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Toddler Tips

Fertility and Night Nursing

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18, No. 1, January-February 2001 pp. 23-25

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Situation

I am a 38-year-old mother of a 23-month-old daughter who loves to nurse. We cosleep and love our breastfeeding relationship. I planned on letting her wean on her own, but I am faced with a problem. My menstrual cycle has not returned and we would like to have another baby soon. I have read that fertility is slower to return in women my age. What have other mothers done in my situation? Should I consider weaning her at night even if she sleeps in our bed to increase my chances of becoming pregnant?

Response

I am expecting a baby at the end of November, just after my daughter turns three years old. She was an avid nurser as a baby and nursed every two hours until well past her second birthday. I did not get my periods back till she was 22 months old, at which time my husband and I decided we would try to conceive another child right away, since I was 38 at the time.

Unfortunately, it was not as easy as conceiving the first time. Month after month, I did not get pregnant. I bought a book on reading my fertility signals, kept track of my temperature, and could see that I was ovulating every month. Even with this information and the help of an ovulation detection kit, I didn't seem able to conceive again. Then, by chance, I read a book called Breastfeeding. Biocultural Perspectives (Available from LLLI, No. 8-7, $32.95), and in it there was a brief reference to a group of La Leche League members in Boston who'd found it necessary to wean their children at night in order to again be able to conceive. I decided to try this. I aimed for a stretch of six or seven hours a night without breastfeeding, and after one and a half weeks, we did conceive our baby who is now due in six weeks.

I understand that all women are different, and that for some, complete weaning is necessary before conception can occur. But for many, eliminating night nursing allows hormonal levels to return to levels necessary for conception. Limiting nursing during the day wodt necessarily make a difference in hormone levels.

Weaning at night without too much trauma is another issue! I started out by reminding her every night as she nursed to sleep that we wouldn't be nursing again until morning. At first, we tried to have my husband comfort our daughter back to sleep, but that was a disaster, especially when she could see me next to them in the bed. Then I tried sleeping in another bedroom, but each night the problems increased until I heard her sobbing to her father, "You stay there-don't follow me! I'm going to go and find my mommy!" I came back to sleep in our bed with them from then on, continuing to remind our daughter that after she nursed to sleep there would be no more until morning (it was up to me to decide exactly when that was). For three or four nights, she protested. I always soothingly reminded her that we could hold each other and cuddle back to sleep, but that we needed to wait until morning for more nursing. It got easier, and soon we were all sleeping through the night, and I was getting enough time without breastfeeding to inch my hormone levels up to those needed for conception. I hope this will be of help to you, and I highly recommend that you do some reading on the topic to help you decide what to do.

Dianne Betkowski
St. Louis MO USA

Response

I had my first baby after age 38, and this was accomplished largely due to fertility treatment since I was older and not ovulating regularly or even often. When my menstrual cycle finally returned when my son was fourteen months old and still nursing, my husband and I decided it was time to start trying for a little brother or sister.

My obstetrician advised me to completely wean so he could start me on a medication for infertility that was not recommended for nursing mothers. It made sense to me, but I found I wasn't ready to completely wean my son. Instead of weaning to start the medication, we cut back on our nursings using distractions, other activities, and late night snacks to try to eliminate some of our night nursings while costeeping. We did this in the hopes that I would be more likely to start ovulating if fewer nursing demands were made on my body.

Although my cycle was still somewhat irregular, I was able to determine when I might be ovulating. Imagine our surprise when we discovered I was pregnant again at age forty after only trying for four months! Unfortunately, I miscarried the day after finding out I was pregnant, but this brief pregnancy served a purpose in showing me that I was fertile without drug intervention and without completely weaning. A year later, I finally gave birth at age forty-one to another boy. My first son had nursed through this pregnancy and then tandem nursed, a bond I'll always treasure.

My advice would be to listen to your body, your daughter, and your husband. Taking things one step at a time, you may find your fertility will return without breaking up your family bed or completely weaning. You can always take steps that are more dramatic later. At that time, your daughter will be older and perhaps more able to cope with changes or to participate in a weaning dialogue. Best Wishes!

Karen Ratliff
Victona TX USA

Response

Your situation sounds very similar to mine. My husband wanted his children close in age, like he and his brothers were, but it seems my body and my children had other plans. We tried night weaning, but my son let it be known that that was not an option. What worked for us was day weaning. During the day, I was able to distract my son, change my routine, and offer other nutritious alternatives. Within two weeks of limiting daytime nursing, my period returned at 25 months postpartum. We returned to nursing on demand soon after and my son happily continued to nurse until after his sister was born less than a year later.

Would my periods have returned if I had done nothing? I do not know. With my daughter, even though she nursed much less, especially at night, my periods returned after a similar 23 months without any action on our part.

I have gained much comfort from reading Sheila Kippleys book, Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing (Available from LLLI, No. 50-7, $9.95). It made me realize that it was normal to go years without a period, regardless of age. We are now expecting our third child, and the younger two will again be three years apart. This spacing, although not our original plan, has worked for our family in ways we never could have dreamed of. I hope your dreams are realized soon.

Chris Duckering
San Jose CA USA

Response

I also am 38 years old and my first child is a 21-month-old nursling. I have no intention of weaning her until she shows me she is ready, but I want at least one more child. It took two years to conceive my daughter. The first year, my husband and I simply stopped using birth control without seriously "trying." The second year, my obstetrician prescribed a medication to induce ovulation, which I took every month along with monitoring my basal temperature to help determine when I was ovulating. Another year passed by and then I was scheduled for a laparoscopy (exploratory surgery) to find out why I couldn't get pregnant. Thankfully, the procedure never took place. The month before the scheduled surgery, my period was late and a pregnancy test was positive!

Although my doctor is supportive of breastfeeding, he advised me at my annual checkup in May of this year to wean in order to get pregnant again. My daughter was 16 months old and I hadn't resumed menstruating. Other mothers advised me to continue nursing and said it didn't matter if I didn't have my next baby until into my forties. I was torn. Two months later, I resumed menstruating but was not ovulating. Two months after that I was ovulating without medication and without weaning! I truly believe I will get pregnant again without having to make a very difficult decision. I wish you the same!

Carefully weigh the pros and cons of weaning. MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER (Available from LLLI, No. 157-12, $12.95) and HOW WEANING HAPPENS (Available from LLLI, No. 142-12, $10.95) are excellent references. I borrowed both books from my LLL Group Library. In one, a mother tells of how her toddler weaned on his own when she explained to him it was the only way he would ever have a brother or sister. I am sad at the thought of any child weaning before her time, but in the long run would it be more beneficial that your daughter, have a sibling? Only you can decide. Good luck.

Marlene Deyo
Wolcott CT USA

Response

I also wanted to balance my desire to continue unrestricted nursing and natural weaning with my desire to have another child. When my daughter was 18 months old, she was still nursing several times during the day and one to three times during the night, depending on what was going on in her life.

However, my periods had not returned, and I wanted to conceive sonietime between 20 and 27 months. I had read Sheila Kippley's book, Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing, and decided that the first thing to try to get my periods to come back would be night weaning. I decided that for the first week, I would not actually refuse to nurse my daughter at night. Instead, when she woke up and asked to nurse, I would say, "Mama doesn't want to nursie. Mamma wants to go night-night." After a week of that, I would actually try refusing her. At least this way she would know why she was being refused. The first night, at about 4 Am, a little bundle crawled up to me and said, "Nursie, nursie." In my semi-asleep state, I didn't really feel like speaking, and it seemed so easy to just pull her up, cuddle her, and nurse her while we both drifted back to sleep. So much for my grand plan to gently use the power of suggestion to wean her at night.

There was one day when we were running errands all day, and she did not nurse for over six hours. There was another day when we were on a family biking vacation, and she did not nurse for over eight hours, except for a quick snack in the middle. She just sat in the bike trailer, content with her milk boxes, snacks, and toys. Other than that, she kept to her regular nursing intensity, including at night. Imagine my surprise when I had my period. After that, we went on a longer family vacation, and her night nursing increased. I thought, that's it, no more periods for a while. Then I had another period! So, my very unscientific conclusion is that it may be possible to induce periods by drastically changing your nursing patterns for only a day at a time, perhaps one day each week for a month. Since I did not want to cut back permanently, it was like having my cake and eating it too.

Since time is of the essence for you, you may decide to wean at night. But completely weaning at night can take a little time. It may be possible to temporarily change your night nursing patterns, just as I temporarily changed my daytime nursing patterns, then resume, and still resume ovulating. Good luck, and feel good about all the quality time you've had with your daughter without her having to compete with a sibling for your attention. I have learned that
the delayed return of fertility is yet another benefit of nursing. I have treasured these months with my daughter,--each one more fun than the last.

Alexandra Sieving
Waltham MA USA

Response

I am the 44-year-old mother of three children ages 19, 11, and eight. I believe partial weaning of my middle child helped us to have a family with three children. At 28 months, my second child nursed 16-18 times per day and my menstrual cycles had not yet resumed. Partial weaning to two times per day (naptirne and bedtime) allowed me to get pregnant immediately. We continued to enjoy the family bed for several years. I maintained a nursing relationship with my middle child through pregnancy and tandem nursing for more than a year longer . I am very glad that I did not completely wean that child at that time, but partial weaning is not an easy option.

For our family, partial weaning required lots of patience and persistence. I found that my child would need 30 minutes of comforting (singing, carrying, constant attention) at those times when a few minutes of nursing would have been enough. My husband had to help comfort our child in the middle of the night for several months.

Weaning of any kind at any time is such an individual decision that every mother must follow her own heart. We must remember that as mothers we continue to nourish and cherish our children long after we have stopped breastfeeding.

Laura Beasley
Huntington Beack CA USA

Response

Like you, I wanted another baby fairly quickly after the previous one. Like you, my return to fertility was slow. Information on breastfeeding and fertility all seemed to emphasize the advantages of a delayed return of the menses-as though no one understood that, for me, it had stopped being an advantage.

My periods returned at 23 months postpartum and I was pregnant within two months, though I lost that baby and I was advised to wait another year before becoming pregnant again. It was hard. But I did become pregnant again and I found many unexpected advantages to having a bigger gap between my two babies.

For a long time, I had not come across anyone whose fertility was delayed longer than mine. However, a couple of years ago, I met another woman who was more than 30 months postpartum before the return of her menses. She also now has another baby. Another friend who needed fertility treatment to conceive her first baby and hadn't conceived again many months after the return of her menses experimented with weaning but finally decided it wasn't worth the trouble. She is now the proud mother of four children.

Weaning when neither mother nor child is ready is difficult on both in many ways and there are still no guarantees that another pregnancy will follow. It was this thought that made my friend finally decide to abandon attempts to wean-the idea that she might lose what she had with her daughter and perhaps never have another child tipped the balance for her.

Sometimes it is helpful to feel you are doing something positive so you could certainly try a few weaning strategies, or at least a reduction in nursings. If it is too hard on you or your daughter, you can always reassess your priorities and make a different decision. And maybe she just needs a nudge to make a move toward weaning.

It is much more likely than not that your periods will return soon and your fertility with it. Perhaps this time next year, you will be writing to us again to announce the arrival of another baby.

Eileen Harrison
Rennes France

Last updated Tuesday, October 17, 2006 by njb.
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