Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Human Milk for Human Kids: Breastfeeding Toddlers, NFP, Natural Child Spacing and the Return of Fertility




I posted before about how ecological breastfeeding has helped space my babies...without the need for any Natural Family Planning stuff like charts and abstinence.   As practicing Catholics, of course we don't use artificial contraception at all, but we also haven't really used NFP all that much.  NFP can be wonderful of course, but to be quite honest, I do hear an awful lot of people complain about how hard it is and how much they hate charting and observing signs and how they struggle with abstinence and how difficult it is and all that. 

And see, the thing is, I don't think it's "supposed" to be that way.  I don't think married couples are supposed to be struggling through months of abstinence and sweating over charts and analyzing mucous.  Not that there is anything wrong with that...but it IS hard. 

And the thing is, ecological breastfeeding DOES work in delaying the return of fertility...and can easily space children 2-3 years apart....all without the use of any charts or abstinence or toilet paper to observe your signs. 

Yes, it does take sacrifice...co-sleeping and night nursing is pretty much part and parcel.  But, then again, if you really are wanting to avoid pregnancy...charting and abstinence isn't exactly a walk in the park either, so  basically...pick your sacrifice. 

With each of my 4 children, my cycles returned at 12 months, 14 months, 17 months and 15 months postpartum.  Notice that I said that is when my cycles returned.  It's not when full fertility returned.   

Let's have a little biology lesson..shall we? Feel free to skip if you don't like biology. 

Breastfeeding suppresses fertility in two ways.  If the hormone, prolactin, is circulating in high enough levels in the blood, ovulation does not occur.  This is when a postpartum woman is not having cycles at all.   What keeps circulating levels of prolactin high? Frequent breastfeeding.  Prolactin is released every time breastfeeding occurs.  The more times a mother breastfeeds per day, the more prolactin she produces.  

As her baby gets older and starts to breastfeed less and eat more food, prolactin levels start to drop and the women ovulates. The period between ovulation and menstruation is called the luteal phase.  This needs to be at least 10 days for pregnancy to occur.   Sometimes there is not enough prolactin to suppress ovulation, but there is enough to shorten the luteal phase, still preventing pregnancy.   This is what happens to me after my cycles return.....I still have several months of cycles with a short luteal phase... basically rendering me infertile for 1-2 years after each birth. That translates to a spacing of 2 or 3 years, all without doing any charting or abstinence or toilet paper sign checking.

Of course, this also involves breastfeeding into the 2nd and even 3rd year of life.  My older three all weaned somewhere between 3 and 3 1/2 years of age.  GASP!!   So, no...I've never nursed up until kindergarten.   Yet, I do nurse one and two and even three year olds.  Why??  Well, because toddlers need milk.  Everyone knows that.  It just makes sense to me, that since they are humans, human milk might be good.  It's free anyway, and I'm all about saving money.  Plus, it comes in attractive containers (wink) and never spoils in dirty sippy cups left in the car.  It's just easy.  Of course, my one and two year olds also eat other foods ....all kinds of foods...even dairy foods like cheese and yogurt, and by age 3 they are pretty much only nurse 1-2 times a day and by 3 1/2 they are done.   Yet at age one, they are still nursing several times a day because one-year olds need a lot of milk in a way that three year olds don't.  That doesn't mean I don't ever leave them for a few hours at a time, it just means that generally they still nurse fairly frequently at age one.

My current one-year old is a more than eager participant in the Bentrup family tradition of ice cream every Sunday.  She drinks water from a cup and eats food from bowls and plates, but for the most part, her milk comes nice and warm, straight from the tap, just the way she likes it.   And, that's okay...because really she still is JUST a baby, and at age one, she does still NEED to drink a lot of milk.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against giving toddlers cow's milk or almond milk or whatever, it's just that I don't see how cow's milk could possibly be better for her than human milk.   She may try to eat grass, but she's still not a cow.   I don't have anything against cow's milk.  We eat more than our share of things like yogurt and cheese (and ice cream!).  But, for toddlers who are still basically just babies...continuing to feed human milk (at an age when they still need a lot of milk) just seems to make a lot of sense.  So I do.  Plus, she still finds nursing comforting and it puts her right to sleep and calms her down when she bumps her head or gets mad because we don't let her scribble on the walls.

I realize that ecological breastfeeding doesn't "work" for everyone.  Some people will have their fertility return early anyway,  But, I'm convinced it can work for a lot of people.  How do we do it?  Pretty simple...I just continue to nurse, frequently, both day and night.  I put babies and toddlers to sleep by nursing (most of the time).   And, I continue to nurse, even when they are eating lots of other foods, because well...they still need milk, so why not human milk? As they get even older and are no long toddlers, they stop needing so much milk and they just gradually wean.  Some of my older kids do drink cow's milk and some don't...but none of them NEED milk the way a toddler does.

{Disclaimer: Obviously not everyone can breastfeed toddlers (or even babies), and some babies/toddlers wean themselves early, and there could be a whole bunch of reasons why what *I* do, doesn't *work* for other people.  And, that's okay. I'm just sharing what *I* do and what works for me.  If it doesn't work for you, that's okay.}
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30 comments:

  1. I really really wish breastfeeding meant my fertility wouldn't return, but I only get about 4 months until my cycles come back. My mom and sisters are all the same way (some even earlier). So not wanting to have a baby every.single.year means we do have to do long periods of abstinence, and you're right it is hard, but I'm thankful there is an option like NFP for those of us that need it.

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    1. Funny how everyone is so different. My mom had long infertility when she was breastfeeding as well, so it totally could be genetic.

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  2. I nursed night and day with my daughter and as soon as we started feeding her solids (6 months) boom..my cycle came back! I was still breastfeeding around the clock. That being said, I am not sure that my fertility came back 100 percent. Irregular cycles after that and a chemical pregnancy when she was 10 months. Now she is 12 months and I am newly pregnant but we "tried" pretty hard for it. Like we did for her. We basically have to get at it everyday to make it happen. Everyone has different fertility. Also I am 33 years old so maybe I am not super fertile because of that. Post partum fertility is the most confusing thing I have ever dealt with . Basically I had no idea what was happening. Thankfully we want to space closely for now just because I feel kind of old. Breastfeeding is awesome though and once I got the hang of it was the easiest way to parent for me. Great post!

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    1. Congratulations!!! We had to "try" to get most of our kids as well, so I can relate to that. Postpartum fertility can be so confusing!

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  3. I don't know if ecological breastfeeding would work for me, but truthfully, I don't want to try. I can't sleep in the same room as my babies, much less co-sleep. And getting my fertility back and ultimately my body back was good for our marriage. It's hard for me to be at the beck and call of the baby at all times and to leak milk and hold onto that extra weight. I nursed for a year, and it really tapered off around 9 months when she was eating a lot of solids and sleeping through the night. It's much better for my mental health and our family life if there's more of a rhythm and schedule in our lives. But that's just me!

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    1. That makes sense....every family is so different! And, I do have to say that my cycles just came back and I'm hoping that helps lose the last little bit of extra weight!

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  4. You know I am totally feelin' this post. :)

    It's funny because I didn't really make any decisions up front...like when she was born, I just figured we'd do what we could do when we could do it and see how it all went...14 months later, we're still nursing and co-sleeping, because we figured out it's what is easiest.

    I honestly I have no idea how people parent toddlers without nursing. It's nice to be able to say, when she's really upset, "do you need to nurse?" and she'll nod and we'll have a snuggle on the couch while nursing and reading a book or having a chat. It's a message that can get to her even when she's REALLY REALLY frustrated, which is often. It helps me to be a better, more patient parent because we have these moments of constant re-connection throughout the day.

    Whenever people say rude things like, oh you're just nursing for YOU, I have no problem saying, yes I'm nursing for us both - nursing is good for me too. It reminds me she's just a child, that she needs nurturing love and care - she's not a min-adult, she's not a school age child. She's little, and depends on me for everything. I don't think reminders like that are a bad thing!!

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    1. I often wonder how people parent toddlers without nursing as well? I mean...how do you get them to sleep? Or to calm down when frustrated?

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    2. My third baby (now 1 and walking everywhere) started sucking his thumb at two months. We couldn't co-sleep with him because we have only a twin bed, so he was in a Moses basket on the floor next to me for three months and now sleeps in a crib. Three weeks ago I started putting him to bed at nap time and bedtime by singing him a song and laying him down (no nursing), and VOILA! No crying or even a peep! He sucks his thumb and goes right to sleep, which has been great for my sanity because I'm 11 weeks pregnant and need the extra sleep!
      Theresa B

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    3. Yay! Congratulations! I thought you might be pregnant when you posted something about buying maternity tops! Awesome!

      That's great you were able to get your baby to fall asleep by just singing. I've always wished I could do that. Of course when I sing...babies (and everyone else in the vicnity) weeps with pain...so. LOL Anyway, that's great that he can suck his thumb and go to sleep. None of my kids have ever been thumbsuckers really, which is sorta sad because thumbsucking babies are SO CUTE!!

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    4. Congratulations!!!!! I am super excited that I scrolled down and saw the comment above! Such great news!

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  5. I love this post!

    My experience with each baby has been different from the one before it. With Sadie I nursed pretty much hourly for eighteen months and still got my cycles back at 6 months. With Mae she hardly nursed at all (she'd sleep four hours at a time from the days she was born while I fretted about when she'd wake to nurse) and I went 7 months. Patrick falls somewhere in between, sleeps in a crib because he just won't fall asleep next to me (we co-slept for the first six months or so, but this kid is just weird about needing to not have anyone around him) and my cycles just restarted at 13 months and I think my cycles are still anoovulatory (or however you spell it!). I think the biggest difference was probably the baby led weaning with Patch not starting solids until after 12 months, whereas Sadie started at four months (when the doctor said too... oh how things have changed!) and Mae started at six (same thing). At this point I wouldn't mind having my cycles back to normal, but I guess it will happen when it happens!

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    1. I think the baby led weaning is a big factor. I've pretty much always done that (before I knew it had a name) and I do think that is a difference. My kids have always seemed to eat "less food" that other babies of the same age even though they did eat "some".

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  6. I agree that all the charting, abstaining, etc. of NFP seems to be not the ideal way for us to live our married lives. And for us at least, following every "rule" of ecological breastfeeding just doesn't work either (such as full-out co-sleeping, when the whole family gets a terrible night of sleep!). My fertility may return earlier than it might otherwise (in my experience, I conceive 11 months after a birth), but right now, we're totally fine and happy with the babies coming as they will!

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    1. Yeah..I'm a big fan of doing whatever works for you family!!

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  7. I have weaned all my kids at about a year and a half to two years because after awhile I just have a hard time physically with it, but my fertility returns long before that. I will say I totally miss the ability to calm them down and comfort them so easily once they are weaned and wish I could hold out longer.

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    1. Yeah...I find that nursing is always that balance between "is it easier to keep going or to wean." For mean...I don't really hit "done" with it until my kids are 3 or so...but I can definitely relate to wanting to wean earlier and it being a hard time physically.

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  8. My SIL was hardcore NFL, nursed on demand, no bottles, co sleeping, baby-led weaning. She got 3 months. I worked with my first and pumped and got a full year. With the 3rd, I stayed home and followed NFL and got 13 months, so not much different. It really is individual and a lot of your over all health plays in. I have found moms with issues like high blood pressure or thyroid issues really don't get it because their bodies are thrown off anyway. This also works opposite and some health issues can cause longer then desired infertility. It really goes both ways. Using NFP knowledge to conceive still counts as using NFP in my book though. But I also have not really had to deal with long periods of abstinence, probably because i learned NFP before I needed it and before hormones are crazy and things return different after each pregnancy. I think learning it postpartum is crazy hard.

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    1. Yes, everyone is different, it is so individual. And, I do think that you are correct in that if there are other health issues (like thyroid isssues) then everything is thrown off.

      I think there is a big difference between using NFP to conceive and to avoid...in that using it to avoid involves abstainance and is more taxing.

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  9. My SIL was hardcore NFL, nursed on demand, no bottles, co sleeping, baby-led weaning. She got 3 months. I worked with my first and pumped and got a full year. With the 3rd, I stayed home and followed NFL and got 13 months, so not much different. It really is individual and a lot of your over all health plays in. I have found moms with issues like high blood pressure or thyroid issues really don't get it because their bodies are thrown off anyway. This also works opposite and some health issues can cause longer then desired infertility. It really goes both ways. Using NFP knowledge to conceive still counts as using NFP in my book though. But I also have not really had to deal with long periods of abstinence, probably because i learned NFP before I needed it and before hormones are crazy and things return different after each pregnancy. I think learning it postpartum is crazy hard.

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    1. I guess my point is that the reality for many is that if they do "no NFP" they WILL have children spaced once a year. Which is an awesome and wonderful and different sacrifice and gift. But, though all our sacrifices are different, we ALL have to make some kind of sacrifice and some kind of showing of love. All of us.

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    2. Yes, that is true. Everyone does have to make sacrifices.

      This is really generaly but in my experience with families that don't use NFP, those that do "cultueral breastfeeding" (as opposed to ecological) tend to have babies around every 1.5 years while those that do practice more ecological breastfeeding practices (like co-sleeping ,nursing at night) tend to have babies more around every 2 years. Of course, this is SUPER genreal and there are a million exceptions, but just a general trend I have noticed.

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  10. We are the same way, Amelia. I will not get pregnant until I night-wean (or day-wean, but night-wean usually comes first). I find that I start feeling resentful towards nursing (terrible, but true!) shortly after baby's second birthday, but I do feel strongly about giving each baby 2 years of nursing (day-time at least). And also, this way of life was not chosen by us to delay fertility. Literally one day at the beginning of our parenting journey, I was reading in our NFP book about ecological breastfeeding and I was like "wait, we do all that!" Haha. We've been married seven years, and have three children, and have never practiced NFP. With that said- I always want to be pregnant! Baby is 13 months old now, and I would love to get pregnant soon. But, do I wean her specifically to get pregnant? That doesn't seem right. My priest frequently says that babies are gifts, not something we can demand at will. So, for us, lots of prayerful discernment is involved. Anyway, I wrote about our experience with nursing and conception here- http://7millionwonders.blogspot.com/2012/10/babies-and-blessings.html. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

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    1. I like what your priest said about babies being gifts. I don't ecologically breastfeed with the purpose of delaying fertility, it's just what comes naturally to me, but I do like that effect of it. Although, right now, I would love another baby (my youngest is almost 16 months ), but she still does really seem to need to nurse. Thanks for sharing your link..off to read it now1

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  11. With regard to how you soothe a non-nursing toddler - the same way you soothe a kid who's done nursing - cuddles and distractions!

    Much to my despair (and depression), I was not able to nurse and baby and I only co-slept for about 4 months, but my cycles were pretty nightmarish for a good 9 months. I have no idea at what point my messy charts were showing fertility; there was lots of frustration and abstinence and oaths of hatred against NFP (although we still stuck with it like the good Catholics we are ; ), so I'm reading about your experience and dreaming that'll be me in 4 months!

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    1. Yes..nurisng and cuddles always helps!!

      Please don't feel bad about not being able to nurse your daughter, but we'll pray and eveything goes smoothly with the birth and breastfeeding with your new baby!

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  12. Beautifully written as always, Amelia. I never knew about shortened luteal phases until now....so interesting. We're not preventing pregnancy in any way; we're Catholic. Our third is 21 months old. But we're also not 'trying' for #4, yet, either. Until reading this, I had wondered why we hadn't gotten pregnant yet this time around. My friend told me about myfertilityfriend.com... kinda like nfp, but you do with it what you want. So I use it to track my cycles and ovulation. I wonder how you know how long your luteal phases are. Either way, we're asking God to be in charge. If and when He blesses us with #4, we'll be thrilled.

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    1. I genrally know how long my luteal phases are because I use ovulation predictor tests (combined iwth mucous observation) to tell when I ovulate. So, an ovulation test, shows a LH suge, which means usually ovulation happens the next day. So, I usually count the day after a positive ovulation test as the day of ovulation. So, however many days it is after that until my period starts is the length of the luteal phase. When my cycles first come back usually the luteal phase is only 8-12 days instead of the longer 12-14 days it should be.

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  13. Helpful correction: The Luteal phase happens after conception. In order for the baby to implant properly you usually need a luteal phase of at least 10 days.

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