You Asked: Is my body ready to have another baby?
Pregnancy is a beautiful process—but it’s also an exhausting one. Simply holding your newborn in your arms, though, is enough to stir thoughts of repeating it again. Unsurprisingly, many new parents are bombarded with questions like: ‘When are you going to continue your family?’, or, ‘Should we expect another bun in the oven soon?’ With that in mind, when is a woman’s body ready for a second pregnancy?
“New mothers should try to allow at least 12 months, from the time of the first child’s birth, before getting pregnant again,” said Robin Page, Ph.D., a certified nurse midwife and director of nursing education at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing in Round Rock. “This time frame ensures the body has enough time to recover from the rigors of pregnancy.”
The ins and outs of closely-spaced pregnancies
While 12 months is used as a rule of thumb, it’s not set in stone. Other factors like the risk for pregnancy complications, nutritional status and a woman’s general health status will influence her timeline. “A physician may recommend a longer wait depending on these variables,” Page said. “It’s a very personal decision for both a woman and her partner.”
Page explained many pregnancies will happen before the 12-month interval is up. “The reality is many women will become pregnant again before this optimal time frame. When this occurs, mothers need to understand the importance of nutrition—for both their bodies and their babies—especially if they are breastfeeding,” she said.
Breastfeeding places a large demand on a woman because the amount of milk production needed to sustain a newborn is so high. According to Page, the body is performing double duty when it tries to maintain a new pregnancy and breastfeed a child. “This will deplete nutritional stores, making it harder to preserve nutrients for a developing baby and nourish a newborn,” she said. “If a woman is breastfeeding, her physician may recommend waiting even longer (than 12 months) before trying for another child.”
In fact, it can be difficult for a breastfeeding mother to become pregnant again, because high levels of pregnancy hormones remain in the body, suppressing her menstrual cycle and ovulation—perhaps nature’s protection against putting this double-demand and stress on the body.
Nevertheless, it’s not a perfect system, and a second pregnancy can still happen while breastfeeding. “Often, the first clue pointing to pregnancy is a missed period,” Page said. “If you’ve had a baby in the past several months and are breastfeeding, your periods may not be back yet. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant again.”
Since there is a direct correlation between folic acid deficiency and neural tube defects, folic acid is one of the most important supplements a woman needs during pregnancy. The neural tube of the embryo forms early on in pregnancy—at about three to four weeks—a crucial time when folic acid is essential for spinal development.
“Because breastfeeding suppresses a woman’s period, she may not realize she is pregnant until she’s 10 to 12 weeks into the second pregnancy,” Page said. “By that time, she’s missed the important window for the embryo’s neural tube development. This is another reason why closely-spaced pregnancies can be a risk.”
New moms’ bodies are also forced to endure late nights and fragmented sleep after their first child is born. Page noted adequate sleep should be considered when thinking about adding another family member into the mix. “Sleep deprivation dramatically affects the body,” she said. “If a woman is still experiencing disrupted sleep, it will take a toll on her energy level, regulation of hormones, weight and moods.”
The biological clock is ticking
Age isn’t just another number—especially when it comes to a second pregnancy. Since fertility decreases with age, it can pose as a barrier to some women who choose to start their families later in life.
“Biologically, our prime child-bearing years occur in our early 20s. With so many women delaying pregnancy into their late 30s, and even early 40s, age has become an issue,” Page said. “With increasing age, women are at risk for other conditions and complications during pregnancy such as diabetes and hypertension. Thirty-five is also the age when risk elevates for certain genetic birth defects.”
Page explained society’s trend toward delaying pregnancy presents unique struggles for women. “Many women feel this urgency to finish their families before they reach what we call advanced maternal age (35 and over), which can result in closely-spaced pregnancies,” she said. “In the same vein, if you’re nearing 40 when you have your second child, you’ll be in your 50s at the peak of your children’s activities and busyness.”
Put your coffee mug down?
So, what if you’ve waited the recommended 12 months and begin to experience fertility troubles when trying for a second baby? Page said caffeine intake may be the culprit. “Some studies show caffeine can have a negative effect on fertility and contribute to pregnancy loss,” she said. “Although, many of the results are still unclear.”
She stressed women who are attempting to conceive, or who are early in their pregnancy, should avoid caffeine altogether or decrease the amount they consume. Most experts state consuming fewer than 200 mg of caffeine (one 12-ounce cup of coffee) a day during pregnancy is safe, and it’s important to know that caffeine is found in more than just coffee.
“Women should be mindful of foods like chocolate and black and green teas—all of which contain caffeine,” she said. “While most women’s health practices suggest you can still enjoy caffeine in moderation, it’s important to always talk with your health care provider about any issues you may be experiencing before or during pregnancy.”
To thine own self be true
Parenthood is an exciting time, but, many new parents can feel pressured by well-meaning enthusiasm from friends and family curious about ‘what’s next’ for them. Page offered this advice to couples who may be feeling overwhelmed. “I suggest responding to such queries with statements like: ‘We are getting to know our newest family member and are learning to navigate the roles of parenthood. At this time, we aren’t ready to introduce a new family member so soon,’” she said.