Can we really prevent pregnancy naturally? Yep. Fertility Awareness is a form of natural birth control that allows us to detect day-to-day changes in our body to help us determine our fertility levels — no hormones required.
I’ve been interested in women’s health and reproduction for as long as I can remember. Growing up though I had little idea about how my menstrual cycle worked, what fertility entailed, or that there were other options for preventing pregnancy (and reducing my painful cramps) besides the birth control pill that I took for about two years when I was a teenager.
I decided firmly to come off the pill when I was about 17 and when I was in my early twenties I began learning more about my cycle and how to track it with Fertility Awareness.
I believe strongly in the importance of proper sex education and that’s what this post is all about: to educate you on ways that we can understand our cycle and bodies better. However, I’m not suggesting that you stop doing what you’re doing. Choosing a birth control method is a very personal choice, all have advantages and disadvantages, and there are many factors at play.
Practicing Fertility Awareness requires diligence, consistency, and a thoroughness in detecting bodily signs and not everybody is willing to put in the effort needed. Do what’s right for you, because only you know yourself best. If you’re interested in more info about hormonal birth control, check out my blog post where I talk all about what you need to know about the birth control pill.
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What Is Fertility Awareness?
Fertility Awareness is the practice of detecting day-to-day physiological changes in our body to help us to determine when we’re fertile or not. Fertility Awareness involves multiple methods combined to prevent (or plan for) pregnancy. This is not the same as the rhythm method which I’ll talk more about later on in this post.
To understand how we can follow Fertility Awareness, and for general knowledge, let’s first go over the basics of a monthly cycle.
Understanding Your Cycle
A normal cycle lasts anywhere from 25-35 days, with a period that lasts between 3-7 days, and consists of 3 specific phases: follicular, ovulation, and luteal. These phases are controlled and orchestrated by a group of different hormones.
Follicular Phase: The first day of your period marks the start of the follicular phase. The dominant hormone is estrogen during this phase and it increases gradually over a number of days until ovulation occurs.
Ovulation: Immediately before ovulation, around the middle of our cycle, we experience an “LH surge” where luteinizing hormone increases. With estrogen also at its highest our uterine lining thickens and we begin producing tons of a specific kind of cervical mucus to assist sperm entry. More on that later!
During ovulation an egg is released into the Fallopian tube and carried away to be fertilized or to die.
An egg at this time is only viable for approximately 24 hours — yep, an egg can only be fertilized for about 1 day in an entire cycle. However, since sperm can survive in the vagina for about 5 days prior to ovulation, our “fertile window” can be around 7 days (typically about 25% of a normal cycle).
Luteal Phase: After an egg is released from the ovary, its follicle develops into the corpus luteum which produces increasing amounts of progesterone. Once the corpus luteum dies and progesterone production decreases, cells in the uterine lining slough off which begins day 1 of our cycle all over again.
Condoms / Barrier Methods
Before I get into the details of Fertility Awareness I want to emphasize the importance of barrier methods, such as condoms, when choosing hormonal-free (natural) birth control.
Because Fertility Awareness does not involve taking synthetic hormones to prevent ovulation, we experience our natural cycle with very fertile days and days when we’re a little uncertain, and using other forms of birth control are very important during those times. Condoms are what protect us against form STIs.
Fertility Awareness Methods
Alright, let’s dive into the main Fertility Awareness Methods that we can use. It’s important to remember that all of these methods should be used in conjunction with each other which is exactly what I do.
Basal Body Temperature (BBT):
Your basal body temperature is your body’s temperature at rest. Tracking this involves using a BBT thermometer to take your temperature immediately when you wake each morning before you get up or do anything else. Our basal body temperature fluctuates throughout our cycle due to hormonal changes that occur, and after you ovulate, there’s a specific small increase in temperature that helps us to determine ovulation.
I use the Daysy fertility tracker which is a comprehensive BBT thermometer. It logs your temperature for you each day by storing it in the device, along with the days of your period, and allows you to view the fluctuations when you connect it to the app. Each morning when I take my temperature it lights up either red, green, or yellow:
- Red indicates that you’re fertile and should abstain from sex or use another form of birth control (i.e. condoms)
- Green indicates that you’re not fertile.
- Yellow indicates fluctuations or that it’s still learning your cycle. It takes a few months for Daysy to understand your data, so you see a lot of yellow lights when you first begin using it.
Our cervical mucus is a particularly interesting visual tool that we can use to help us determine our level of fertility. I’ve tracked mine for many years and it’s become second-nature for me to take note of what type of fluid I’m producing on any given day.
Tracking your cervical mucus is as simple as noticing what’s on your underwear or what your fluid looks like when you wipe after going to the bathroom. It’s also helpful sometimes to physically feel it between your fingers.
The main types of cervical fluid to pay attention to are:
Egg White: this type of mucus is slippery, stretchy, translucent in colour and has the consistency of raw egg white. This mucus indicates our highest fertility levels and occurs a few days leading up to and the day of ovulation. This type of mucus allows sperm to travel much easier so if you see it, think pregnancy!
Creamy: this fluid is very smooth (similar to lotion) and may be thin or watery. It tends to occur in the days leading up to our most fertile days but when we’re not quite most fertile yet.
Sticky: this type is gummy, tacky and typically occurs during the second half of your cycle after ovulation occurs or in the days following your period. It’s not hospitable to sperm and generally indicates low fertility levels.
Dry: “dry days” occur when there’s little to no mucus production. This can occur after ovulation, right before your period, and right after your period and indicates very low fertility.
The position of our cervix (the opening of our uterus) changes angle throughout the month. When you’re fertile, your cervix becomes higher and softer and when you aren’t fertile, it’s firmer and lower. This can be felt with our fingers, but it can also be felt during intercourse and is experienced as different levels of comfort in certain positions throughout the month.
Calendar Method (Period Tracker)
For close to 6 years now I’ve been using an app called Clue where I input the days of my period each month and any symptoms I’d like to track (cramps, breast tenderness, mood swings, etc.) This has been an invaluable tool for me to have an understanding of how long my cycles are on average, the symptoms I experience and when, and my approximate fertile window.
This method is also known as the Rhythm Method that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I do not recommend using this method alone as it’s only an approximation of cycle data since there are many variables that influence our bodies (stress, illness, traveling). However, it’s still a fantastic way to understand our bodies better and it’s useful when used in conjunction with the other methods.
Check out these additional resources to learn more about natural birth control, Fertility Awareness and women’s health:
- Taking Charge of Your Fertility (book)
- Making Sense of Women’s Health (book)
- What You Need to Know About the Birth Control Pill
- Red Tent Sisters
- Daysy Fertility Tracker
- Clue App
If you follow Fertility Awareness or another form of birth control, let me know in the comments. I’d love for you to share your experience!