Women who practice fertility awareness methods are discounted or even mocked and teased for their personal choice of contraception. If you’re practicing one of these methods, your impending pregnancy is usually a commonly heard remark or the punchline to a joke made at your expense. This response might be understandable in some respects, but it’s actually horribly offensive. First, it implies that a woman is too stupid to know her own body, and second, it implies that many pregnancies as a result of fertility awareness methods are conceived by accident.
There’s a margin for error with any birth control method, but used effectively, options like the fertility awareness method have over a 99% rate of success. Much of the confusion around “natural family planning” in general stems from misrepresentation or misunderstanding – but before we dive in, know first and foremost that yes, you can prevent pregnancy naturally. Here’s how to do it.
Take Sex Seriously
Before you even begin investigating fertility awareness methods, there’s an essential component that has to be recognized. Most of us would agree that sex is the most wonderful and amazing way to be truly intimate with someone, but unless you’re mature enough to realize what it actually means, you’re probably unprepared to deal with potential ramifications.
First of all, who is the person you’re having sex with? Ideally, it’s your husband and not a chronic one-night stand that is in your way of discovering other, more meaningful relationships. Secondly, what would you do if you did unexpectedly become pregnant or even contracted a sexually transmitted infection? Do you plan to spend your life with this person and eventually have a family with them, or is it purely casual? How does the other person feel about birth control, and have you discussed it with him? Take sex seriously, and take your relationship seriously. People generally don't think about these things until they have to, and that’s where we feel we somehow become victims of naturally occurring biological processes.
Know What It Is and What It Isn’t
Fertility awareness methods are often advertised (and thereby discouraged) as the rhythm method, but they aren’t. The rhythm method historically means tracking your cycle only using a calendar, but realistically, periods and ovulation can often jump around from cycle to cycle, making sole reliance on this ineffective and inaccurate. Fertility awareness methods are actually a collection of different methods under one umbrella, which use several factors to determine and establish a fertile period for the purpose of either avoiding or achieving pregnancy.
Track Your Biomarkers for At Least a Few Months
Something crucial to know is that you should only start using a fertility awareness method purely for contraceptive purposes if you understand the method and your body clearly, you’ve been doing it for at least a few months, you can identify clear and stable patterns, and you have your habits down pat. It can take a few weeks to build even simple routines and habits, and with your fertility awareness method, consistency is absolutely essential to its efficacy. Most fertility awareness experts recommend waiting a minimum of a few months – building up your skills and practicing observations – before getting straight to using it to avoid pregnancy. This helps you determine your timeline, find your preferred method of cycle tracking, and have enough data to look at to notice patterns and key fertility markers.
Monitor Your Cervical Mucus
Known as the Billings Ovulation Method or the Creighton Model, you can use fertility awareness to prevent pregnancy by monitoring changes in your cervical mucus. Your cervical mucus changes throughout your cycle according to the rise and fall of your hormones. When you ovulate, the cervical mucus presents as a clear, stretchy, often sticky fluid similar to egg whites that can easily be observed when you wipe after going to the bathroom, or noticed through quick self-examination. If you’re not producing any cervical mucus at all or are completely dry, you’re not fertile, and if your cervical mucus is cloudy, yellowish, or thick, you might be getting ready to ovulate or have just ovulated, depending on when the wet, slippery consistency was noticed.
We know a few concrete things which help us track our cervical mucus for our advantage: A woman typically ovulates on day 11, 12, 13, or 14 of her cycle, though that day varies according to the woman. A released egg lives only 24 hours, but sperm can survive in the uterus for up to six days, making pregnancy a possibility even on the days before and after you’ve ovulated. The cervical mucus method helps you establish when you ovulate, and with months’ worth of data, you can see your body’s specific markers and patterns, and learn when to avoid sex.
Take Your Basal Body Temperature Daily
A basal body thermometer measures your body’s temperature to the hundredth degree. Taking your basal body temperature (BBT) every morning when you wake up – first thing, before you even go to the bathroom – and charting it helps you notice when ovulation is most likely to occur.
The body’s temperature naturally elevates after ovulation due to the production of progesterone that begins immediately after ovulation, and stays at an increased level until your progesterone drops right before your period. Noting daily temperatures for a few cycles can help you confirm when ovulation has happened, and once you have the data to back it up, you can use your pattern to predict when ovulation will happen.
Use Urine Tests
Another fertility awareness method, known as the Marquette Method, tracks estrogen and luteinizing hormone levels using at-home urine test strips and a machine. This method is simple in that you only test once a day, first thing in the morning, and then you don’t have to think about it for the rest of the day. You would test your first morning urine with a disposable test stick, which is inserted into a Clearblue Fertility Monitor. The machine will measure your hormones for five minutes, and then report your fertility status for the day as low, high, or peak. You would record your result in your chart, and that’s it for the day! Over time, you will see your pattern of “peak” fertility, which corresponds to your ovulatory window.
In addition to using the machine to track your fertile window, you can add cervical mucus and basal body temperature observations, and even urinary progesterone tests, for more information.
Find Your Favorite Way To Track
You can use several means to keep all of this information together. Many apps help you monitor your BBT and the presence of cervical mucus, but you can also use a daily planner or notebook to keep track. Either way works, but it should be noted that some apps use your data to predict when ovulation happens for you, which might not always be accurate and shouldn’t be solely relied upon.
Once you’ve confirmed when you’ve ovulated or can predict with confidence when you’re going to ovulate, you can really put your fertility awareness method to use. Armed with the knowledge you have about your body, you can have unprotected sex outside your fertile window without chance of conception, and abstain from sex during your fertile days.
What If I’m Irregular?
A common (and valid) criticism when it comes to fertility awareness methods is that it doesn't work for all women, especially if you have irregular cycles. But the truth is, this method is indeed for every woman. Unlike other birth control methods, it isn’t as simple as taking a pill or getting an IUD or implant put in your body. Fertility awareness methods may be hormone-free and widely accessible, but they’re also high stakes – they require much more of you, but the rewards are more gratifying too.
Most fertility awareness method experts and providers recommend getting set up with an instructor, many of whom are active on social media and available to meet virtually with clients. A certified or licensed instructor can help you learn the method, identify your patterns, and address specific issues within the method, especially if you have an irregular cycle.
Additionally, if you’re experiencing symptoms like weight gain, hair loss, acne, painful periods, low libido, and ovarian cysts, to name a few, you could have a hormonal imbalance – and hormonal birth control will only mask your symptoms rather than treat them. If that’s the case, you might benefit from seeing a naturopathic doctor or endocrinologist to address your concerns, in addition to building up your cycle data and learning more about your body through a fertility awareness method.
Fertility awareness is effective, accessible, and perhaps best of all, side effect free. No more mood swings, depression, weight fluctuation, or low libido – you can learn a birth control method that’s right for you, and in the process, you might grow to appreciate all the small ways your body serves you each and every day.
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