Many new moms who are breastfeeding wonder if pumping can delay the return of their menstrual cycle. For some women, getting their period back soon after giving birth can be frustrating, as it signals a return to fertility and the end of the postpartum hormonal benefits of breastfeeding. For others, the return of menstruation is a welcome sign that their bodies are getting back to normal after pregnancy and childbirth.
So does pumping breast milk actually delay your period? Here’s what you need to know.
What causes the return of your period while breastfeeding?
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the hormonal processes in your body are different than normal. The main hormone responsible for suppressing menstruation is prolactin, which rises during pregnancy to prepare your body for milk production and remains elevated as long as regular breastfeeding continues after birth. Estrogen and progesterone, the hormones that control your menstrual cycle, remain low as long as prolactin levels stay elevated.
Over time as you breastfeed less often or for shorter durations, your prolactin levels start to drop while estrogen and progesterone rise back to normal pre-pregnancy levels. This hormone shift triggers the return of your menstrual cycle and fertility.
Does pumping increase prolactin levels?
Pumping mimics the breast stimulation that occurs during nursing and tells your body to produce more milk. This stimulation causes a temporary surge in the prolactin hormone. However, it’s not entirely clear if regular pumping prolongs the duration of elevated prolactin levels enough to delay menstruation.
Some small studies have found that women who exclusively pumped breastmilk had higher average prolactin levels and delays in first postpartum menstruation compared to women who supplemented with formula or did not breastfeed. However, the studies relied on self-reported data, so the evidence is weak.
Are there differences between pumping and nursing?
Pumping and nursing both stimulate prolactin production. However, some differences exist between the two that can impact hormone levels:
- Nursing empties the breasts more thoroughly and provides fuller breast stimulation.
- Babies nurse more frequently than most mothers can pump.
- Nursing provides physical closeness and touch between mother and baby, which enhances bonding and oxytocin levels.
These factors can contribute to slightly higher prolactin levels from nursing around the clock compared to pumped breast milk feeds. But exclusively pumping still seems to prolong high prolactin secretion more than formula supplementation.
Other factors that influence the return of your period
While pumping may help prolong high prolactin levels marginally, many other factors play a bigger role in determining when your period will return after pregnancy:
- Breastfeeding frequency and exclusivity – The more often you breastfeed or pump, and the less formula or solid foods are introduced, the longer your period will be delayed.
- Infant sleep patterns – Longer stretches of sleep allow prolactin to dip, signaling a return to fertility.
- Birth control use – Certain contraceptive pills or devices like IUDs containing progesterone can override the suppressive effects of breastfeeding on ovulation.
- Individual variance – Each woman’s body regulates and responds to hormones differently, leading to a wide range of timeframes for first menstruation after birth.
While pumping can contribute to suppressing your cycle slightly longer, these other factors play a much bigger role. Exclusive and frequent pumping is no guarantee of significantly delaying your period’s return if you face other barriers like limited milk supply, solid food introduction, long infant sleep stretches at night, or using hormonal contraceptives.
How long does it take for your first postpartum period to return?
On average, the first postpartum menstruation occurs:
- By 6 weeks for mothers who do not breastfeed
- Within 6 months for mothers exclusively breastfeeding
- Within 3 months for mothers supplementing with formula or solids
However, there is wide individual variability based on the factors mentioned earlier. Some women resume regular cycles within weeks of giving birth while still breastfeeding, while others remain period-free for over a year despite minimal pumping. The onset also tends to be earlier with second or later pregnancies.
Can you get pregnant before your first postpartum period?
Yes, you can ovulate and get pregnant again before your period returns if you are producing milk. Your first postpartum ovulation happens about two weeks before your first menstruation. Tracking fertility signs like cervical mucus and using ovulation predictor kits can help detect your fertile window before getting your period back.
Breastfeeding delays ovulation but does not prevent it. You are fertile whenever ovulation happens, regardless of whether you’ve gotten your period back. So even if you are exclusively breastfeeding or pumping, you need contraception to prevent pregnancy in the postpartum period.
Tips for delaying your period while pumping
If your goal is to prolong your period’s return, here are some tips that may help if you are exclusively pumping:
- Pump frequently, at least every 2-3 hours through the day and night.
- Aim to empty your breasts thoroughly at each session.
- Use breast massage and compression while pumping to maximize drainage.
- Double pump if possible so you can simulate simultaneous nursing from both breasts.
- Maintain a high pumping output, around 25-35 oz per day.
- Avoid long pump-free intervals overnight.
- Limit or avoid pacifier use between pumping sessions.
- Hold off on introducing solid foods until 6 months postpartum if possible.
- Track your menstrual cycle return carefully by watching for fertility signs like cervical mucus.
- Use contraception even before getting your first postpartum period back.
While these tips may prolong high prolactin levels marginally, your individual response depends largely on factors outside your control. Some mothers are unable to suppress menstruation for long no matter how much they pump, while others skip cycles for over a year with minimal pumping.
The bottom line
Pumping breast milk provides stimulation to prolong elevated prolactin levels, which can delay the return of your period slightly. However, many other factors play a much bigger role in determining when your menstrual cycles resume after pregnancy.
The average first postpartum period returns anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, but wide individual variance is normal. You can get pregnant before your period returns if you ovulate, so use contraception even while exclusively pumping.
To maximize your chances of suppressing your period for a bit longer, aim to pump frequently with good output while limiting formula supplementation and pacifier use. But there are no guarantees, so be prepared for your cycle to return despite your best pumping efforts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does pumping increase your milk supply?
Yes, pumping is very effective at increasing breast milk supply when done consistently and correctly. It signals to your body to produce more milk. Frequent pumping – generally every 2-3 hours round the clock – for several days can induce lactogenesis and boost your supply if it is low or insufficient.
Is it OK to go 6 hours between pumping sessions overnight?
Most lactation experts recommend limiting the overnight pumping break to no more than 4-5 hours max. Longer stretches of 6 hours or more can negatively affect your supply by not emptying the breasts fully. Overnight is when prolactin levels fall, so frequent pumping is important to maintain levels.
Can you be fertile while breastfeeding without getting a period?
Yes, you can ovulate and be fertile without ever getting a postpartum period while breastfeeding. Your first ovulation precedes your first menstruation by about two weeks. Tracking cervical mucus and using ovulation predictor kits can help identify your fertile window before your period returns.
Do birth control pills affect milk supply when breastfeeding?
For some women, the combination birth control pill containing estrogen and progestin can lower breast milk production. These pills prevent the normal rise in prolactin levels needed for milk production. Progestin-only mini pills or implants are generally considered safe to use while breastfeeding without affecting supply.
Is it possible to go a year without a period while pumping?
It is possible but not extremely common. Women who exclusively pump with high frequency, empty their breasts thoroughly, have little infant solid food supplementation, maintain night pumping, and use no hormonal contraceptives can potentially suppress menstruation for a year or longer. But periods often return much earlier than a year despite diligent pumping efforts.
At what age can you stop pumping without affecting your period?
There is no specific age cutoff after which stopping pumping won’t impact your menstrual cycle return. The key factor is how much breast milk stimulation you still provide through continued pumping sessions. Gradual weaning from pumping over months is advisable to allow your body time to adjust the hormone shifts.
Pumping breast milk can help prolong high prolactin levels and delay your period slightly longer compared to not breastfeeding at all. However, many other factors play a much bigger role in determining when your menstrual cycles resume after giving birth. While diligent pumping may suppress menstruation for a bit longer, there is a wide normal range for when your period returns based on your individual hormonal response, infant behavior, birth control use and other considerations. Don’t rely on pumping alone to prevent early ovulation and fertility.