The claim: You can use breastfeeding as a form of birth control.
The fact: It’s true—but only for a short time, and only if you do it the right way.
When you are exclusively breastfeeding a baby under the age of six months, your body naturally stops ovulating (and menstruating, too). No ovulation means no pregnancy. This method of birth control is called the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM).
To use this method of contraception effectively, you need to feed your baby only breast milk, and nurse at least once every four hours during the day and once every six hours at night. If you’re doing this consistently, LAM can be as effective as hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control pill or patch, with less than a 2 percent risk of pregnancy. This method also has several other benefits: It’s free, it doesn’t require a prescription, you don’t have to remember to take it, and it’s good for your baby.
On the other hand, breastfeeding exclusively can be hard. It means you have to be available to nurse your baby every four hours throughout the day. Women who work outside the home or otherwise have to be away from their baby for periods longer than this can use a breast pump so that their baby still gets the benefits of breast milk—but LAM appears to be less effective when women are pumping or hand expressing milk. And sometimes it’s just hard to establish a good breastfeeding relationship, even with help from a lactation consultant.
You can improve your chances of success with LAM by “rooming in” with your baby in the hospital after delivery (meaning your baby stays in the room with you rather than going to the hospital nursery) and breastfeeding as early and often as possible, nursing frequently both day and night (as often as every 2 to 3 hours or more when the baby is newborn). Some experts also recommend avoiding pacifiers, since this could reduce your baby’s need to suckle for comfort.
If LAM does work for you while your baby is small, you will need to start using another method of birth control as soon as any of these things happens:
- Your baby reaches his or her six-month birthday
- Your baby starts sleeping through the night
- You start supplementing with formula or feeding solid foods
- Your period returns
Fortunately, hormonal birth control is safe to use while breastfeeding. You can also use other contraceptive methods during this time, such as condoms, an intrauterine device (IUD), or a diaphragm. Talk with your doctor about which method is best for you.