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Breastfeeding: good for baby—and for mom’s birth control

Effective birth control isn’t always a product made by a pharmaceutical company…

by Maria Isabel Rodriguez, MD

Effective birth control isn’t always a product made by a pharmaceutical company… sometimes our own bodies take care of it for us. Breastfeeding, if done right, can be one of those times. In the first six months after birth, breastfeeding provides many benefits to the new mom and her baby—and effective contraception is one of them. In medical circles, this little window is referred to as lactational amenorrhea.

How does it work?

Skeptics and experienced moms are probably thinking that the sleep deprivation that accompanies a new little bundle of joy is an effective contraceptive, given that feeling like a zombie rarely results in regular sex. That might be part of it, but there's also biology involved. As a baby nurses, a hormone called prolactin is triggered to increase in mom. This hormone ensures an ongoing milk supply for baby, and suppresses the other hormones that lead to ovulation in mom. It’s a natural solution that allows a new mom to devote all her resources to just this one baby for a while.

Wanna try it?

If you plan to rely on breastfeeding as your only form of birth control after birth, it's super important that you read the fine print. Ready? Here goes: lactational amenorrhea is 98% effective at preventing pregnancy IF… 1) It has been less than six months since the baby was born; 2) The baby is only nursing (that means no formula, bottles, or food); and 3) Your period has not started again.

If you aren’t exclusively nursing your baby, you can ovulate as soon as three weeks after giving birth. Yikes! Three weeks is up before a lot of women even see a doctor for their postpartum check-up.

Not sure it’s for you?

If you don't think you’ll meet all three of these conditions for lactational amenorrhea, or if 98% protection just isn’t good enough, talk with your doctor about another form of birth control. Many methods are safe and effective for nursing moms. Condoms, the IUD, the implant, the shot, and progestin-only or mini pills can all be used while nursing. An IUD can even be inserted right after giving birth. Those six months of protection can slip by quickly, so you might want to make a plan about another method of birth control in any case.

Maria Isabel Rodriguez, MD, is an Obstetrician/Gynecologist and a clinical fellow in Family Planning at the University of California, San Francisco. She likes working with women of all ages and believes that reproductive health is critical to not just the health of women, but making healthy families and happy communities. She surfs badly, but likes it anyways.

Dr. Rodriguez is a faculty member at UCSF. However, the views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Regents of the University of California, UCSF, UCSF Medical Center, or any entities or units thereof.

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