TTC Whilst Breastfeeding

(If you are not prepared for a heavy dose of TMI regarding my menstrual cycles, or a bit of a biology talk, you may wish to move along and come on by again another day!)

Once we passed the six month breast feeding milestone and it became evident that breast feeding was definitely a routine that was going to stay, I had one caveat. I always said that I would be happy to give up at a year – even if it meant forcing the issue – if my periods hadn’t returned, in order to think about conceiving another child. Whilst I’m committed to breast feeding and assured of all the benefits it offers, giving my child a sibling, and hopefully a long term companion, is also important to me. And I think the overall benefits of being able to do that, to me, would justify curtailing breast feeding at that stage despite understanding its ongoing benefits.

As it happened, my periods returned when Thomas was ten months old. Although I know that the presence of menstrual cycles doesn’t always equal the existence of normal fertility, I took it as a good sign since I was obviously fertile before. So I stopped thinking about the possibility of quitting breast feeding in order to conceive. And that, in a nutshell, is how I have found myself trying to conceive whilst still feeding my first child.

I can’t honestly say though, that the role of breast feeding in our conception journey doesn’t frequently cross my mind. Almost every day, when we settle down on the sofa for a snuggly pre-bathtime feed, it crosses my mind that this may be a modifiable factor that will prevent a successful conception.

It’s not big news that breast feeding affects the hormonal balance in your body. Most specifically for trying to conceive, it raises the level of prolactin (the so-called “milk hormone”). Prolactin is the hormone responsible for the suppression of ovulation. As the number and frequency of breast feeds (especially night feeds, as prolactin levels are naturally higher at night) reduces so does the level of prolactin in the body which eventually allows ovulation to occur and normal menstrual cycles to reappear.

Sounds simple.

But this is the human body we’re talking about. And fertility. Neither of which are, unfortunately, simple.

Even if ovulation is occurring, the higher than average levels of prolactin can contribute to a decrease in the number of developing ovarian follicles. The follicles produce progesterone in the second half of the cycle (the luteal phase) which helps maintain the uterine lining for pregnancy, and ultimately would go on to help support an early pregnancy. When the level of progesterone drops, the cycle ends and menstruation begins. The decreased number of follicles present in a lactating woman ultimately mean a lower progesterone level which may cause luteal insufficiency (too little progesterone to support a pregnancy) or luteal phase defect (the luteal phase doesn’t last long enough for implantation to occur).

Ovulating and having periods, it turns out, isn’t enough.

I didn’t know all this about the relationship between prolactin and progesterone levels, despite being aware of both hormones and their role in the body, when my periods first returned. My first couple of cycles were 30 days, which is very average for me. But then, before Christmas, everything seemed to stall. Over ten days late I couldn’t help but get my hopes up that we had already done it. But it simply turned out to be a very long cycle. When the same happened again at the start of the year, I began to look more seriously at the effect of breast feeding on hormones and pregnancy.

And I panicked.

More than was probably reasonable. After all, I have one happy, healthy child. The balance of odds suggests that I will one day be able to have another child.

But I’m impatient. I used to think that women trying to conceive their second, or third (or more!) child couldn’t possibly find it as hard as trying for your first since you already have one child. Of course I’m thankful for Thomas every day, but the desire to give him a sibling, and to have a small age gap, is huge. And that age gap pressure doesn’t exist with your first child.

Complete weaning crossed my mind. But I wasn’t sure, and Thomas definitely wasn’t ready. So I decided to look at other options, beginning with charting my basal body temperature to get confirmation of whether I was ovulating at all. A clear thermal shift, showing a move from oestrogen to progesterone dominance was reassuring. But what charting also revealed was that my luteal phase had shortened from my pre-Thomas length of 12 days, to 9-10 days. Which is borderline for luteal phase defect.

Since February I’ve been trying two things to help. After extensive research on its safety (especially whilst still feeding) and efficacy, I opted to try Agnus Castus, which allegedly helps balance female hormones and specifically is thought to reduce prolactin levels. I am also taking a B vitamin supplement which is thought to help lengthen the luteal phase, although I can’t claim to understand the mechanism.

My last cycle was 28 days, possibly my shortest ever, so something is probably working – although I’m also open to the fact that it could be coincidence. However, I had a ten day luteal phase, which is right on that borderline again.

I’m so not ready to quit feeding. But it’s also no longer a secret that I’m desperate for another baby. I suppose I’m hoping that somehow, I can have it all.

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5 Replies to “TTC Whilst Breastfeeding”

  1. This all sounds very familiar. I’m not sure whether it was breastfeeding or justthat my hormones were out of whack since my first pregnancy/having my son, but I found myself with a ridiculously short luteal phase when TTC number 2. I went down the B vitamins, agnus castus, etc, route too, I think it helped as it wasn’t long after that that I conceived (successfully, for once). And I’m still breastfeeding so I was pleased that I didn’t have to stop, because I didn’t really want to. Good luck!

    1. It’s so hard to balance the desire to keep feeding my child against the desire to conceive another one. And of course, I don’t know that breast feeding is playing any role in me not conceiving. Hearing that conception whilst feeding has happened for others helps me feel more optimistic though!

  2. Hopefully the B vits and agnus castus will help things before you need to consider stopping breastfeeding. I was (and still am) feeding Arlo 3 times a day and had luteal phase of 8 days (!!), but in one month on the suppliments was enough to change things so I could get (and stay!) pregnant without having to cut down on breastfeeding at all.

    1. Just curious what dosages you used, and whether you took AC throughout your cycle or just until ovulation? I have read so many different pieces of information! I’m in my second month of using them now. Last month my cycle overall was shorter (a good thing, given the 40+ days I’d had previously), but my LP increased by only one day. This cycle my LP appears to be longer than that… That could obviously be a good sign in another way, but I don’t actually think so this month. Time will tell. Thank you so much for your feedback, it’s really helpful.

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