genetic issues of babies of older mothers, this is a valid concern. Breastfeeding definitely can suppress ovulation, generally at least for the first six months if breastfeeding exclusively and frequently, and often for longer. (For more details on the general effect of breastfeeding on fertility, click that topic in related links at the end of this article.)
Many new mothers have been told by doctors that "every month is precious" and are encouraged to wean in the early months or to not breastfeed at all so that can start trying to conceive as soon as possible. While this makes sense from the point of view of a fertility doctor or obstetrician, it's important to know that it may not be necessary to avoid breastfeeding or to wean in order to ovulate or to pregnant.
While there are general understandings about the effect of breastfeeding on fertility, there are no hard and fast rules – every woman is different. Some women may nurse round the clock and have their period resume in a few months, while some women may nurse and supplement and not menstruate for a year or more. Some women may menstruate but not ovulate as long as they are nursing. Some with nurse actively, have a second baby and tandem nurse both children for an extended period of time.
There are also sometimes concerns about maintaining a pregnancy while breastfeeding. A 2009 study out of Japan is showing that there is no statistically significant difference in spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) among women with no history of premature birth or abortion, between currently breastfeeding women and those who had weaned at least three months before becoming pregnant. (This study does not address the effect breastfeeding on premature birth or on those with a history of premature birth or miscarriage.)
Women who are considering weaning in order to start ovulating might consider night weaning only to see if that produces the desired results. Many women find that their periods return about 6-8 weeks after their baby begins sleeping an 8-12 hour stretch at night. For those considering not breastfeeding at all because they will want to wean within a few months to begin trying to conceive should remember that any breast milk is better than no breast milk. The milk in the first few months of a baby's life provides immunities and nutritional advantages that formula can't even begin to mimic, even with all its "advances" over time.
Those who will consider nursing for the first year will do their baby immeasurable good and may find that they are able to conceive anyway and "have it all." Others may consider committing that one year at least to providing the very essential nutrition of breastfeeding and creating that special bond, weaning actively at one year or slightly less (with the clearance of a pediatrician, many babies can more straight to cow's milk at about 9 months and bypass formula entirely) and allowing at least a small spacing between children may be sufficient. This is a very personal decision to be made between a woman and her family and her health provider.
Before weaning in order to get pregnant, do consider discussing alternative options – night weaning, partial weaning or first attempting conception while nursing – with a health professional and/or lactation consultant. See also the related articles below on Mother-Led Weaning and Breastfeeding as Birth Control.
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Disclaimer: All material on the BellaOnline.com Breastfeeding website is provided for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Although every effort is made to provide accurate and up-to-date information as of the date of publication, the author is neither a medical doctor, health practitioner, nor a Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). If you are concerned about your health, or that of your child, consult with your health care provider regarding the advisability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual situation. Information obtained from the Internet can never take the place of a personal consultation with a licensed health care provider, and neither the author nor BellaOnline.com assume any legal responsibility to update the information contained on this site or for any inaccurate or incorrect information contained on this site, and do not accept any responsibility for any decisions you may make as a result of the information contained on this site or in any referenced or linked materials written by others.