Is breastfeeding an effective contraceptive? An expert advises

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If you breastfeed but also use formula, this method will be ineffective.
If you breastfeed but also use formula, this method will be ineffective.

Very often doctors highlight the benefits of breastfeeding for the child’s health to the extent that some mothers start to think that breastfeeding does not benefit them as mothers, but is just a source of nutrition for their child.

However, this is untrue.

Amor Herbst, one of the trained leaders at La Leche League South Africa, a voluntary organisation which provides information and support to women who want to breastfeed their babies, told Parent24 about the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother.

Herbst tells us that "women who have not breastfed after birth are at a greater risk for metabolic syndrome, heart diseases and certain cancers."

She adds that if you already have insulin-dependent diabetes, you’re likely to need less insulin while you’re a nursing mother.

"Breastfeeding is also an insurance policy against breast, uterine, and cervical cancer. It may be that the lower estrogen level of lactation provides the protection; the longer you breastfeed, the stronger your insurance," she says. 

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to get these cancers if you breastfeed, but you are less susceptible to them.

She adds that osteoporosis and fractures are also more common in women who didn't breastfeed, and a non-breastfeeding mother's blood pressure is likely to be higher, probably because her neurological and endocrine responses are more pronounced than those of a nursing mother.

"Her overall physical and mental health take a hit as well, and in later years she remains at an increased risk of developing such autoimmune diseases as rheumatoid arthritis," says Herbst.

Find out more in the The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.

But is it an effective contraceptive? 

Some women are also interested to know if they can get pregnant while nursing or if breastfeeding can be used as an effective birth control method.

Parent24 also talked to Dr Emma Sim, Covid-19 Unit Leader at Witkoppen Clinic. She told us that the breastfeeding method of contraception is also known as the Lactational Amenorrhea Method (LAM), and that it is not a reliable birth control method. 

She says that there are people who believe in this method, but it is less than 2% effective as a family planning method and is not recommended. Dr Sim explains that this is not a fail-safe method, because you can ovulate before you menstruate. 

She added that the method works on the assumption that you exclusively breastfeed every four hours day and night until the baby is six months old, suppressing ovulation and thus menstruation.

"The use of implants is more than 90% effective, injectables about 80% effective and combined oral contraceptive about 91% effective if taken consistently every day," says Dr Sim.

The La Leche League agrees with Dr Sim and emphasises that in order for this method to be used one has to answer YES to three of the following questions: 

1. Is my baby less than six months old?

2. Is my baby fully or nearly fully breastfed, and breastfeeding frequently both day and night? ('Nearly fully breastfed' means that the baby may receive 'taste-sized' portions of solids occasionally.)

3. Have I had no vaginal bleeding (not even spotting) since six weeks after my baby was born?

If you answered no to any of the above questions it would be safer for you to use the methods listed below to avoid a surprise pregnancy.

What can I do to ensure that I don’t fall pregnant soon after giving birth?

Dr Sim tells us that there are several methods that are safe to use while you are breastfeeding, although some are more reliable than others. 

She cautioned that the methods discussed below are not listed in accordance of reliability options:

  • Birth control pills. It’s best to use progestin-only options in the first few weeks after giving birth and breastfeeding.
  • Injectable, such as Depo-Provera this provides cover for 3 months.
  • The hormonal implant, such as Nexplanon, which provides extremely effective birth control for 3 years.
  • Barrier methods, such as condoms or diaphragms. used with spermicide or foam.
  • An intrauterine device (IUD), which is placed inside your uterus by a health professional.

For more information on the breastfeeding as birth control, Dr Sim advised visiting here and Amor suggested visiting here for more details.

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