What is a Normal Cycle when You’re Breastfeeding?
If you’re a pregnant Mama or if you’re currently breastfeeding your baby, you may be wondering what to expect as far as your periods coming back. If you know a thing or two about how fertility works, you may have even heard that you can be naturally infertile during this time, but you may also have been warned by your provider at your 6 week checkup that you shouldn’t rely on breastfeeding to avoid pregnancy. The truth is that no one can tell you exactly when you might expect it and what it will be like, but there are some patterns that we typically see.
Let’s talk a little about breastfeeding, periods, and return to fertility.
When you nurse your baby, there is this really cool thing that happens. You have certain hormones that are produced as you nurse your baby, and they disrupt the hormones that cause you to have your period. It makes sense why it would happen this way. I think of it this way: this is God or nature’s way of telling your body, “Don’t try to get ready to make a baby. You already have a baby.”
First of all, after you have your baby, you will bleed for a few weeks. This bleeding is called lochia, and it’s part of the healing process inside your uterus where your placenta was. This bleeding can be anywhere from 2 weeks to 8 weeks. This isn’t your period. Interestingly, when you nurse your baby, this will cause your uterus to contract, similar to how it did during labor. This helps your uterus go back to its normal size and helps with your blood loss. It can be pretty uncomfortable, but it’s helping with the healing process!
Usually what happens as your baby starts to take solid foods or starts to sleep longer stretches at night, your cycles will start back up again. The reason that no one can tell you exactly how long this process should take, is because there are so many variables:
Are you working outside the home and supplementing with formula?
Do you have your baby on a schedule?
Are you pumping for some of babies needs?
Did your baby start sleeping through the night when very young?
Did you start solid foods early?
Were there times you needed to be away from your baby for longer stretches of time?
Basically, the more frequently and longer your baby nurses, usually the longer you won’t have your periods.
If I didn’t have a period yet, does that mean I can’t get pregnant?
Maybe. I’d err on the side of saying no, it doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant.
Rule #1 in understanding periods when you are cycling is that periods usually follow ovulations. Your period typically comes about two weeks AFTER you ovulate (ovulation is the time you’re fertile). So your period is proof of ovulation having happened sometime in the last 9-17 days.
About 1 in 3 women will ovulate before their first period when they are postpartum. So you want to be thinking about that if you’re wanting to avoid pregnancy, or you could get pregnant before ever needing to pull out your tampons!
Do periods go back to normal right away?
Not usually. I have walked with dozens of women through their first few postpartum cycles, and it’s different for every woman. Some go straight back to regular cycles with periods coming every month, but that’s not the norm. The first couple of cycles you might not ovulate, and if you don’t ovulate, your period won’t be normal and won’t come at the same time it usually does. The most common patterns we see are longer cycles (remember, cycles aren’t periods. Cycles are the time from the start of your period until the start of your next period). So instead of having your period again in 28 or 30 days, it might be a 45, 50, 60 days until you get your next period. There really is no standard “normal” here.
With my last baby, my first postpartum cycle (from start of period to the next period) was 84 days. The second cycle was 40-something days, the third cycle back was 37 days, and the fourth cycle was back to a normal 32 days.
Usually cycles are back to their new normal within about 3-4 cycles.
Also, if your cycles were long and irregular before you had your baby, that may cause your periods to come back even later, and they may still be irregular.
What if I only breastfed a really short time or I only nurse a few times a day?
Since it’s the hormones that are produced by nursing that keep you from having your period, if you’re not nursing anymore, or only nurse a few times a day, usually your periods come back much faster.
Breastfeeding and Birth Control
If you’re breastfeeding and you’re on the mini pill or you have a hormonal IUD in, like Mirena, you should disregard all of the above information. Hormonal birth control causes you to not ovulate. Even though birth control is often sold to women as a way to “regulate your period,” we could argue that the bleeding you have when you’re on hormonal birth control isn’t even really a period (remember, periods follow about two weeks after ovulation). Any weird bleeding you may be having is likely due to the artificial hormones from the birth control.
Do you need some help navigating this season of your fertility? We’d love to help you. You can sign up for an intro class below.
The Medical and Surgical Practice of NaPro Technology by Dr. Thomas Hilgers, M.D.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler, MPH