Ecological breastfeeding is gaining in popularity as women are seeking to regain traditional methods of childbearing and child rearing. Aside from its modern-day name, this instinctual method of breastfeeding has been put into use for thousands of years.
In addition to the psychological and physical benefits to both mother and baby, ecological breastfeeding is used as a means of natural family planning. By preventing menstruation, ecological breastfeeding helps space babies apart naturally without the dangers of prescription drugs like birth control pills that have spiritual implications as well.
In fact, it is even mentioned in Scripture for the purpose of child-spacing:
After Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she again became pregnant and gave birth to a second son.
Other benefits of ecological breastfeeding include:
1. Giving adequate time for mom's body to regain lost nutrients from pregnancy and store them up again before becoming pregnant. This is very important especially today as many women are suffering from permanent/chronic health issues after pregnancies, including postpartum depression, thyroid problems, and even cancer, as a result of the depletion of nutrients from pregnancy in a nutrient-depleted dietary world. Read my article on Maternal Depletion and what moms need to know about that here.
2. Allowing more individual time with each child in their early years;
3. Preventing burnout!
4. Giving baby many more health benefits of extended breastfeeding!
5. Ensuring that subsequent babies receive the same nutritional benefits of a nutrient-dense prenatal diet.
What Is It?
According to Wikipedia:
Lactational amenorrhea is the natural postnatal infertility that occurs when a woman is amenorrheic (without a menstrual cycle) and fully breastfeeding. If not combined with chemicals or devices, Lactational amenorrhea method (LAM) may be considered natural family planning.
LAM is a less-strict version of ecological breastfeeding, wherein it includes 4 of the 7 components of ecological breastfeeding. These extra components make ecological breastfeeding much more successful for delaying menstruation and subsequent pregnancies.
The practice of ecological breastfeeding is not complicated, but it does involve throwing out everything society tells you about caring for an infant (and a toddler!). Today in America, this practice is used collaboratively to ensure amenorrhea (absence of menstruation). In order to be effective, the following feeding guidelines must be followed:
1. Exclusive Breastfeeding For At Least Six Months. Allowing the baby to increase mom’s milk supply by sometimes constant nursing during growth spurts is necessary for this to work. Supplementing a demanding baby’s diet with formula will begin a gradual decline in breastmilk production and thus signal amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) to end.
2. Pacify Baby With Breasts. Allowing baby to be pacified and fall asleep while nursing is an essential component to this practice. This is a difficult one. Most moms are so busy today that it’s impossible to allow baby to be pacified at mother’s breast. If it is not practiced, however, a mother can become pregnant again much sooner no matter how “busy” she already is!
3. Don’t Use Bottles Or Pacifiers. Another difficult one. However, the extra sucking that should be taking place at the breast instead of on a pacifier is what helps the mother remain in amenorrhea. (Some mothers, including myself, have successfully used a pacifier on occasion and continued to prevent menstruation. But because it is very habit-forming, it can be shaky ground to tread.)
4. Co-Sleeping with Baby. Yes, this means the Family Bed. For thousands of years, babies have slept safely and soundly next to their mother’s warm breast. Many cultures around the world still adhere to this practice and are found to remain in amenorrhea. Research demonstrates that babies who sleep next to their mother’s awake more often for nighttime feedings. This can also mean that they do not sleep through the night for the first year or so. While many moms immediately think of this as a curse, a mother can either lose sleep over a little one for longer or over many of them right in a row. This practice allows us and the baby with more bonding and cuddle time before another family member is born.
5. Nap Time With Baby. Cuddling with baby and nursing him to sleep during the day is another essential piece of this custom. A nap will basically tell your body that you currently do not have the energy needed to care for another young one yet.
6. Nurse Frequently and Avoid Nursing Schedules. This one's a no-brainer, because scheduled nursing is obviously rooted in American culture! It is perfectly natural for babies to nurse even constantly (every hour or more) during some stages of their growth. My little one even uses it as pain relief for teething and just for general comfort.
7. Avoid Mother/Baby Separation. Baby goes everywhere with mom--another easy one to see how it can be tainted by our culture. The physical contact between mom and baby maintains a constant release of hormones that keeps milk supply up and mom's menstruation away. The best way I’ve discovered to do this is to make use of a traditional-style baby carrier, such as a Maya Wrap sling or Moby Wrap.
Abiding by these guidelines, I have experienced amenorrhea for 22 months and counting with baby number 5. (Update--cycle resumed at 28 months when we night-weaned and got pregnant with #6 at 31 months postpartum! Imagine--only 2 monthly menstrual cycle in 6 YEARS!) With baby number 4, I did not follow all of these guidelines even though baby was exclusively breastfed and my cycle resumed before the first year.
Studies have shown ecological breastfeeding has a 1% failure rate in the first six months postpartum, and a 6% failure rate before the woman’s first postpartum menstruation.
Average return of menses for women following all seven criteria is 14 months after childbirth, with some reports being as soon as 2 months while others are as late as 42 months.
Why It Doesn't Always Work
Much to the detriment of many moms, these trends seem to be changing. Failure rates of ecological breastfeeding are increasing and many moms are wondering why, after following these guidelines, their cycle is returning so quickly.
To answer that, I first encourage moms to go back and re-read those guidelines. In my experience, I have been able to find one or two of those criteria that moms who resume their cycle quickly are not actually following. Does baby go with a babysitter? Is baby allowed to nurse whenever he wants?
One of the reasons I am still in amenorrhea with my youngest being 22 months old is because I still allow him to co-sleep and nurse at nighttime. I also allow him to nurse for comfort when he falls and gets hurt or just wants to cuddle. Sometimes, moms also push solid foods on their baby too soon which signals the weaning process in mom's milk production. Any drop in calories derived from breastmilk is considered "weaning" which can trigger the onset of menstruation. (However, I will note that with babies #5 and #6, introducing solid foods (which I did not do at 6 months like is commonplace but waited closer to one year for their digestive systems to be more equipped to handle foods) did not cause the onset of menstrual cycles for me because I allowed them to still nurse frequently, including at night.)
That said, there definitely are mothers who are faithfully abiding by these principles and it's not working. The second thing to evaluate is whether mom has an excess level of estrogens. Estrogen overload is a common and increasing problem in American women. This is a VERY common health issue today. In 6 years of being a holistic nutritional counselor, I estimate that approximately 90% of my clients suffer from this form of hormone imbalance.
There are many reasons for this, but first I will list a few of the many symptoms associated with estrogen dominance:
1. Heavy menstrual cycles, PMS symptoms, breast tenderness, mood swings, etc.
2. Fibroids, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, spotting, irregular cycles
3. Nutrient deficiencies
5. Thyroid imbalances
6. Menopause and related symptoms
7. Infrequent bowels
Estrogen dominance is increasingly common. Even women not displaying those symptoms can be in the beginning phases of estrogen dominance. How does estrogen dominance happen? Here are a few ways:
1. Low fiber
Let's face it--Americans' diets are void of dietary fiber. Numerous diseases and illnesses, from appendicitis to cancer, is caused or exacerbated by lack of dietary fiber. All plant foods contain either soluble or insoluble fiber. But since most Americans eat refined grains (with the fiber removed) and minimal fresh fruits and vegetables, dietary fiber is largely absent. How does this affect estrogen levels?
A low-fiber diet causes estrogen levels to be higher, while a diet high in fiber results in decreased estrogen levels in the bloodstream. Why? Excess estrogen is excreted in the bowel. When stool remains in the bowel for a longer time, as in constipation, the estrogen is reabsorbed. Studies have shown that women on a high-fiber diet have lower levels of circulating estrogen. Lower levels of estrogen mean less estrogen stimulation of breast tissue, for example, which reduces the risk of breast cancer.” http://www.drhoffman.com/page.cfm/183
If you are not having at least one bowel movement each day, any estrogen that needs to be eliminated is being reabsorbed back into your system.
We live in an estrogenic or feminizing environment. "Xenoestrogens", such as PCBs, phthalates, pesticides and DDT, cause estrogenic effects. Although banned in 1972, DDT, like its breakdown product DDE, is a xenoestrogen which is still present in the environment. Chlorine and hormone residues in meats and dairy products can also have estrogenic effects. Dr. Hoffman (article linked above)
Let's face it--some of these chemicals, like those found in plastic, are difficult to get away from. Fortunately, the most threatening ones are easier to get away from. The synthetic hormones and other chemicals in store-bought milk, cheese, and other dairy products play a very large role in estrogen dominance.
Interestingly, many of the symptoms listed above are also the same health problems attributed to soy consumption. Contrary to popular belief, soy is not a health food. From Dr. Mercola:
Soy is loaded with the isoflavones genistein and daidzein. Isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen, which is a plant compound resembling human estrogen. These compounds mimic and sometimes block the hormone estrogen, and have been found to have adverse effects on various human tissues. Soy phytoestrogens are known to disrupt endocrine function, may cause infertility, and may promote breast cancer in women.
Drinking even two glasses of soymilk daily for one month provides enough of these compounds to alter your menstrual cycle. Although the FDA regulates estrogen-containing products, no warnings exist on soy.
Even without eating tofu or drinking soy milk, most Americans are eating soy every day without even knowing it. Soybean oil is the most commonly used oil in packaged foods including crackers, chips, breads, soups, salad dressings, and many more food products. And I guarantee you that if you are not actively avoiding foods with soybean oil, you are consuming more than you think! Head over to your pantry and read the list of ingredients to see how many contain soybean oil! Don't forget to count restaurant foods which ALL have soybean oil.
Some other things that contribute to hormone imbalance include:
- Poor liver function
- Stress (which uses the hormones that would normally go towards making progesterone and uses them instead to make stress hormones)
These are the main factors contributing to estrogen dominance, which can prevent ecological breastfeeding from being effective. In order to ensure that EB works, it's important to do the following:
1. Eat whole, fresh foods in their natural state
This includes fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, and for some people beans, legumes, nuts, etc. Doing this will ensure that you are getting adequate fiber intake and eliminating excess estrogen through the bowels. And if you buy the organic choices of these products as much as possible, you will also limit your exposure to chemical xenoestrogens as discussed above. In my experience as a nutrition counselor, it is rare for me to see a food log that includes adequate vegetable intake which is crucial for helping move bowels. Even those on WAPF or Paleo diets often do not have adequate vegetable intake.
2. Eliminate dairy and meat products produced from animals treated with synthetic growth hormones.
Look for labels on milk, yogurt, cheese, sour cream, beef and beef products, etc. that specifically state "Produced from cows not treated with hormones." Some of the names for these hormones include rBGH and rBST. If it is organic, then it will also be produced without those synthetic hormones.
3. Eliminate all sources of unfermented soy.
This includes soy milk, tofu, soybean oil, soy protein, etc. Read the Ingredients labels on all of your food. You may be surprised how often it shows up.
4. Maintain a healthy weight.
Excess body fat results in conservation of estrogen. If you are overweight and take the steps listed above, excess body fat may still cause estrogen dominance. Of course, it would be best to achieve a healthy weight before pregnancy.
Another way soy in foods and other unhealthy diet habits manifest themselves, especially in women, is in problems with the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. This gland becomes very taxed during pregnancy and if mother doesn't receive enough nutrients for it, it can result in a condition called postpartum thyroiditis.
Symptoms of postpartum thyroiditis include hair loss, depression, and decreased breastmilk production. While it may not be the exact reason for ecological breastfeeding working out, a low supply of breastmilk can prevent moms from continuing to breastfeed and thus deserves mentioning.
There are various ways to treat/prevent postpartum thyroiditis, as well as to help restore hormone balance. Finally, sometimes I believe that it is just sometimes God's plan to bless us more frequently with children! When that is the case, I hope we can all depend on His strength and thank Him for the beautiful blessings He gives us!