It is widely believed that a newborn baby is a great form of contraception - presumably, a breastfeeding mother can go on for years without getting pregnant. Various tribal cultures are often cited as proof, together with lots of anectdotal evidence. However, it is not true. So how soon can you get pregnant?
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Ovulation vs period
As all women (hopefully) know, an ovulation must occur in order for a woman to get pregnant. Ovaries discharge an egg that can be fertilized; if it doesn’t occur, a woman will normally have her period 14 days later.
According to some studies, ovulation resumes on average 74 days (2.5 months) after giving birth in women who do not breastfeed; however, it is possible to ovulate as early as 25 days after giving a baby (more info here). Up to 70% of these ovulations are potentially fertile. Thus we get our first answer: you can get pregnant as soon as you start ovulating, which can happen as early as a month after giving birth! And since ovulation precedes a period by two weeks, a woman can get pregnant before she ever gets her menses – much to her surprise.
The breastfeeding factor
What about lactating women? Don’t tribal women in Africa breasfeed their kids till they are 5-6 years old without getting pregnant again?
The link between lactation and fertility is complex. A nursing mother can start ovulating 6 weeks after giving birth. On the other hand, breasfeeding can be 98% secure as a method of contraception if a woman sticks to a special method called Lactational Amenorrhea Method (detailed info here). It implies many strict conditions:
- Breastfeeding exclusively – no bottles, etc.
- Nursing at least 6 times a day
- Feeding on demand, including at least once a night
- Spending at least 1 hour a day nursing
As you can see, LAM is difficult to stick to: for example, if the baby sleeps through the night, a woman’s body gets enough rest to trigger ovulation. Nursing has to be very frequent and regular. And even if it is, once the menses have started, you can get pregnant. Once your baby is older than 6 months, LAM doesn’t work anymore. Here we get our second answer: even you are breastfeeding, you can get pregnant once you start having your period, and after 6 months lactation is not efficient as a means of contraception anyway.
Avoid the risks
While a medical study can determine averages and means, all women are different in terms of their hormonal levels, diet, etc. Therefore, information gained from studies will not help you determine how soon after giving birth you can be fertile again.
We should stress that getting pregnant too soon is risky: since a woman’s body does not have enough time to replenish the nutrients, it can lead to premature labor, birth defects, and diseases later in life (details here). Doctors advise to get a least 18 months, or better 2 years, between pregnancies. To achieve that, consider taking birth control pills again: those with both estrogen and progestin are considered safe enough 6 weeks after giving birth for breasfeeding mothers, while those that contain only progestin are safe to use right after birth (details here )
What’s the takeaway? Yes, you can get pregnant again very soon after giving birth: after 4-8 weeks if you don’t breastfeed. For nursing mothers, it can be as early as 6 weeks and becomes much more frequent after 6 months. In any case, just because you can get pregnant doesn’t mean that you should: allow enough time for your body to heal enough to carry a healthy baby.