The author breastfeeding her toddler.

Many women struggle to get pregnant while still breastfeeding, but it seems like just as many have an “oops” and are surprised by a pregnancy they were not planning – because they thought breastfeeding would stop them from getting pregnant.

To those of us wanting to get pregnant while nursing, the message is clear — it is possible! The question is how? What are the secrets and how to get pregnant without weaning?

In the first six months of a baby’s life, getting pregnant again is well, almost inconceivable for those who are breastfeeding. Excuse the stupid pun. The stork is probably not going to come knocking on your door if you are exclusively nursing on demand, offering the breast whenever your baby wants it. Breastfeeding on demand, when used as a contraceptive method, has actually been shown to be more effective than any other birth control technique, including the pill, condoms, and mirena coils!

Does that mean that you have to wean before trying to conceive again? The answer is no, but it does mean that it is extremely rare for exclusively nursing moms to get pregnant. Those who use formula as a supplement, have night-weaned, or pump some of the time, may have better success rates.

This is not meant to encourage women who are breastfeeding exclusively to stop doing so, of course! They’ll just have to wait a little longer before their fertility returns, which is likely to be nature’s way of making sure that women don’t have more small babies than they can handle.

Once the baby starts solids, and relies on breast milk less, the chances that mom’s cycle will start again increase. The reason exclusive breastfeeding is such an effective contraceptive method is that it often stops ovulation from returning. Once the baby nurses less, and less often, you are on the road back to ovulating.

The first postpartum period can turn up anywhere from a few months after giving birth to several years, for some women who practice extended nursing. My period came back at two years and several months postpartum, for instance, just after I stopped breastfeeding my toddler.

Many postpartum women get anovulatory periods for a while before starting their ovulation. So, even if you are menstruating it does not necessarily mean you are fertile. If you get a period, that is a good sign that things are happening in the reproductive department, and it’s is a great time to start buying ovulation tests to see if you are able to conceive. Once you’ve established that your cycle is regular and you are ovulating, a free ovulation calendar can help you determine your most fertile days. You could also use fertility charting to find out when you are ovulating.

Some lucky mothers happen to catch that first postpartum ovulation without ever having had a period. That sounds really wonderful, doesn’t it? I don’t know anyone who likes having periods, and the thought of being menstruation-free for a few years is definitely an appealing one. Conceiving during the first cycle after giving birth does not happen very often though.

If you are getting impatient, but still don’t want to wean, here are a few things you could try:

  • Because research has shown that women who are pumping are more likely to get pregnant than their directly breastfeeding counterparts, you could replace a few feedings with pumped breast milk.
  • The longer the time between feedings, the more likely you are to get pregnant. For some families, night weaning their child is a great solution that drastically improves the odds of conceiving again.
  • Sudden changes in breastfeeding patterns have a greater effect than gradual ones. Cutting out one feeding could work wonders, but simply experimenting with the timing of your nursing sessions could do the trick too.

Of course, both you and your child have to be ready for changes like this. Patience is always important when trying to conceive, but even more so while breastfeeding. The good news is that the majority of nursing mothers trying to get pregnant do succeed, especially if they are charting and understand their fertility status.

Of course, couples who would like to prevent pregnancy and are relying on breastfeeding to aid them in this should also take all of these factors into account. Just like it is possible to have menstrual periods without ovulation, some women ovulate before having a period — as we mentioned. Menstruation doesn’t equal fertility, but no menstruation doesn’t equal protection from unwanted pregnancy either.

Finally, couples who need fertility treatments may need to wean before going ahead. There is no indication that IVF, including the fertility drugs administered before a cycle, harm a mother’s breast milk. There are reasons to believe that IVF is not nearly as successful if a woman is breastfeeding, though. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are interested in learning more about fertility treatments and breastfeeding.

What do you think? Did you manage to conceive a baby while breastfeeding? Are you still trying? Do you have any tips? And if you conceived while nursing, were your pregnancy signs any different? We’d love to hear from you!