The intricacies of the human body are almost magical, with no one system or function working entirely on its own. Within a mother’s body, the processes that lead to menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are all interconnected. Just a handful of hormones can dictate each of these functions, with different organs and actions responding in their own way. A fascinating and, sometimes, bewildering example of this is the relationship between menstruation and breastfeeding.
How Menstruation Affects Breastfeeding
Menstruation does very little to affect breastfeeding in the grand scheme of things. Milk is not harmed or changed in any significant way. Just like when a breastfeeding mother is sick, you may not feel very well, but that doesn’t mean your baby is harmed or affected in any way. It's perfectly fine to keep nursing.
With that in mind, your little one may still notice a change during menstruation. Your milk supply may change just a bit, and the taste of the milk might also change. This could translate to a restless or disinterested baby. Fortunately, it shouldn’t last for more than a day or two before returning to normal.
You might also notice breast tenderness during your cycle, leading to sore nipples. This is from the same hormone shift that occurs during early pregnancy, as mamas that have tandem nursed during pregnancy can understand. Be gentle with yourself and your baby during this short stretch of time. Treat yourself to Nipple Salve and a good bra (or go without, whichever is more comfortable!) until the soreness passes in a day or two.
How Breastfeeding Affects Menstruation
Breastfeeding has a much more pronounced effect on menstruation than the other way around. Some mamas with closely spaced children might go years without seeing a menstrual cycle thanks to the powerful relationship between these processes.
This relationship is so profound, in fact, that it can actually serve as a means of pregnancy prevention in the first six months after birth. From a La Leche League discussion:
The biggest effect of breastfeeding on menstrual cycles is seen in women who practice what is known as "ecological breastfeeding." As explained by Sheila Kippley in Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing, the seven tenets of ecological breastfeeding are:
- Exclusive breastfeeding (no other liquid or solid from any other source enters the infant's mouth) for the first six months of life.
- Comfort your baby at the breast.
- Don't use bottles and pacifiers.
- Share sleep with your baby for night feedings.
- Share sleep with your baby for daily nap feedings.
- Nurse frequently day and night and avoid schedules.
- Avoid any practice that restricts nursing or separates you from your baby.
Of course, these are excellent tips for a long, successful nursing relationship anyway, but that kind of close, biologically normal breastfeeding practice may delay the return of menstruation by anywhere from several months to a year or more after birth in some women.
The return of your menstrual cycle does not mean that you aren’t breastfeeding properly, of course -- as with anything, there is a wide range of normal. But it does mean that you are potentially fertile. It’s also possible to ovulate while breastfeeding and become pregnant again without ever seeing a menstrual period.
Improving Menstruation and Breastfeeding
Comfort and self-care are important in all stages of life, but especially in these stages that can be so physically taxing. While menstruating and breastfeeding, remember that your body needs to replace the nutrition it’s releasing. Calcium/magnesium, iron, and herbs that boost milk supply are all helpful for optimal health and milk production.
Some self-care items that can improve menstruation and breastfeeding:
- Nursing Nectar tea for breastfeeding support
- Woman's Balance Tea for stress relief and hormonal support
- Nipple Salve
- Cloth menstrual pads or reusable cups
- Cycle Relief tincture for painful period cramps
- Nutritious foods, especially dark leafy greens
- Good hydration
- A “mommy stash” of high quality chocolates or other preferred treats
- Time to yourself for a Soothing Herb Bath, meditation, exercise, or something that will recharge your body and mind.