When Natasha McCormick went to the doctor to check on some unusual symptoms she’d been having, she was shocked to find out she was pregnant. “When the test came back positive, my husband and I were speechless,” says the now mom of five from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, Ont. “We believed the old wives’ tale that I couldn’t get pregnant while breastfeeding.” At the time, her six-month-old son was still exclusively nursing—and she wasn’t sure how her new pregnancy would affect that.
Many new parents worry about how pregnancy and breast- or chestfeeding might work together. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about breastfeeding while pregnant.
Some people believe that continuing to breastfeed when you’re pregnant can increase the risk of miscarriage or preterm labour. This is a myth, says Halifax midwife CJ Blennerhassett, stemming from the fact that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, the same hormone that helps create contractions during labour. But there’s no legitimate evidence this can be harmful. “Studies have shown the uterus isn’t as responsive or sensitive to oxytocin until the final weeks of a normal pregnancy,” says Anita Arora, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant based in Oakville, Ont. Just like having sex doesn’t put your unborn baby at risk (except in unusual circumstances), neither does continuing to nurse your older child.
When your baby latches on to feed, and throughout the feed, you might notice your nipples feel more tender than usual, says Arora. You may also produce less breastmilk than you did before you conceived, and around the fourth or fifth month, you’ll begin producing colostrum, a milk that is thicker and different in taste than mature breastmilk. “Your child may become fussy when they notice the shift,” says Arora.
In most cases, there’s no reason to wean solely because of a pregnancy. “As long as parent and baby are coping with the changes a growing uterus brings, and want to keep feeding, they can and should,” says Blennerhassett. Still, it’s important to consider your individual situation, such as how old your nursing child is. Because McCormick’s son was so young, he was still fully dependent on her breastmilk for nutrition. “If your child is under a year and still nursing for their primary food source, consult a healthcare provider to be sure your child’s needs are being met,” says Arora.
With the support of their family doctor, McCormick’s son continued to thrive at the breast. “He didn’t slow down his feeds at all and was a super chubby baby through the whole pregnancy,” she says. She did experience morning sickness, though, which is another important factor to consider when making the decision to continue nursing or not. It’s important to get enough fluids, calories and rest when you’re pregnant, so keep your doctor or midwife informed if you are still breastfeeding and are experiencing morning sickness. Be aware that even if you decide to continue nursing, your baby might have a different plan. Some nurslings will self-wean if they aren’t thrilled with the changes in quantity and the consistency of your milk.
If you’re just not feeling it anymore, let the guilt go and wean. “For some who are breast- or chestfeeding, a new pregnancy can feel like the right time to wean or reduce nursing,” says Blennerhassett. “It’s a relationship between two people and both get to have boundaries.” Arora says shifting from nursing to cuddling can help to maintain the attachment and one-on-one time, although you might find it difficult. “Feeling sad about weaning, even when you choose to, is OK and normal,” she says.
If you continue to breastfeed your child throughout your pregnancy, you’ll have the opportunity to try tandem nursing after the birth. Not only can nursing your older child maintain closeness, but it’s also a great way to sit and rest when you have an active baby or need to reset a tantruming toddler. Tandem nursing can also help to minimize engorgement and increase your supply, and research shows that as long your child continues to nurse, the nutritional and immune-boosting benefits of breastmilk keep working their magic.
McCormick, for one, is happy with her decision to breastfeed her baby throughout her pregnancy: “I’m so glad I didn’t have to give up that special bond with my son.”