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Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing

elizabeth b. May 22, 2013

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After experiencing issues that we feel were a result of using contraceptives, my husband and I both received a moral conviction regarding contraceptives and chose to take a more natural route, avoiding artificial hormones and artificial methods of birth control.

I already viewed myself as a die-hard breastfeeder and wanted to use breastfeeding as a natural way to space my children, but I didn’t think it worked, because even while breastfeeding exclusively, my cycles come back immediately. So I never gave it a chance.

But what the majority of women deem as “exclusive” breastfeeding is far from what nature requires.

Exclusive breastfeeding shouldn’t be confused with Ecological Breastfeeding.

After reading a copy of Breastfeeding and Fertility by Jenny Silliman and then  Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing by Sheila Kippley, who is considered an authority on the topic, I realized that I hadn’t followed this mothering lifestyle as closely as I assumed. There’s a distinct difference between exclusive breastfeeding and ecological breastfeeding, and the effective method is usually the latter.

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While Ecological Breastfeeding has shown to be effective when the standards are followed, every woman is different. It’s important to note the necessity of the standards. Yes, there are rules to follow, just like other contraceptive methods require certain rules.

Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding

1.Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life (don’t use other liquids and solids, not even water.)

2.  Pacify or comfort your baby at your breasts.

3.  Don’t use bottles and don’t use pacifiers. Here is where we start to deviate a little from typical “exclusive.” Shipley writes that when she speaks to a woman who talks of how her cycles returned while mom was exclusively breastfeeding, chances are that the baby is sitting on the mama’s lap with a pacifier. I used to think that pacifiers were absolute necessities. When we decided to stop using the pacifier, I had two concerns:

 

1.      Baby would always want to nurse, without a break.

 

2.      Baby would simply begin thumb sucking.

      

         But what I discovered is that when I allowed him to nurse on demand, even when only for comfort, he needed to comfort nurse less and less. It was as though that need was truly being met and therefore he needed less to be satisfied.

 

4.Sleep with your baby for night feedings.

5.Sleep with your baby for a daily-nap feeding.

6.  Nurse frequently day and night, and avoid schedules.

7.  Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.

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Putting it All Together

When looking at the standards, one can understand how this more intensive way of nursing can affect a woman’s body more than our culture’s exclusive breastfeeding norm.

As the baby nurses, it sends a signal that she’s taking care of a baby who needs her and to suppress ovulation. If the baby is taking a pacifier or a bottle, having that need met through other methods, the signal to delay fertility isn’t there.

For some women, typical exclusive breastfeeding is enough to naturally delay fertility, but for many, all seven standards of true Ecological Breastfeeding must be followed.

While the standards may sound restrictive, the benefits we experience are incredible. I believe my delayed cycles contributed to increased energy and the avoidance of anemia. My cycle returned at 22 months after my fourth and 17 months after my fifth–I deviated from the seven standards when he was 15 months old. My babies also experienced improved health, even compared to older siblings who were more traditionally breastfed. And I experienced a more responsive relationship. While I’m close to all of my children, I seem to extend greater patience to my ecologically breastfed babies. Could it be the extra oxytocin at work?

While I refer to ecological breastfeeding as a natural contraceptive, I don’t look at my children as birth control, which is a common misconception from those not familiar with ecological breastfeeding. As I naturally mother my babies, meeting their needs as I’m designed, a delay in fertility is simply a natural occurrence.

Above all, I hope that readers will see the difference between ecological and exclusive breastfeeding, understanding that ecological breastfeeding is a viable option for natural child spacing, and the importance of following the seven standards. 

For more detailed information, please visit La Leche League, Kelly Mom, Ask Dr. Sears, and Natural Family Planning International.

What about you? Have you practiced ecological breastfeeding by following the seven standards? Have you heard of the standards before?

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  1. I practice ecological breastfeeding and have a 21 month old and have still not had a cycle. I’m wondering how much longer before I do!

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  2. I had never heard of ecological breastfeeding until I met you, Sara Elizabeth, but it sounds like I have pretty much followed the “rules” without even knowing it! Our only exception is that I do supplement a little with raw goat’s milk, simply because of our babies’ digestive issues and history of poor weight gain.

    My cycles generally don’t return for an entire year after birth, the earliest being 10 months and the longest 15 months. I’m currently breastfeeding our 6-week old son and this post definitely encourages me to keep up the good work!

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  3. We did something similar to this with my first child. I was all about attachment parenting (although we did use a pacifier). Our experience was terrible. He didn’t sleep through the night until 13 months old and I was exhausted. I was getting up 3-4 times a night when he was 10 months old. With my second child we have her on a sleeping and eating schedule, not a rigid schedule a 3 hour routine that works well for us. She slept through the night at 10 weeks old and nurses at predictable times.

    While I’d love to delay the return of my cycle (we don’t use birth control) I can’t have my life taken over by a baby. Babies should be part of our family not the center of it. I’m not sure how to implement these principles and still get adequate sleep and time to care for my family.

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  4. I have practiced it since my 4th baby. He is almost 3. I had my cycles return at 6 months with him but didn’t get pregnant until he was 12 months. We lost that baby at 5 months pregnant and I got pregnant right away again. My 5th baby is now 7 months and my cycles haven’t returned. I’m tandem nursing now.

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  5. Hmm, interesting. I was Ecologically Breastfeeding to a T and didnt even know it! lol! Thing is though, my cycle returned at 3 months……and im stil nursing my 26 month old.

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  6. I breastfeed this way. Not for the purpose of spacing children, but simply to meet the needs of my babies. Some people do think I am crazy lol. Babies need their mamas alot more than most people think in my opinion. It seems the more I cuddle, hold etc my children the less discipline they need 😀

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  7. This sounds wonderful. I wish that I could practice this with the baby I’m currently expecting, but I have to return to my schoolwork around 6-7 weeks. Perhaps when it’s time for baby #2! 🙂

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  8. I read Sheila’s book right after giving birth to my first child almost 3 years ago. I planned to follow her principles before I even knew the book existed because that was how I was mothered, and it was really nice to read about the fertility benefits that should happen – and happen they did! I had 21 months w/o my period and 23 w/o ovulation…and my almost 3-year-old is just to the point of weaning herself from the last two nursing sessions we do each day before nap and bedtime… Just in time, in my opinion, since we’re expecting a new baby in a few weeks. 🙂

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  9. Apparently I was ecologically breastfeeding for the first 11 months and didn’t know it! We did all 7 things until one day my son decided he needed to sleep on his own. We were keeping him up with our colds. My cycle returned around 14 months. Still nursing at almost 25 months and 6 months preggo.

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  10. Reading all 7 standards was a little daunting, but practicing them has been pretty easy with my first baby. Going strong for 8 months! I thought introducing solids might change my cycle, but it hasn’t been affected so far.

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  11. Very ineteresting. I am currently nursing baby number six. I personally don’t think it’s up to the mom as to which way to feed….ecologically or exclusively. I think it’s up to the baby. For example baby number five naturally did all the things that qualified us in the camp for “ecologically”….and I loved it as much as she did. Then came baby number six, who is 9 months old and “exclusively” nurses. I desired him to be like the baby before him but there was no “making” him. He just doesn’t prefer nestling, being pacified with the breast, etc. He latches on for one reason….to eat!

    God’s timing/spacing is perfect 🙂 Blessings~~angela

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  12. I really enjoyed this article. This is a subject that greatly interests me. My baby is nearly 12 months, and no return of fertility yet. I am so curious how long it will be.

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  13. Excellent article. I’m the mom of 8, and with new baby, I took more steps toward the goals you listed, and became what you call Ecological Breastfeeding Mama. I was doing all I could to be the best Mom I could, and to give my babies the best I knew how to give.
    Sharing this with my two grown daughters who are now beginning to raise families of their own. Thanks for sharing this information!

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  14. I am with you! These “standards” are perhaps easier to follow for some than others. Babies are different. Moms are different. Some babies nurse briefly in the night and mom goes right back to sleep. Not so much for me…When my babies needed nursing at night, I felt like it was an all night affair and I never got any rest. Like you, I was exhausted. Other forms of natural family planning work for me.
    That said, I am all about breastfeeding! I had people look at me weird for nursing as long as I did. And I didn’t really think it was that “long”. (15 mos. and 19 mos.)

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  15. I don’t want to be rude, but statistically, it is highly, highly unlikely that your cycles returned at 3 mos. if you were following every single standard strictly. Taking the daily nap is usually what women consider sort of optional, but it’s not. I find that actually sleeping for at least 20 minutes of a 30 minute or longer lie-down keeps me functioning physically well, and it seems to have an effect on the way ecological breastfeeding works, too.

    It’s possible that you experienced bleeding at this time, but it can be ignored that early on and does not usually signify a full on period nor a return of fertility. Six months is pretty much the earliest it will ever return, some 99% of the time, and a large percentage of that group go on for much longer spacing than six months.

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  16. I could be misunderstanding what the problem was, but it sounds like you didn’t co-sleep? Or did you just have a hard time sleeping through the breastfeeding? For me it has never been hard to latch the baby on and just pass out again myself. In fact, I think I sleep better with a nursing baby then I do without! The hormones relax me! Without a nursing baby I have nights of insomnia occasionally! lol

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  17. I have used Ecological Breastfeeding to space my babies since my first. He was 21 mos. old when his next brother was born. That son, brother number 2, was 27 mos. old when their next brother was born. Now son number 3 is 28 mos. old and we’re expecting our first little girl two months from now in July! So the spacing just keeps getting better and I am so excited to have a newborn to nurse again!
    For my first baby Eco-bf. was hard. For the second it was still somewhat daunting but I was very determined. For the third it was easy as could be- a pleasure, even. I highly recommend it! I’m not the mushy, typical attachment parent type, either! I’m pretty strict with my boys and I need my space- until a newborn comes around and then I don’t even think twice. It’s just natural.
    So nice to see the word getting around. Thanks for writing the awesome article! And yes, Sheila Kippley is the absolute authority on this topic! She knows everything you can want to know. She has some great books and they are very affordable.

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  18. It’s funny, I did all this without even realizing that it was a special thing; I just assumed that my babies needed me and I tried to meet their needs. My cycle returned when my oldest (almost 4) was 17 months and I never got my cycle back with my second-born, but I conceived Baby #3 when he was 15-16 months, so next February I will have three children with about two years between each baby. I love breastfeeding my children, because I feel it bonds us together in a special way. This article was awesome. Thank you! 😀

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  19. I had never heard of ecological breastfeeding until I read this. BUT- without ever hearing of it I have followed this to a “T” with all 5 children! Lol! Finally something in parenting that I didn’t have to fast and pray to get it right! Although it was obviously the Lord’s guidance. 😉 Except even with doing this I still got pregnant with baby #5 when #4 was only 6 months old. Although I am not complaining! Thanks for the article!

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  20. […] you can do so safely and comfortably. Snuggling your baby is great for your milk supply and makes nursing on demand a lot less […]

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  21. I literally just found out about this yesterday, and was researching more about it. I definitely did the exclusive breastfeeding with my first 4 babies, I am 7 1/2 months pregnant with my 5th, and I’d love to try that this time. I’ll get the book and give it a go. Some of my spacings have been just 13 and 15 months apart. With this pregnancy I didn’t even know until I was 16 weeks!! (No return of cycles at all). Thanks so much for this enlightening article.

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  22. I am loving life with my first baby! Since he was born, he’s been sleeping right in front of me ( I sleep on my side). Just like when he naps during the day in my arms, he won’t stir for hours! The only times he has trouble sleeping, waking often, not falling back asleep quickly, is when I put him in his bassinet alone. While sometimes necessary and helpful to me, I have resolved not to try this at night for a long time. I recently tried to make him sleep in his bassinet and from 1 am til 5 (at which point I nursed him in my bed like normal) he stirred about every twenty minutes. He is a happy baby, but not unusual, I think. After nursing at night, he lays with me, I get at least 3 hours of sleep, feed him, another 3 hours, and often another 3 or 4 after another feeding (we go to bed pretty early). I am convinced that he needs healthy sleep just like anyone else, and he and I both get it when he’s at my breast. I don’t get up at night, I only wake for 20 minutes or so, and he never wakes me up to eat by crying – I am right there to notice his first squirming 🙂 I would only hesitate to have him in my bed if I were on a prescription (which is extremely rare), drank any alcohol (which I never do), or were for some reason overly exhausted. Even then, I know that him not by my side, I cannot sleep at all. Baby-in-the-bed co-sleeping has worked for centuries, and I’m loving it too.

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  23. Your cycle could have started because of too high estrogen levels, which is added to by many things including low fiber intake, too much soy (check check check those ingreds!), hormones in dairy and meat, chemicals in foods and beauty and heigeine products, and thyroids issues.

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  24. I did exclusive breast feeding with my first. He slept in our room, nursed day and night, and did not have any other form of nutrition. I chose to do this partially because I had read about natural child spacing, and wanted a “natural” gap (I had read that would be around 2 years). I did not have a period, BUT got pregnant when he was only 3 moths old. Using exclusive breast feeding as birth control did NOT work for me, even though statistics say there is a 99.8% chance an exclusive breast feeding woman can not get pregnant the child’s first 6 months. (so long as she is only breast feeding) We used pull out method after the second, and managed to not get pregnant for 7 months after the second. I used an IUD (which I hated) after our 3rd, and was unable to get pregnant for a few months after it was removed. I am now pregnant with our 4th, she is due 2 years after our third was born. I love the idea of natural child spacing, but it didn’t work for me. I would love to hear more “natural” fertility delaying ideas that may be more effective for someone who gets pregnant very easily. We may want 1 more, so don’t want to get “fixed” just yet. BUT, I don’t want to use an IUD again, and don’t want Irish twins again! (One set is enough 🙂 )

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  25. I am breastfeeding my little one and he is only three months old and has stopped nursing at night. We haven’t sleep trained him, but he will go seven or more hours without nursing at night and I am wondering if I will still be able to space naturally since this is his normal routine with nursing. Has anyone had this happen and how long did it take to become fertile again after baby started sleeping through the night?

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  26. I’m opposite, I want to have another baby, came across the website and to my supprise i do all these things, breast feed on demand as they call it, sleep with my baby, I cant stand getting up in the middle of the night and i dont really understand why other mothers choose to formula feed and get up for hours, he just fell into a routine by himself, slept good stretches from day one, i just did what ever he needed… simple, never pushed a routine, tryed formula once, he hated it, i eat healthy as to keep up my strength and have found been a mother has been great! Practise attachment parenting minus the sling, not planned just went with my maternal instincts, hes 14 months now would love to be pregnant but if my body says its not ready coz im still nursing them so be it, at least ill have more attention for the next one if i wait a while 🙂

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  27. I have a question. I had a c-section and my baby is one month old today. For about the past two weeks I have been exclusively breast feeding him (actual exclusive, not cultural). We had a hard time in the beginning with latching. My little guy had low blood sugar and was losing more weight than the norm. He was on an IV for his first two days and then we began supplementing with formula. During those times I tried to have him latch with occasional success for a few minutes. I would do this for 15-30 minutes before pumping and giving him whatever I pumped. Then we would give him an ounce of formula. After a few days we were directed to give him formula until he showed he was full (usually two ounces on top of milk from breast and pumped milk). By about 1 1/2 weeks we were able to breast feed mostly. I pumped still and gave him what was pumped after feeding from breast so we knew he was getting enough (since he still had a really low weight). Since 2 weeks we have supplemented with formula I think twice (during cluster feedings when I was worried he was feeding so much because I wasn’t producing enough like in the beginning. I hadn’t realized about cluster feeding at the time. I also had given him only pumped milk at a few feedings. For the past week he has not been fed from bottle at all.

    My question is, will our beginning struggles effect my fertility and have it maybe return soon?

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  28. so with ecological breastfeeding can I let my 15 month old sleep through the night, or should I wake her up….or is ecological breastfeeding more like just letting the baby nurse when he/she wants…even if that means they sleep all night…my baby is now 15 months old, but my menses started trying to come back on when she was around 11 months old….but its not heavy at all and some months I miss it. My main question is, IS it okay for an ecological breastfeeding 15 month old to sleep 8 hours and still be considered ecological breastfed?

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  29. That is simply not true. My cycles returned by the 3rd month with all four of my children. Furthermore I did follow the guidelines for ecological nursing with all four children, including nap times! I am currently nursing my last child who is 4.5 years old, to sleep for nap time as we have done since he was born. Please don’t be so quick to judge, thinking you know everything. Averages are just that, not every single woman’s body will cooperate with this method of birth control. Thankfully God has provided alternatives.

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  30. […] nursing practices of the bushwomen are very close to the recommendations of ecological breastfeeding.

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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