Can You Get Pregnant While Breastfeeding?
The first few months postpartum can be intense. You’re adjusting to life with a new little one in a body that’s been through the works. If you’re loving every moment, you might be eager to do it all over again and continue growing your family. But if you’re struggling—and it’s totally normal and okay if you are!—you may be temporarily panicked by the idea of getting pregnant again. Either way, if you’re a nursing mama, you might be wondering what the odds of conceiving actually are. But first things first: Can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? It’s a complicated question, and the answer is nuanced. Suffice it to say that, yes, it’s possible, and using breastfeeding as birth control isn’t advisable. Wondering how this works—or looking for pointers to make it happen? Here’s what you need to know about getting pregnant while breastfeeding.
In this article:
Is it possible to get pregnant while breastfeeding?
Can you use breastfeeding as birth control?
How to get pregnant while breastfeeding
Signs of pregnancy while breastfeeding
What to expect when breastfeeding while pregnant
Let’s start with the basics: Can you get pregnant while breastfeeding? It’s a common question among new moms, and one you may find yourself feverishly researching in your postpartum life. The answer isn’t without caveats, but yes, it’s absolutely possible to get pregnant while breastfeeding. “Breastfeeding suppresses ovulation for a period of time, but this time frame varies and is unpredictable,” explains Julie Lamppa, APRN, a certified nurse midwife at Mayo Clinic and co-author of Obstetricks.
Asima Ahmad, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder of Carrot Fertility, adds that there are a few factors that could impact the chances of getting pregnant while breastfeeding. These include whether you ovulated regularly before your pregnancy, if you’re exclusively breastfeeding or supplementing with formula and whether you allow lengthy gaps of time to go by (four to six or more hours) without emptying your breasts. “Someone who has a history of regular ovulation and who’s not breastfeeding exclusively will have a higher chance of getting pregnant if they’re sexually active and not on a form of birth control,” explains Ahmad.
About two out of every 100 people who use breastfeeding as their only form of birth control get pregnant in the six months after their baby is born, notes Planned Parenthood.
And while many people take their chances and use breastfeeding as birth control, it’s generally not recommended—even if you haven’t gotten a period yet after giving birth. “You can get pregnant before you get your period,” explains Melissa Kurke, RN, IBCLC, a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Mayo Clinic. “You release an egg (ovulate) prior to your period. If the egg is fertilized and implants, a new pregnancy begins,” she explains.
For this reason, Ahmad says she advises her patients not to use breastfeeding as birth control. “If [your] intention is truly to avoid pregnancy, consider other options in lieu of or in addition to exclusive breastfeeding,” she says. She suggests the mini pill, a progestin IUD, a copper IUD or barrier methods.
Of course, if you’re ready and eager to expand your family while nursing or pumping, it’s understandable that you have questions about the chances of getting pregnant while breastfeeding.
“For pregnancy to occur, ovulation needs to resume,” reiterates Ahmad. The good news? That may naturally happen as baby gets older and their feeding schedule changes. “As you start to space out your feeds because baby is taking in solids and other foods (or due to bigger gaps overnight as baby sleeps longer stretches), you may start ovulating and having your periods again,” Ahmad says. In the same vein, supplementing with formula (or dipping into a stash of pumped breast milk) will enable you to go longer stretches without emptying your breasts, potentially encouraging ovulation and the return of your period.
Most breastfeeding moms will get their periods back between 9 and 18 months, according to La Leche League International (LLLI). But if you don’t get your period back and you’re hoping to conceive again soon, Lamppa says it’s important to weigh your priorities: “Continue to nurse and be patient as you await ovulation or discontinue breastfeeding altogether.” Either way, she stresses that it’s likely you’ll get your period again within a year of having a baby. “Talk to your provider if you are having any fertility concerns,” she adds.
Can you get fertility treatments while breastfeeding?
Continuing breastfeeding while undergoing fertility treatments isn’t typically recommended, says Ahmad. “Breastfeeding causes changes in your hormones that can prevent ovulation, and with many fertility treatments, ovulation needs to occur for the treatment to be successful,” she adds. What’s more, Ahmad says that small amounts of medication may pass into breast milk, and hormonal medications taken during fertility treatments can also impact milk supply.
That said, Ahmad recommends talking to your doctor about your unique situation, given that there are several different treatments and medications used for fertility. If you’re doing a natural cycle of intrauterine insemination (IUI), where no medications are used, it’s probably fine to continue to nurse your child. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of doing in vitro fertilization (IVF)—requiring high doses of injectable medications and hormones—you’ll probably want to stop breastfeeding beforehand. “This is because medication could potentially be passed to baby through breast milk, and there’s limited data on how much is passed and its impact,” explains Ahmad.
Signs of pregnancy while breastfeeding may be subtle and difficult to distinguish from other postpartum symptoms. However, here are a few potential clues to look for:
- A dip in your milk supply. “You’ll most likely experience a rather sudden drop in milk production when first becoming pregnant,” says Kurke. “This could actually be a first sign to trigger you to take a pregnancy test.”
- Nipple and breast tenderness. Breastfeeding alone can keep your chest and nipples feeling tender and sore. Of course, these symptoms are also normal in early pregnancy. But Kurke says you may feel heightened discomfort if you become pregnant while breastfeeding.
- Fatigue. This symptom is tricky, given that you may already be tired from middle-of-the-night awakenings and new mom life. That said, Ahmad says you may notice you’re even more exhausted than usual.
Getting pregnant while breastfeeding is half the battle. Next comes the hard work of having a healthy, comfortable pregnancy while keeping your little one happily fed. The good news is that you can continue to breastfeed through a subsequent pregnancy. “Breastfeeding during pregnancy isn’t associated with pregnancy loss or preterm labor,” says Lamppa, though she adds that some doctors may suggest you wean completely if you’ve experience recurrent early pregnancy loss.
There are a few ways breastfeeding while pregnant can impact your overall experience:
- Breastfeeding may become uncomfortable. Breast tenderness from pregnancy can make nursing uncomfortable, says Kurke. What’s more, your changing body and growing bump may eventually make it difficult to find a good breastfeeding position.
- Your milk supply may dwindle. As you know, hormones reign supreme in pregnancy. As a result, there will be less milk, and eventually it’ll change to be more like colostrum, the first milk that’s expressed after a baby is born,” says Kurke.
- You may have mild uterine contractions. Breastfeeding can cause uterine contractions; in most cases, they’re benign and may not even be noticeable, says Ahmad. Talk to your doctor if they become intense or painful.
- Baby may become fussy while nursing. Pregnancy can cause a change in the taste of your milk, says Kurke. “Some babies will self-wean as the taste of the milk changes,” she says, noting that this usually happens by 18 weeks into your pregnancy.
- You may feel depleted. Pregnancy takes a lot out of you; breastfeeding can be draining too. Put these two experiences together, and you may feel a new level of exhaustion. Nourish your body, stay hydrated and show yourself grace if feeding one baby while growing another proves more difficult than you anticipated.
Overall, it’s important to know that you can get pregnant while breastfeeding, but there are several variables at play. Talk to your doctor or midwife about whether or not you want to conceive while nursing or pumping and how you can best achieve your goals.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
Asima Ahmad, MD, is a reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder and chief medical officer of Carrot Fertility. She earned a combined medical and public health degree from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and completed her residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Melissa Kurke, RN, IBCLC, is a registered nurse and lactation consultant at Mayo Clinic
Julie Lamppa, APRN, is a certified nurse midwife at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the co-author of Obstetricks: Mayo Clinic Tips and Tricks for Pregnancy, Birth and More.
Planned Parenthood, Breastfeeding, 2023
La Leche League International, Breastfeeding Info Fertility, 2023
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