Without having regular menstrual cycles, it’s easy to feel like your body’s gone rogue. While it’s normal (and expected) to experience the lack of a period after giving birth, I was feeling anxious about its continued absence at 20 months postpartum. The sheer amount of pregnancy tests that I took in the last year is laughable. Even though I was aware that the hormones responsible for producing breast milk suppress ovulation, I also knew that I hadn’t exclusively nursed my son since his first birthday. Like any rational person, I looked to the internet to see what is considered “normal” and tried to find stories from other mothers. I quickly discovered that there wasn’t much information on the return of menstrual cycles when breastfeeding a toddler, especially as far into my postpartum journey as I was. Most everything seemed geared towards women with babies under a year old and/or those that weren’t breastfeeding. The only information that I held onto was from my OB/GYN telling me that they would feel comfortable intervening about 3-4 months after weaning. Did that mean fully or partial weaning? Could I still feed at night? At the time, I really didn’t know. Now, looking back, I think I was putting too much pressure on myself. All that to say, I don’t know how common my experience is in having my first period after birth at just over 21 months postpartum, but it’s still my experience nonetheless.
Before I get into my story, let me just state that I am by no means an expert on motherhood, women’s health, or anything of the sort. I just like to discuss the topics that people don’t always talk about!
For some quick background on why I was focused on my cycle:
In my early twenties, I failed my body. College was emotionally hard for me, and in my weakness, I stumbled into both restrictive eating and overexercising. Basically, instead of consuming calories, counting calories consumed my life. The weight practically fell off of me, and I didn’t realize how much of an impact it had on my overall health until my menstrual cycle never returned after getting off of the pill. After years of learning and growth, I restored both my body and my mind, culminating with the biggest blessing of all- my baby boy. That said, getting pregnant with my son was a journey in and of itself, and I wasn’t confident that I would naturally be able to ovulate on my own postpartum. I was anxious to learn if my body could overcome the hardship I put it through. For more information, here are my Operation Period Blogs (post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4) .
Now back to the story:
When my son turned one, I began incorporating solid food more substantially into his diet and offering meals. Initially, he didn’t eat much more than a nibble, and solids truly became his main source of food when he was around 16-18 months old. The shift in his eating habits was a result of a slow and steady weaning process (see here for a detailed timeline of our weaning journey).
Every so often at this point, I would have days where I would feel exceptionally tired and have what felt like hormonal acne. My mom encouraged me to make note of how and when I felt “off”, no matter how insignificant the “symptoms” may be. It was these times when I broke into my stash of cheap pregnancy tests that I got off of Amazon just to confirm that I wasn’t pregnant. I am incredibly glad that I took her advice, because I noticed that there was in fact a pattern to my “off” days. About every 2 weeks I would have a day where I felt weird, which may not seem like a big deal, but I got to thinking that it could be in line with the start and middle of a potential, dare I say, cycle. I got excited about the prospect of my hormones kicking back on, so again on my mom’s recommendation, I started tracking my basal body temperature with a specialized thermometer that measures temperature to the hundredths place. I tend to take the optimism of a new year seriously, so on January 1, I started tracking my temperature first thing in the morning. I haven’t missed a day since.
I thought that I may find evidence to support the belief that my hormones were starting to rev up, but I was humbled by the sporadic up and down nature of my chart. The “ideal” chart of someone with a healthy cycle would reveal relatively low temperatures in the first half of a cycle and steadily higher temperatures over a personal “baseline” post-ovulation, ultimately dropping back down to do it all over again. Mine had not a single cyclical pattern in sight, and it was impossible to determine a baseline.
Fast forward to about 2.5 months into our weaning journey. All of the sudden the chart started looking less like a zigzag and more like a wave. I wouldn’t have gotten excited so quickly solely based on the chart, but there were other physical changes that, paired with the chart, made me believe that my cycle was right around the corner. At least I hoped so, as otherwise I would’ve started worrying that something else was wrong.
First, I got a cold sore, which is something I hadn’t dealt with in a while. I tend to get them when my body is working hard behind the scenes, dampening my immune system: I had the cold sores of all cold sores when I was pregnant. Second, and I don’t want to go into too much detail so as to not fully embarrass myself, but let’s just say that what once was dry was dry no more. A couple of days after that started, I noticed that my stomach felt unusual, and while I wasn’t completely nauseous, I didn’t really have an appetite. My trending temperature was in the back of my mind, but I was starting to wonder if I hadn’t just eaten something that bothered me. That was until a day later when I realized that my breasts felt tender, and I was aware of them when holding my son. By this point, I hadn’t nursed him for almost 2 weeks, and I hadn’t leaked or needed to wear a nursing pad probably since before he turned one (the better part of a year). So when I leaked through my bra and onto my shirt, I knew for sure something was brewing hormonally and causing all of these changes. Sure enough, the day after having tender breasts and leaking, the little rascal Aunt Flo herself graced me with her presence.
In hindsight, I’m really glad that I was tracking my temperature, as I would’ve been caught completely off guard otherwise. It’s times like these when I’m thankful for my past self and how I documented both the way my body felt over time and the weaning process. What are the odds that my period would start 3 months almost to the day we began slowly cutting out daytime breastfeeding, February 21- May 22. In case you are unaware, 3 months is fairly standard for hormonal balancing,
“Any changes to our body’s systems typically takes up to three months. This is the time for our hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) axis, which is the communication from brain to ovaries, to recalibrate”https://perelelhealth.com/blogs/news/what-happens-to-your-hormones-when-you-stop-breastfeeding.
Maybe that’s my body trying to tell me that I need to trust it more and to work on my patience, as I don’t know if I could honestly say that I did either of those things well. The amount of energy I spent worrying if it would ever come back naturally without medical intervention is staggering. Deep down I think I desired to know if I would always deal with the physical consequences of how I treated my body in my early twenties or if that would always haunt me. That fear kept me from truly moving on from my past struggles with restrictive eating, and now I feel like I can take a deep breath. I am not my past self; my body has overcome it, and thus so can my mind.
Less than a month has passed since my period first returned, so I have no idea what the future holds in terms of regularity; however, I am filled with such gratitude for my body and its resilience that I don’t care if things don’t immediately return to picture-perfect 28 day cycles. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted my story written any other way if it meant that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to nurse my son as long as I did. You would think that I would know by now that patience is a virtue and that life tends to make more sense looking back than in the moment, but hey, that’s what learning and growing is all about.
If you are stumbling upon this blog while doing research to see if someone else has the same “postpartum period experience” as you, then here are a few tips and encouragements that I have.
1. Track the way your body is feeling no matter how insignificant you think the differences may be.
- I made a guesstimate of where I was at in my cycle before ever tracking my temperature, and I ended up being surprisingly close. This was solely based on when I felt extra tired or had particularly bad skin for a day or two. Identifying even the smallest things that made me feel “off” helped me understand my body more than I ever had before.
2. Track your basal body temperature.
- Often called natural family planning, tracking your basal body temperature can give you a clue as to where you are in your menstrual cycle based on the body’s natural fluctuations in temperature.
- It’s important to take your temperature first thing in the morning before your feet touch the floor, and ideally, it’s best to take it at the same time each day.
- I personally use this thermometer, and you can track on paper or with an app.
3. Try to eliminate as much stress as you can from your body.
- Move your body in a way that feels natural rather than forced. For me, this meant working out in a more gentle way via Pilates and at-home workouts.
- Fuel your body with healthy fats and enough energy for it to spend on hormonal balancing.
- Embrace relaxation and the little things like reading a book, taking a candle-lit bath, or listening to a podcast.
4. Do your best not to compare your journey with anyone else’s.
- Every time I saw another person announce a second pregnancy, especially if their first kid was younger than mine, a pang of jealousy surged through me. At the end of the day though, every person’s story is different, and I wish I hadn’t let that get in the way of my own happiness at times.
Until next time,