The Menstrual Cycle While Breastfeeding – Periods Explained

The Menstrual Cycle While Breastfeeding – Periods Explained

Whether you’re currently nursing, or planning to breastfeed your baby, there are things you wanted to have knowledge of. Understanding the relationship between the menstrual cycle and breastfeeding can be complicated at first. But it can ease any worries we may have when something happens within our body that we don’t expect. While breastfeeding, some of your usual bodily responses may be altered. And among the most commonly observed is its effects on your periods.  When nursing, most women miss their monthly flow for quite a period of time. You can be among the many who are wondering why this happens. Here’s what research and experts have to say about how will it affect your lactation and fertility.

So what happens to your menstrual cycle while breastfeeding? According to La Leche League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, almost all mothers who are fully breastfeeding experience the cessation of their menstrual periods or also known as “lactational amenorrhea”. Lactational amenorrhea is attributed to the breastfeeding mother’s elevated levels of prolactin, which is the major hormone responsible for lactation.

It’s pretty typical if you have missed periods while breastfeeding, but to what extent can it be considered normal? Conversely, what if you suddenly got your period while you’re still breastfeeding? These questions, as well as some other issues in connection to your menstrual cycle while breastfeeding will be discussed.

How long can you go without a period while breastfeeding?

mother breastfeeding her baby
mother breastfeeding her baby

Women widely differ in the timeframe when their period will return. If exclusively breastfeeding, most women may go without a period for 3 to 6 months. They can even continue to experience amenorrhea the entire time they are nursing their babies.

Mothers experience post-partum bleeding called lochial discharge a few weeks after giving birth. Lochia is bright red, more profound, with blood clots and it changes in color and volume as the weeks progress. This is not considered as menstruation. For the purpose of the discussion with lactational amenorrhea, the Australian Breastfeeding Association considers that a mother’s menstrual period has resumed when she has experienced any bleeding for 2 consecutive days, beginning 2 months after giving birth.

Some factors that may affect the length of time before you get back your period while breastfeeding are the following:

Frequency of breastfeeding

The more often you breastfeed, the greater is the chance that the suppression of your menstrual period will be prolonged. This is affected by the hormone prolactin, which is stimulated by frequent nursing.

Giving formula, supplementary feeding and soothers

Lactational amenorrhea is most likely to last longer in mothers whose babies are exclusively breastfeeding. This describes those babies who totally depend on breast milk as a source of nourishment. If your baby is also bottle feeding with formula, receiving supplementary solid foods and liquids (including water), or using pacifiers, there is an increased likelihood that your monthly period will return.

Baby’s age

You are more likely to go without your period when your baby is younger, particularly 6 months and under. This is mostly due to babies in this age group having more frequent feeding and sucking patterns. Frequent feeds stimulate the nerves within the breast and therefore the lactating hormones that suppress your menstruation.

Baby’s sleeping patterns

Once your baby has begun to sleep through the night, the frequency of breastfeeding will have reduced. Less frequent feeds means you have a higher likelihood of ovulating and therefore, resuming your menstrual flow.

Mother’s physiologic response to hormonal changes

Every mom has their own unique way of responding to the hormonal changes happening inside her body. These differences might explain why some moms get their periods sooner than others. This can still happen even if their breastfeeding patterns are quite similar to each other.

Are irregular periods normal while breastfeeding?

Due to the hormonal changes brought about by breastfeeding, there are some nursing moms who may experience variations with their regular menstruation. It is commonly termed as irregular periods. Breastfeeding mothers may experience one or more of the following:

  • Shorter or longer periods
  • Skip a monthly period
  • Have their first post-partum period followed by several months without a period
  • Have a scanty “show” or bleeding prior to the real onset of menstruation

Irregular periods due to lactation hormones are a normal bodily response and is typical among breastfeeding mothers. It is associated with anovulatory menstrual cycles, or the first few cycles when you are not yet ovulating.

Though irregular periods can be expected, every mom must be aware of the characteristics of their monthly period. Be vigilant enough to distinguish it from abnormal bleeding post-delivery. Watch out for these signs of abnormal bleeding and report immediately to your health care provider if you experience the following:

  • More than 1 heavily- soaked sanitary pad for 1 hour
  • Continuous bleeding for more than a week
  • Sudden and severe pain/ cramping
  • Blood clots that are bigger than a soft ball
  • Foul- smelling discharge
  • Accompanied by fever, severe headache, difficulty in breathing or painful urination

Can I get pregnant if I am breastfeeding and no period?

Lactational amenorrhea method or LAM, is one of the most effective natural family planning methods that are recognized by the World Health Organization. As mentioned earlier, lactational amenorrhea refers to the absence of ovulation and menstruation of an exclusively breastfeeding mother, which can be an effective way to delay your fertility for around 6 months post-partum. However, experts suggest that for LAM to be most effective, you must possess the following criteria:

  • Absence of menstruation
  • Your baby is not receiving any supplementary foods or fluids
  • Your baby is not older than 6 months

As you can see, the absence of your period is just one of the 3 criteria for you to take full advantage of LAM as a method of contraception. If you meet all these 3 conditions, studies suggest that this method can effectively delay your fertility at around 98%. There is only a small 2% chance of getting pregnant when done properly.

If you don’t have your menses but do not qualify to the other 2 criteria, then there is an increased likelihood that you might get pregnant, even while breastfeeding. Should you wish to delay your pregnancy, it’s best to talk to your health care provider regarding other family planning methods that are safe for breastfeeding mothers and their babies.

On the other hand, having your menstruation while breastfeeding doesn’t guarantee pregnancy either. Research has found that lactating mothers may have anovulatory menstrual cycles meaning periods will have returned without ovulating or becoming fertile.

How long after stopping breastfeeding should I get my period?

Each woman will differ as to when her period will return. Some mothers may begin menstruating while breastfeeding, others may have it immediately after weaning their baby, with others having no period for several months to a year. Again, this is due to the hormonal changes occurring within a mom’s body while she is breastfeeding. This implies that the cessation of breastfeeding is not a guarantee that you will get back your regular menstrual cycle again. Rather, it is just a factor that may accelerate the process.

Does your period affect breastfeeding?

When you start menstruating, there is nothing to say that you should stop breastfeeding your baby. Breastfeeding while you have your period is perfectly safe and your breast milk will continue to have the same nutrients your baby needs. However, since getting your periods back involves some hormonal changes, it may also have a temporary effect on your breast milk supply and your baby’s breastfeeding pattern for a couple of days.

Here is a list of the most common symptoms:

Nipple and breast tenderness

Nipple and breast tenderness is one of the pre-menstrual symptoms that most women will experience a few days prior to the onset of menstruation. The increase in the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which normally spike around the time of ovulation, contribute to the feeling of fullness in the breasts. Previous research says that there is a drop in blood calcium levels just after ovulation that is linked to sore nipples.

Though these symptoms are pretty common among women, it can make nursing a little uncomfortable for the breastfeeding mother. It is important to continue nursing your baby as you would normally. Since this tenderness has occurred due to pre-menstrual hormones, nipple and breast tenderness will more than likely fade as soon as hormonal levels decrease.

Change in the taste of the breast milk

Studies have found that around the time of ovulation, there are increased levels of sodium and chloride in breast milk. And on the other hand, levels of potassium and the milk sugar, lactose, go down. This event implies that your breast milk may taste saltier and less sweet a few days before you get your period. Some babies may get fussy or refuse to nurse in response to the altered taste in their mother’s milk. However, there are also many babies who will ignore these minor changes and continue to nurse as usual.

Drop in milk supply

Some mothers may also experience a temporary and minor dip in their milk supply a couple of days prior to menstruation due to hormonal fluctuations.

Do you produce less milk when on your period?

There are some research studies suggesting that lactating mothers may produce less milk once their regular menstrual cycles resume. A cyclical drop in the milk supply may be observed. Just like the other pre-menstrual symptoms you usually encounter, this is linked to the hormonal changes happening within your body after you have ovulated and before you actually get your period.

According to experts, this is due to the increase in the hormone estrogen and a drop in blood calcium levels within the body. This normally occurs just after ovulation. As mentioned earlier, these hormonal fluctuations are also responsible for other symptoms like breast fullness, nipple tenderness and a change in the taste of breast milk. These symptoms can make breastfeeding uncomfortable and cause some babies to refuse a feed. It’ll lead to less frequent feedings and decreased nipple stimulation which can both affect the mother’s milk supply.

How can I increase my milk supply during my period?

As mentioned earlier, the decrease in milk supply related to your period is a temporary effect due to hormonal changes. This will most likely be resolved once you begin menstruating. However, if you feel you need to keep your milk supply maintained, here are some things you can do:

Keep breastfeeding your baby

Nursing while your period approaches may come with some discomforts. It is important that you keep trying to place your baby on the breast to maintain good nipple stimulation. Your baby’s suckling stimulates the milk ejection reflex or “let- down” which is an important factor affecting your milk supply. Nursing frequently will also prevent you from developing further complications like breast engorgement, nipple blebs, plugged milk ducts, and mastitis. Keep in mind that breast milk works on the supply and demand basis. So if you want to keep your milk supply up, you should keep telling your body that there is a demand for milk. And there’s no better way to do it than to continue breastfeeding your baby.

Pump your milk

Moms are tough, but let’s face it, there are some days when discomforts can be too much to handle. One example is if your nipples have become very sensitive and sore. If you need some time to heal, then the next best option to keep your milk supply up is to pump your milk. By pumping, the demand for milk will be maintained. You can still feed your baby with your expressed breast milk while you wait for the tenderness to subside.

Keep hydrated

Have you noticed that you unusually get thirsty while breastfeeding? This is your body’s way of saying that you need to increase your fluid intake to help maintain your current milk supply. Having a glass full of water or a refreshing fruit juice while you breastfeed your baby is one way to keep yourself hydrated while you maintain your milk supply.

Eat a well-balanced diet

Most women go through cravings for certain foods while they have their period. But as a breastfeeding mom, it’s important you eat the right foods to help keep you and your baby healthy. While having your period, try to maintain a well-balanced diet and do not forget to include foods that are rich in iron, including red meat and green, leafy vegetables.

Seek advice for galactagogues or supplements

If you feel unsure that your milk supply is sufficient for your baby, speak with your health care provider regarding the use of galactagogues. A galactagogue can be an herb, tea or other food items that can help increase your milk production. You can be prescribed a calcium- magnesium supplement to help combat the effects of your fluctuating hormones while you’re on your period. You might have heard about these supplements from a friend or read about it. But you should seek professional consultation prior to taking any herbs or supplements. This will ensure that you take what is right for you.

Comply with your baby’s clinic visits

The best way to check if you have a sufficient milk supply is to track your baby’s growth and development. Your pediatrician will assess if your baby is growing and gaining weight within what is expected for his age. If low milk supply does exist, he or a lactation consultant can give you additional tips to help combat the temporary drop in your milk supply.

Whether you have your period back or not, breastfeeding your baby is still the best decision you can make. Every breastfeeding mom has their own fair share of discomforts, but with the right support most issues can be dealt with. Thankfully, the issues associated with breastfeeding and the return of your period are just temporary. In the end, you will feel proud you have endured through any breastfeeding struggles and maintained the best nourishment for your baby.

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Counseling the Nursing Mother /BY: Judith Lauwers, Anna Swisher

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