Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Menstrual Limbo: Breastfeeding and Periods

As well as nourishing your infant and forming an unbreakable bond, breastfeeding also does a very important job as a natural contraceptive. In order to prevent a woman from getting pregnant whilst caring for her very young offspring, nursing actually delays ovulation until the child is older and taking less breastmilk, or sometimes until they are taking none at all.

Once your initial post-natal bleeding stops, you sail through the month; almost forgetting that periods exist. Sex isn't particularly high on the agenda anyway, but it's reassuring to know that the chances of falling pregnant by accident are relatively low. All in all, the period free life is quite peachy. 

Or so you'd think.

What is actually happening is that I am an adult, sexually active woman whose period is failing to arrive every month. The fact that women ovulate around two weeks before their periods means that this could be happening at any time and I would be completely unaware of the fact. Should intercourse coincide with that happening, it doesn't take a genius to work out what the result will be. The effect of this knowledge coupled with an ever absent period? I think that I'm pregnant after every sexual encounter my husband and I have. It doesn't even need to be penetrative; if there's been sperm involved, I assume that some of it has found its way into my fallopian tubes. And hey, we all know I'm fertile. 

You're probably wondering why I don't just take a contraceptive and eradicate this risk, and that would be a very valid point. Except that I did, at first. I began using a breastfeeding-friendly progesterone only 'mini-pill', but I hate hormonal contraceptives - side-effects, anyone? - and we weren't having sex that often anyway, so I stopped. Also, it turned out that being on the pill made absolutely no difference to my almost constant assumption that I was pregnant. A period that completely fails to arrive will trump any rational knowledge that you probably aren't up the duff. I've done more pregnancy tests since having Blake than I ever did when trying for him.

The other problem is that your menstrual cycle could kick it at absolutely any time. How on Earth are you supposed to be prepared for that? I've got a couple of dusty tampons kicking around my bathroom from last March, but I have been a little loathe to stock up on expensive sanitary essentials 'just in case'. My period could arrive next week, but it could also decide to hang fire for another six months; I literally have no idea. Many of my breastfeeding friends began to get theirs as their babies started to take more solids, but there are plenty of nursing mums feeling a bit cheated because Aunt Flo arrived just six weeks after giving birth. 

Once you get to my age (early twenties... ahem), periods are generally quite easy to predict. Unless you're unlucky, the arrival of your monthly visitor can be predicted to almost the exact day. I do not have such a luxury; what if it happens when I'm out and have no immediate access to a toilet or clean pants? Even if your cycle is a little irregular, you can usually sense an impending period by the way that your body feels, but I can't even do that. The hormonal effects of breastfeeding mean that my body is always up to some weird shit that I can't explain, and I'm not entirely sure I can remember what a period really feels like.

I live in the reassuring knowledge that my husband has always been able to sense the oncoming menstrual storm long before I'm even aware of its approach. As soon as I hear the familiar words "What is your problem lately?!", I'll know that something evil this way comes...

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