Ecological Breastfeeding and Fertility

On Toddler Weaning & How Ecological Breastfeeding Suppresses Fertility

In Family, Motherhood by Punita Rice

This is a post about toddler weaning, and about how ecological breastfeeding can suppress fertility (and here’s a link to my book, which talks about this in more depth!). If any of those topics seem like TMI, let me gently direct you to the title of this post, and then remind you you’re welcome to direct your browser elsewhere. If you’re here because toddler weaning, ecological breastfeeding, and related topics are exactly what you want to read more about, please continue! 🙂

When I was confused about when I’d return to fertility, I spent a ton of time Googling every variation of the following search terms: weaning & return to fertility; toddler weaning and pregnancy; toddler weaning and return of period; toddler weaning to get period back; Fertility and Breastfeeding; weaning for fertility; when will I get pregnant while still breastfeeding; can I get pregnant while breastfeeding; how to trigger ovulation while breastfeeding; how to jumpstart fertility while breastfeeding; how to ovulate without weaning; and so on, and so forth… And truth be told, I think if I’d come across an account like the one I ended up living, it would have been really helpful for me. This post is in that spirit.

So, if you read my night weaning post (about how we night weaned our toddler in about 3 nights), maybe you were wondering why I night weaned (or maybe you weren’t, but I’m sharing here anyway, so if you’re interested, read on). The simple reason behind why I decided to night wean my toddler is that my partner and I wanted to conceive another child, and the simple reality was that nursing on demand / breastfeeding on demand played a role in inhibiting my fertility. I had always nursed completely on demand (and tried to follow the components of “ecological breastfeeding,” which I’ll explain in this post), and this had the effect of suppressing my fertility. Therefore, part of the reason we decided to night wean was tied to the desire to make having a second child possible. (Again, if this kind of information feels like TMI, let me gently remind you that you actively chose to read a post about how ecological breastfeeding suppresses fertility).

For other moms out there who are hoping to get pregnant while breastfeeding still, or wondering if they can get pregnant without weaning, or just trying to determine whether breastfeeding suppresses fertility for them, I hope that this post — which is of my own experience with weaning (contextualized in a discussion about how ecological breastfeeding can prevent pregnancy in many women), is helpful. Of course every mama will have a different experience, but this is my personal experience with how ecological breastfeeding beyond a year prevented me from getting pregnant, and I’m sharing this here in case my experience is helpful to anyone else; when I was trying to figure out my own fertility during breastfeeding, I did a lot of Googling, and I wish I’d come across a post such as this one. So, if you’d like to read more about our decision to wean our toddler, and about how ecological breastfeeding suppresses fertility, read on!

How Ecological Breastfeeding Suppresses Fertility

As a disclaimer before you continue reading this post, please don’t take anything I say as medical advice. I’m not a medical doctor (my doctorate is in education) and I’m not a lactation expert.

Basically, don’t hold me responsible if you get knocked up while practicing ecological breastfeeding — nothing I share here should be taken as or treated as medical advice. Let’s continue!

Many mothers who breastfeed, even moms who breastfeed exclusively, experience a return of fertility after a few short months (and get their periods and ovulation back early on), many others do not. In some cases it’s because they’re following the principles of ecological breastfeeding (which I’ll discuss shortly), but in other cases, it can just be down to the mom’s individual body chemistry and hormonal balance. (Here’s a post from Dr. Sears on how breastfeeding can end up serving as a form of birth control, and here’s one from La Leche League). If you’ve heard a hundred times,

“you can get pregnant while breastfeeding, even exclusively breastfeeding,”

…and think you can be fertile while pregnant, you are RIGHT.

(For instance, Rachel from the amazing blog, A Mother Far From Home, mentions exactly that, in her post about breastfeeding on a schedule. Rachel has been able to breastfeed her babies, but always sees a return to fertility well before the one-year mark; this is due, at least in part, because she is breastfeeding on a schedule, as she explains in her post.)

People hear about that kind of thing, and assume it means that across the board, you can get pregnant while breastfeeding. Or that breastfeeding is NOT an acceptable form of birth control.

Well, that’s not quite true either.

There is something you can do that can help prevent a pregnancy while nursing: practicing ecological breastfeeding. The next section explains.


What is Ecological Breastfeeding?

Your likelihood of not being fertile while breastfeeding is higher (or, phrased differently, your fertility is lower) if you’re practicing “ecological breastfeeding” — and this means you’re really not as likely to get pregnant when doing so. Ecological Breastfeeding is NOT the same as Exclusive Breastfeeding; Ecological Breastfeeding means following the “Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding,” outlined below…

The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding

  1. Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months (not even water)
  2. Comfort baby at your breasts
  3. Avoid bottles and pacifiers
  4. Sleep with baby for night feedings
  5. Nap with baby for nap feedings
  6. Nurse frequently day and night, avoiding schedules
  7. Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from baby
The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding - How Ecological Breastfeeding Inhibits Fertility, and Weaning Toddler
A nice “pinnable” image on The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding from Sheila Kippley’s book on The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding.

Here’s a great article for La Leche League that includes an excerpt from Kippley’s book. These standards are not feasible or realistic for many moms, and especially for working moms. But there are moms who adhere to these standards. Most moms who do adhere to these standards typically don’t experience a return to fertility until after they STOP adhering to some of those standards. This is considered an advantage to many moms, and is also referred to as Natural Child Spacing. Basically, the idea is that if moms practice true “ecological breastfeeding,” it will inhibit fertility, which can be a great and convenient thing — unless you want to get pregnant again, in which case it’s a problem. Which leads me into my next section…


Rationale for Toddler Weaning

We had always thought that when our son turned one, we would think about starting to try for Baby #2. I even assumed we’d have to start being really careful in that first year, because we didn’t want to conceive a second baby before that one year mark — after all, a lot of moms nursed well past a year and many got their periods/ovulation back way sooner. (I also knew that there were a lot of moms who nursed through pregnancy, and went on to tandem nurse. So clearly, it was possible to get pregnant while nursing!) But when my nursing toddler was 12 months old… and then 13 months… and then 14 months, and neither my period or any signs of ovulation were anywhere in sight, I started to consider that maybe it was something I was doing that was inhibiting my fertility. And of course, that was exactly right:

As I mentioned, I had been following the standards of ecological breastfeeding: I was breastfeeding on demand, comforting at the breast, avoiding any fake nipples (pacis, binkies, dummies), co-sleeping, co-napping, nursing on demand, and sticking to my baby like glue (lots of babywearing and rarely being away from him) were all tied to ecological breastfeeding. My adherence to the standards of ecological breastfeeding were absolutely factors in why I wasn’t fertile yet.

Mamas who practice ecological breastfeeding don’t typically see a return to fertility until after the year mark — in fact, close to half (48%) see a return somewhere between when their baby is 12 months and 24 months old! (See this this 1999 study from Jen O’Quinn on natural child spacing and breastfeeding, and this post from KellyMom that puts it into context.)


Why we Started with Night Weaning

Obviously, I knew that weaning completely would probably yield the quickest and most effective result in bringing back fertility. But the truth is, I would have loved to continue our nursing relationship; I was happy to nurse and my son was thriving. I had hoped to nurse until he was 2, and I was actually on board with the idea that if I could get pregnant again while nursing, I’d happily nurse through pregnancy for as long as I (and my OB/GYN, who was on board with my plan) felt comfortable doing so. So I was really hoping that just cutting back on nursing would be enough of a shift away from ecological breastfeeding that it would bring back fertility. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

I decided to start with night weaning because I thought it would be the best way to get a long stretch of time where I wasn’t nursing. I also thought about how so many moms share that they got their periods back (or got pregnant) after their babies slept through the night for the first time (which also, of course, means that there was a significant decrease in nursing frequency).

Alexandra (who shared this important advice) told me that night weaning her own toddler had successfully brought back her fertility, and reminded me that night weaning has been shown to bring back fertility in many mothers who experience the fertility-suppressing effects of nursing their babies, so I figured it was worth a shot. To seal the deal, I came across this article from Dr. Sears (for Parenting.com) on how night weaning might be helpful in bringing back fertility. From that article:

“Since fertility hormones tend to be highest during the sleeping hours, it’s also important to keep the milk-making hormones that suppress ovulation high at night. Since co-sleeping babies usually breastfeed more frequently during the night, having your nursing baby nestle right next to you during the night is one of the most effective ways to delay fertility. Once your baby starts sleeping through the night, the fertility hormones take over and breastfeeding is no longer likely to lead to natural child spacing. If you plan to train your baby to sleep through the night, your fertility is likely to return soon.”

Dr. Sears, on breastfeeding as birth control

As a bonus, I also figured if we night weaned, I could maybe finally (!?!) sleep through the night for the first time since before he was born (which I did finally get to do — yay! — but full disclosure, it’s not like nighttime parenting stops after you night wean). Yes, night nursing and bed-sharing were convenient — there’s nothing easier than being able to just lean over and comfort your baby and have everyone quickly drift back to sleep. But I started to get greedy and want a night without having to even do that. 🙂

So anyway, about two months later (when my son was 16 months old), we moved forward with the plan, and we night weaned our toddler. I felt he was ready, I was ready to sleep through an entire night, and most of all, I hoped it would bring back my cycle, and we’d get pregnant. In fact, I felt pretty firm in my conviction (ok, hope) that if I only cut back on night nursing, I’d get pregnant — just night weaning would do the trick.

Narrator: It didn’t.

A few weeks later, after he was night-weaned, he was doing great, and I was finally sleeping through the night (and it. was. magical.) — but I also realized I still wasn’t seeing or experiencing any signs that my fertility was returning. Since I wasn’t seeing any any indication that my fertility was returning a few weeks after my son was completely night weaned, I realized I would have to take things up a notch. So we made the decision to start the process of fully weaning.


Toddler Weaning COMPLETELY and Why we Ended up Weaning Entirely

First off, I’ve broken down why and how we fully weaned our toddler in my book on Toddler Weaning, which you can get for under $5 as an eBook here.

Like I said, since I wasn’t seeing my signs that my fertility was returning, I realized I would have to fully wean my toddler. (We fully night weaned when he was about about 16 months old.) Not going to lie, it was hard emotionally.

I felt guilty about weaning because my son had been doing so well with our nursing relationship (and I had already “taken away” night nursing), and I also felt bad because I had imagined our nursing relationship lasting a lot longer. (I break down some of these feelings, and how I came to the decision of weaning in the book.)

In the end, even though weaning was hard (for me probably as much, if not more so, than for him!), it happened. It required some active effort on my part though.


Toddler Weaning SLOWLY – Why we Weaned Gradually

Going from getting my son night weaned to fully weaned took about two months, because we moved very slowly through it. I know a lot of moms quit nursing cold turkey, but I didn’t want to rush the full weaning process for him, or for myself.

First, I wanted to go through the weaning process slowly for my son’s sake. My son was happy nursing, and was thriving. And because I had already night weaned him, I didn’t want to shake things up for him so much so fast. So we moved through fully weaning very slowly.

Second, I also stretched it out over two months for another, really silly reason. I liked the idea of hitting the 18 month mark. Like I mentioned, we night weaned when he was 16 months old, so by stretching out the rest of the weaning process and moving through it very slowly, I was able to continue nursing him until he was 18 months old. It’s a silly thing, but it made me feel good to reach that 1.5 year milestone. (By the way, I talk more about my reasons for weaning gradually in my book on Toddler Weaning).

And third, I was also sad about ending our nursing relationship. (More on what moms feel is the hardest thing about weaning in this post, and in my book.) In fact, in the months and weeks leading up to fully weaning my son, I could relate completely to the way that writer (and preacher) Sarah Bessey puts it:

“When I think about not breastfeeding – one of the most real things I’ve ever done with this body – ever again, I catch my breath with longing.”

(More here.)

Even after weaning, I knew there would be physical closeness, and of course my son wouldn’t outgrow me or whatever (not for another decade and a half maybe), but fully weaning still made me sad to think about; it still meant the end of something; I carried him inside me for 9 months, and then nourished him from my own physical being for another year and a half. For what it’s worth, within a week or so after we weaned, I didn’t feel any of those feelings. And now, months later, a pragmatic part of me understands why I felt the way I did, but also feels it was for nothing, because my bond with my son is stronger than ever (which, duh — although here’s a hilarious piece by Meaghan O’Connell in which she wonders if her baby only likes her for her boobs), and it was nothing to worry about. (But try telling a mom anxious about the end of that relationship that.)

I feel like the next time around, I’ll know (at least intellectually) what to expect more, but will likely still wrestle with those feelings to some degree.


Toddler Weaning Guide – How to Wean a Toddler in 6 Weeks

ANYWAY – after all of that, here’s a breakdown of how we actually put the plan into motion and weaned. AKA here’s my toddler weaning guide (based on my own personal experience). Again, my book dives into deep detail and breaks down how we weaned a toddler over the course of 6-8 weeks (gradually), but I’m sharing a brief look into what we did below. Enjoy.

We started with him already did night weaning at 16 months old.

(I should also mention that before we night weaned, he was also nursing during naps, so I would always be really close by. But after we night weaned, a nice bonus was that he sort of just stopped expecting to be nursed during naps as well… so, sleep time means no nursing, I guess).

So essentially, when he was night weaned, he was also “sleep weaned.” Then, we gradually weaned over the next 8 weeks, but I’m offering a simple 6 week version of what we did below.

Toddler Weaning Gradually (Over 6-8 Weeks):

  • Week 1 – Don’t offer, don’t refuse
  • Week 2 – Get down to a manageable 4 nursings a day
  • Week 3 – Get down to 3 nursings a day
  • Week 4 – Get down to 2 nursings a day
  • Week 5 – Get down to 1 nursing a day (first thing in the morning)
  • Week 6 – Stop nursing entirely (or hope toddler happens to get distracted one morning, and use that as a natural stopping point)

For weeks and weeks after, he’d randomly still ask (especially if he saw me getting changed or something), but in those instances, I’d usually make it into a funny/silly thing, and then I’d distract him. He’d also occasionally ask if he got a boo-boo, and again, I’d either distract, or offer kisses.

Toddler Weaning in 6 Weeks
Toddler Weaning in 6 Weeks (Pin it!)

If any mom is reading this and is hoping to copy our approach, you can obviously use this approach if it works for you, and you could modify it however you want, move at a much faster (or slower) pace, and also stop much earlier than the 6 or 8 week mark if that’s what you wanted. Additionally, I’m guessing many moms nursing toddlers do start from a place where they have predictable nursing sessions, so that might also be helpful.


Toddler Weaning & Return to Fertility

So… does toddler weaning mean an instant return to fertility?

Not necessarily for everyone — obviously, everyone will have a completely different experience, and everyone’s body is different, and fertility and conception are very complicated.

But based solely on my own experience, weaning my toddler did mean a return to fertility. We fully weaned when my son was 18 months old, and about a month later, my fertility did return. Knowing what I know now, I don’t wish I had proceeded any differently; I realize now that if I had weaned sooner, I might have been able to conceive another baby sooner; but I also would have ended my nursing relationship with my older child at a time that wasn’t right.

All things considered, I don’t have regrets about when, or about how I weaned my son, and I’m grateful that for me, weaning my toddler resulted in my return to fertility. However — and not that it was always easy — I also know that I truly cherished the time I got to spend nursing my son, and I’m so thankful for that nursing experience and relationship.


For moms trying to decide if they can get pregnant without weaning, or want to get pregnant while breastfeeding…

I hope that this post wasn’t disheartening. I do believe that with a great deal of patience, that there are other things you can do to try and “jumpstart your fertility” and to try and get pregnant without weaning. But this was my own experience.

My hope is that if there are any moms out there who are well into their nursing relationship with their first little one, but who are also hoping to get pregnant again (but aren’t experiencing a return to fertility), that this post ends up in their hands just in case it’s a valuable perspective to consider. I know this approach isn’t for everyone, and I definitely also know that some moms might wean completely (in hopes of getting pregnant again) and then still  struggle with a return to fertility, or even end up struggling with a version of genuine secondary infertility. So again, I know this isn’t the right approach for everyone, and you have to do what’s right for you.

If this post is helpful to you at all, here are some things you can do to help make it more visible to other moms: Pin it to Pinterest (any of the images in this post at Pinterest friendly; if you hover over them, you can pin them — you can also pin the image below if you don’t feel like scrolling up). Share it on Twitter. Comment in the comment section. Share it on Facebook. If you have a blog or social media account, share it. If you’re in a breastfeeding group on Facebook, share this post there. If you’re in a mommy swap group or parenting group, or yard sale group lol — if you’re in any group a nursing mom might be in, and there’s even a slim chance this post could be helpful or useful to another mama, please share it there.

(Sharing this post widely will help make it rank higher in search results, which will then make it more accessible to other mamas! I did everything I could in terms of SEO best practices to make this post as easily searchable and findable as possible, but anything you, the reader, can do to help make this post rank higher would be super helpful.)

If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and please browse around. Good luck, Mama!

Ecological breastfeeding suppresses fertility + Toddler Weaning
Ecological breastfeeding suppresses fertility + Toddler Weaning

PS – Books mentioned in this post: The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor by Sheila Kippley; Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler; my book, Toddler Weaning: Deciding to Wean your Toddler Gradually & Making it Happen (Punita Rice); and not mentioned here, but relevant: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding from La Leche League.

About the Author
Punita Rice

Punita Rice

Punita C. Rice, Ed.D is a mother, educator, writer, and founder of ISAASE. She is the author of Toddler Weaning: Deciding to Gradually Wean your Toddler & Making it Happen, and the forthcoming South Asian American Experiences in Schools: Brown Voices from the Classroom, and blogs about motherhood and being intentional about being a happy mom at Happy Mom Guide. Her education work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here.

Read more from this author