The average space between our children is a little over two years. This fact often inspires random strangers to comment about how nicely planned our family is. The "perfect" spacing they say. "Oh! Three boys and four girls! How Peeerfect! How did you manage that?" To which I reply...
Thank you very much for your enthusiasm. But I didn't have anything to do with it. God planned it all. Really.
And that's the full truth. I'm going to make an intimate confession here and reveal that we don't know a thing about NFP. Well, we know some things and own a bunch of books about it -- but it's been, oh, about 19 years since our class and since we haven't used it really at all, well, we've forgotten some things. (We are not anti-NFP. We simply haven't used it.)
But in those years we've also learned a lot about the nitty gritty of life-giving love and the physiology of fertility and motherhood. We were also given a gift when our oldest was several months old that became one of the greatest blessings of my motherhood. The book Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing is not just a technical how-to for postponing fertility through breastfeeding, but a way of life... of beautiful, natural, sacrificial love. It's less a manual for family planning and more an encouragement to surrender wholly to the vocation God has blessed us with.
There's no charting, no temp taking, no lengthy abstinence. But there is a reason that it is not a more popular method, and that is because it requires a total lifestyle commitment to breastfeeding on demand. Over the years, I have come to realize that this sacrificial way of life is actually one of the most beautiful and consoling aspects of my motherhood. God has allowed me the ability to perfectly nourish and nurture my youngest children... and the icing on the cake is that refreshing pause in fertility.
How does it work?
It's rather simple, actually. God designed the act of breastfeeding to suppress the hormones that cause a return to fertility. So, a lifestyle of nursing on demand very naturally allows some space. To maximize that space, certain basic "rules" need to be followed. As I said, this is not particularly restrictive for me because it has become a way of life. The blessings far outweigh the discomfort. But it is definitely more challenging in our "freedom" and gadget-loving culture which seeks constantly to separate mother and child and frowns upon lengthy nursing.
My average return to fertility is between 13 and 21 months postpartum and I generally nurse my children for two years. The following are the "rules" (I hate to even use that term) that we follow but it all boils down to frequency of nursing and physical contact with the baby.
~ Nothing but breastfeeding for the first six months of life.
Period. Barring any medical contraindications, nothing else is needed. Even during the hot Summer months when hydration is extra important, frequent nursing is sufficient.
~ No bottles or pacifiers
Mamas are designed to pacify and babies are designed with a strong need to be pacified. God created us that way and a plastic pacifier is a only weak substitute for His original design. Babies will nurse when they are hungry (which is designed to be frequent) but also because it comforts them, makes them happy, and reduces pain. (Incidentally, if you've never nursed a baby through a vaccination, insist on it next time. The baby will be happier and the staff astonished at how quiet your child is.)
We have briefly used pacifiers to calm screaming infants on car trips but have always considered it to be an emergency measure and not the norm for comforting a child. As they get older, our ecologically breastfed babies have all rejected the pacifier (much to my astonishment), even in the car.
~ Frequent night feeding/co-sleeping
Night feeding is a critical element in hormone suppression because estrogen levels tend to rise at night. If you follow the other elements of ecological breastfeeding but sleep apart from your baby at night, you will likely experience an earlier return to fertility. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, that getting out of bed 3 to 5 times per night is practically unsustainable.
I know the objections so I don't need to be lectured. There are many safe ways to be next to baby at night. It takes creativity and a little sacrifice but the balance for me has been overwhelmingly positive. I am a terrible sleeper so night feeding is a definitely a sacrifice . The upside is that I am able to remain in the comfort of my own bed and have the most beautiful bonding during the shortest developmental period of my child's life!
A note about safety: It is easy and intuitive to make a safe sleeping space that you can share with your child. Certain things do increase safety risk, such as morbid obesity and big blankets. I don't ever put a child next to my husband who sleeps extremely heavily. Common sense stuff that is certainly variable according to individual circumstances.
Sleeping close to my infants has actually allowed me to keep my children safer. In one case, I was able to save the life of my son thanks to my poor sleeping habits and close physical proximity. He was struggling to breathe. Completely silent. Nothing that would have been heard on a monitor. His small movements awakened me and as I admired my sleeping beauty, I became aware of his barely noticeable distress. Thanks be to God. In his own room, he would have quietly died. In my household, co-sleeping has reduced the incidents of SIDS.
~ Frequent holding/ allowing baby to fall asleep at the breast
I know. I know. Totally opposite to what grandma keeps telling you. I can't tell you how many times in life well-meaning maternally oriented people have told me to "put that baby down." All I gotta say is... No. My kids are all extremely social, confident people. And I "spoiled" them all rotten in my arms when they were babies. Holding a baby is not spoiling but rather meeting a strong, God-given need to be physically nurtured. Yes, they do get used to being held and rocked to sleep. Yes, they do eventually sleep fine on their own. This time is brief. Embracing these small sacrifices allows us to enjoy the incredible blessing of the moment.
~ No schedules.
This is hard for moms, particularly for those of us who have other children to care for, but breastfeeding is not designed to work with a schedule. Breast milk is quickly digested and babies needs are constantly, constantly changing. During periods of tremendous growth in infancy, there are days when a breastfeeding mother thinks that she does nothing but nurse, and it's almost literally true. Those are the days when mama has to figure out how to brush her teeth or make lunch with a crying baby in her arms. New mothers often lose confidence and feel like they are "not making enough milk" or that they have a particularly difficult baby. I have learned that ALL babies are "high need" and some just express it more loudly. It is challenging but the baby is only following God's design of supply and demand for nursing. They want to grow. They are not ready to be independent. It is a gift we give... and we can't give it well only on our terms. We must surrender.
A personal note about schedules: My firstborn had severe reflux as an infant, losing every single feeding all over me, the floor, the bed, whatever was in the way. He did this as a toddler and threw up almost all of his meals. As a baby, he nursed constantly, for nourishment and comfort, and I was exhausted all of the time. A well-meaning family friend gave me a book on how to structure the feeding of infants and, in desperation, I began to follow it, to the detriment of my malnourished and suffering son. He cried even more and was not thriving. A couple weeks into the experiment, another friend mailed me a copy of Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing. I read it in an afternoon, scooped up my baby boy, and didn't put him down for 3 years.
SACRIFICIAL!! It was hard. I nursed that boy 24/7. He'd spit up, I'd clean up, and nurse him again. He clung to me fiercely for three years but he grew in stature and love. And then, he let go. Today, he's preparing his college applications... and I have no regrets.
~ No restrictions.
Stay away from any practice that restricts nursing or keeps you away from your baby. Yes, for a brief window in his life, you will be your baby's everything. You will take him to adult functions (or stay home) and find super creative ways to spend time with your spouse. There will be times when you just want to run away and be free... there will be other times when you will find brief glimpses of the perfection of your vocation from the rocking chair in your living room.
In these "rules," I have, more or less, summed up the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing promoted by Sheila Kippley. Her original book changed my life. I do not live out attachment parenting exactly as she prescribes it but her words have challenged me to give more than I ever considered giving. I honestly have no regrets. I have had to make many sacrifices to live this way but it is a beautiful way to live.
For those of you who do not wish to live this lifestyle. I'm not judging you and I expect that there are preferences and exceptions and challenges that make your lifestyle different from mine. I am writing only to publicly share a largely unknown treasure for those who have never heard of it or who just need a little encouragement to explore it.
This method is not perfect by worldly standards because, by it's very nature, it requires flexibility and openness. There are many variables that cannot be perfectly controlled. Again, it is less of a method than a natural lifestyle. Before pacifiers, before bottles, before bouncy seats and swings... there were mamas arms. Thanks be to God for the gift of technology, especially for those with medical needs! But all things being equal, God's original design is perfect.
One final note: I have met many women over the years for whom this method does not work. They are often telling me this while their babies drink from a bottle or suck on a pacifier. Or it is revealed later that they have frequent babysitting or do not co-sleep or do not let the baby fall asleep at the breast. But there are also those women whose fertility returns in spite of all their efforts. Or who have personal reasons for not ecologically breastfeeding. I get that and honor it. Peace, sisters.
For more information on the nitty gritty of the amazing, God-gifted method of spacing babies naturally through breastfeeding, please refer to the following resources:
Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: The Ecology of Natural Mothering (Kippley)
Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood: God's Plan for You and Your Baby (Kippley)
The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor (Kippley)
The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing (PDF)