Monday, July 28, 2014

Spacing Children Without NFP


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)





This article was originally published on this blog in July of 2012.

28 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I used a schedule for my first three babies, and the method of teaching them to sleep on their own, fall asleep on their own, etc. By the time we had our third one, I was much more relaxed. There was something about knowing just how short the "baby time" was that made me hold her more, nurse her more, etc. I think that with each child, I will be more and more lenient. I am scared to use breastfeeding alone as a method of spacing; perhaps one day I will take that next step of faith. I appreciate your article and the info here!

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  2. I wish that had worked for me. I co-slept, nursed on demand day and night. For some reason, my fertility came back between 2 and 5 months for all 3 of my kids. So unfair. :)

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  3. Katie- It was also true for me that the awareness of the shortness of that baby time really started to hit home after my third. I relaxed and was just so much more open to allowing the unrestricted nursing and cuddle time. I resented the hours of holding time more as a younger mother and find that my thoughts are much more present to the babies now. It is a great blessing. I agree that having children in general is frightening! I don't deny my own fear. I have the advantage of having the experience of this method right from the beginning. My sister-in-law has had a similar experience and so we can talk to each other about it. Thanks for the comment and God bless!

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  4. Kate-Our bodies are so sensitive and unique! There won't be any two women who have an identical experience of these things. I'm not here to shove any method at anyone... only to encourage. I read your blog and know that you are a wonderful and devoted mother. Isn't it beautiful that God made us all so different and yet united within the same vocation? God bless you!

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  5. Do you think you would have considered NFP if you hadn't experienced such a nice spacing with just ecological breastfeeding? Some women do have a quicker return to fertility while practicing ecological breastfeeding. I have ecological breastfed twins and tandum nursed a toddler and newborn and still haven't come close to your length of amenorrhea.:)

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  6. Hi anonymous -
    The point of the post was not to set up one method in opposition to any other but simply to encourage and educate about this one. I think nfp is wonderful and I would have no issue dusting off our books if we discern the need. I did also fail to mention that we had more space between two because of miscarriage. I know many women who share your experience and also some who have longer absence than I. It is an individual process of knowing our bodies and discerning with our husbands. God bless your love for your babies!

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  7. Great post! This didn't work for us because our daughter started sleeping through the night at 6 weeks (in the bed with us) so we couldn't rely on breastfeeding for spacing. We were hoping to have about 6 months of infertility, but I can't say I complained about the extra sleep!

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  8. Sleeping through the night at 6 weeks sounds lovely, Mandi! We have had heavy sleepers but I confess that I do wake infants up if they sleep too long... especially if it means they aren't napping as much during the day. :)

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    1. So funny, I just read this and came to comment and realized I already read and commented on this previously. Lucia couldn't be woken and she still napped a lot so...we just got a sleepy baby? My fertility didn't return until 11 months anyway. Looking back, I'm sad that we wanted to postpone another pregnancy at all. Lucia will be three in December and we still don't have another one on the way (though we have lost two babies in the last year due to miscarriages) and I would prefer two (or even three!) little ones "too close together" right now than only one.

      How blessed you are to have never needed NFP! I wish we could go that route now but unfortunately the miscarriages brought to light some health issues that need to be monitored with NFP to make sure I give the next babies a better chance at survival. I dream about throwing out my charts!!!

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  9. Though we've mostly ecologically breastfed, my return to fertility is about 10 months. So, we are really thankful for NFP and all those charts to help us (except for this last time which we chalked up to God's plan trumping ours) space ours out a wee bit more. I find it very interesting to hear every woman's stories and just how really wonderful God's plan is!

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  10. Thanks for the post, it was really good. I've also noticed that I'm more "present" with this baby than I was with my oldest two. I've become a more relaxed mom with the younger ones, which is nice. I'm so aware of how fast these stages fly by!

    This also reminded me why I still attend La Leche League meetings even though I've been nursing five babies over a 12 year time span. It's so nice to be in the company of other moms, most of who also ecologically breastfeed as well. The support is invaluable, and for me it's nice to just take the youngest nursling and focus on him for the evening.

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  11. This was a good post! My husband and I have done a few things slightly differently in consideration of my family's particular needs and desires so far, but I am happy for you that you have found a way of living and raising the little ones especially that works so beautifully for you and your family!

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  12. Hope- God's plan is indeed wonderful! Not easy though...lol! I have been afraid with every pregnancy and birth. I think I would enjoy my motherhood significantly more if I would finally trust Him to take care of it all. :)

    Amy- It sounds like you have a wonderful support community. I do remember attending a LL meeting as a young mom and feeling so happy that I could nurse without worrying about anything.

    Erin- I think the differences in family styles are beautiful! It is a blessing to be able to appreciate differences in the details and still fully embrace how God is calling us specifically to love our children. :)

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  13. I just recently stumbled upon your blog and have been thoroughly enjoying it ever since. Women, such as yourself, who are living out their vocation as wife and mother, are truly a beautiful example of the genius of God. I found this post especially interesting and inspiring, it's almost like God knows what He's doing or something ;) God bless you and your family!

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  14. I read Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing before I had my first baby. I was already planning on mothering in a very similar way, I decided to just go for it and follow all the "rules". I have really enjoyed mothering in this way with a total surrender to my vocation. I did not, however experience the extended periods of infertility that I was expecting to experience. When I started to see signs of returning fertility, my first baby was only about 5 months old. I started my first period a month later and it made me feel like I had done something wrong. I have never had more than about 5 months without fertility signs (and impending return of ovulation) except when I was tandem nursing my first and second and I had about 11 months instead of 5-6 months. I have since come to realize that just because I don't experience infertility as long as many others, there is nothing wrong with how I am nursing or mothering. I just am not blessed in this way. I have also met several other mothers who follow ecological breastfeeding and have also experienced early return of fertility. I am glad that we have had NFP because I have had some serious health issues and c-sections that have made it prudent for me to have my children spaced more than the 13 to 15 months that I would have gotten naturally.

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  15. Welcome Carolyn! I do think that God must know a thing or two about this. :)

    Mary - I love the way you talk about a total surrender to vocation! I know that I would choose this lifestyle even if my fertility returned right away. It is so much more about the beauty of the relationship than the "perks" for mama! Thanks for your comment!

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  16. We've done pretty much everything you mentioned, but God must have other plans for our family. Our first two are 11 months apart, our next two are 18 months apart, our next two are 14 months apart, and are next two will be 13 months apart. I just tell people God has called us to a large family...very quickly! Our oldest is 4 and our youngest baby is 5 months, with another baby due in July. I feel blessed that God has called us to this.

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    1. God knows best! Thank you for your faithfulness and openness to life... he will bless that great love so abundantly!

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  17. I know this post is old but I just ran across it. I bought this book after we conceived our second child just 6 months after giving birth to our first. We are fairly recent converts and never learned much about NFP. A friend told me about this book. So far it's wonderful. Our two children are 15 months apart. The youngest is still nursing very frequently at 10 months old and isn't even interested in solids yet. It can be inconvenient when other mom's don't want you to bring your baby along but I feel like it's a more natural mothering style and worth the sacrifice. Thank you for this post. I think a lot of mothers aren't aware that they can use breastfeeding for child spacing.

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    1. I was encouraged by your comment to repost! Thank you! I think you are right that many mothers simply aren't aware. Even if they do not choose this way of life, it is a good thing to understand the beauty and functions of our bodies. God bless!

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  18. Thank you for this post. We have used natural child spacing as well as nfp. I must say, I enjoy the first a heck of a lot more. It is so much better to cuddle, co-sleep, and nurse on demand than chart. Although we have had to chart also because of medical issues. My baby is turning one on Thursday, it went by too quickly. It isn't easy nursing on demand, homeschooling, etc, but it is such a short time. My little one is starting to not nurse as much and so I have started unofficially charting. It is driving me crazy, but I can't force him to nurse more. Anyway, thanks for posting. I enjoyed it!

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    1. My baby just turned one last week and yes, it does go by WAY too quickly! Even the older kids are wishing it would slow down a bit. The blink of an eye. *sigh* I always experience a sense of loss when weening from nursing and into big kid beds happens. But the older kids come with big joys, too. :) Thanks for commenting and God bless!

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  19. Enjoyed this post as well. My kids are all around two years apart. Currently nursing my 17 month old with no return of fertility yet. She still nurses several times through the night and sleeps with me, so it could be a while before we have another one. And I'm fine with that because it's all in God's timing!

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    1. That's a long time! I have noticed increased spacing as I get older. This must be because of hormonal changes. I am curious to see what happens with this one (she just turned a year). We have been very blessed. :)

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  20. This has been our experience too, demand feed, co-sleep, and no dummies, fertility returns usually around the 13mth mark. Though I have friends whose experience is return of fertility anywhere from 6weeks on.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Erin! God bless!

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  21. Wow...we have similar stories. 4 girls, 3 boys, fertility return about 14 months or so, 2 years spacing (one to the exact day!), co-sleeping, breastfeeding on demand...amazing. We also had one miscarriage and did use NFP for very brief times twice in our marriage after our fifth. It was very hard for me actually, but my husband insisted and was struggling with keeping sane. Thankfully, he is open to life, and the wait to let God decide was very short. I'm very grateful for this gift of natural child-spacing. Thank you for promoting it!

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  22. This is my experience too - I have to night wean for fertility to return. I just night weaned our 20 month old last week. :) My husband wants to avoid conception this month, and I was just complaining about how hard it is to abstain when you are used to being able to "come together" whenever you want. :) I am so thankful that God made our bodies this way! It really is pretty awesome.

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