In cultures where breastfeeding is the primary mode of nourishment during a child’s first 3 to 4 years, conception takes place every 20 to 30 months. Children suckle on demand, suckle for comfort, suckle throughout the night, and spend their days in close proximity to their mother. Mothers work, but they tie their babies to their back or, at the very least, allow them to play feet away.
What these women practice is called ecological breastfeeding, the seven tenets of which are the following:
1) exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months
2) allow baby to suckle for comfort as well as nourishment
3) no bottles or pacifiers
4) sleep with baby for night feedings
5) take a nap with baby
6) nurse frequently and avoid feeding schedules
7) avoid any practice that separates mom and baby
When women follow all of the tenets, not just the ones they happen to like, they hold ovulation at bay. Two to four years pass between the births of their children. Oh, there’s the odd exception. (As my friend Kristen says, “We live in a fallen world, and our fertility is fallen too. There are women who want babies who can’t have them, and women who can’t stop having babies no matter what they do.”) But, the vast majority of the time, if you follow all seven of the rules, you won’t be having a baby every year.
Here in the US, most women’s fertility returns within six months postpartum. Even among breastfeeding mothers, fertility has usually returned by the end of a baby’s first year. Why? Sometimes because we schedule our nursing sessions, or fill our kids with solids, or expect our kids to sleep in their own beds, or nudge our babies to independence from the moment we lay them in the hospital isolette or pop in that pacifier.
Am I saying that these things are necessarily wrong? That breaking any of the seven tenets of ecological breastfeeding makes one a bad mother? If so, I’m guilty. In his early months, my son liked a pacifier now and then. I don’t regret giving it. And lately Peter’s decided that the church nursery is tolerable. I’m enjoying it. As for my taking an afternoon nap with him, you can forget it. I like having that mid-day “break” to get stuff done.
But I will say this: when ecological breastfeeding is not practiced in all its fullness, I can’t expect lactational amenorrhea. This leaves me three choices:
1) Practice some sort of birth control (from the barrier methods to hormonal ones to fertility awareness).
2) Change my mothering practices so that I do fulfill the seven tenets.
3) Accept the possibility of children close in age, letting nature take its course.
What's it gonna be?