Welcome to our Q&A series where we ask a Cycledork (in this case an expert in menstrual health) your questions. Have something to ask? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s question goes to Leilani Wong Navar, an Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner, and a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Masters of Science in Oriental Medicine. Read more about Leilani here.
Question: Is it true you can get pregnant while breastfeeding, even before your period has come back?
Leilani: Yes. Ovulation (the release of an egg) is suppressed for some number of weeks or months after having a baby. Breastfeeding usually delays it longer. The length of time varies person by person, and pregnancy by pregnancy, but at some point, you will ovulate again. (More info below.*) If that egg isn’t fertilized, you’ll get your period about two weeks later. A real “period” (or “true menstruation,” as we call it) always comes AFTER an ovulation.
So, naturally, you have one opportunity to get pregnant BEFORE your first period arrives post-childbirth. That’s why you chart while breastfeeding, even before your period has come back — so you know when ovulation resumes.
*If you’re wondering why ovulation is delayed by breastfeeding, it has to do with the hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which are produced by a breastfeeding person’s body. Those hormones suppress the hormones necessary for ovulation, including luteinizing hormone (LH).
You’ll produce more oxytocin and prolactin the more time you spend breastfeeding, and, even more importantly, the more OFTEN you breastfeed. Women who breastfeed their babies frequently throughout the day (and night) usually go through a longer period of “anovulation” (not ovulating). Pumping milk sometimes rather than directly breastfeeding, or supplementing the baby’s nutrition with formula, leads to less production of prolactin and oxytocin. Closeness with your baby, as when you carry your baby in a sling all day, or sleep beside each other, also increases the production of these ovulation-suppressing hormones.
Your health also influences how soon you ovulate after giving birth. In Chinese medicine terms, your recovery of ample levels of Qi, yin, and Blood postpartum (and post-exhausting-phase-of-caring-for-a-newborn) is essential for the return of your cycles. This recovery time varies from person to person, and from pregnancy to pregnancy for an individual.