A fully biological process has been taking place in my body for more than a decade now. It typically occurs monthly, but every now and then the “forces that be” within my body take PTO and the process is skipped one or two months. I am not in control of this process at all. If I was, I’d likely only initiate it every couple of months, if not only as needed once a year to make sure it still worked.
Yes, I am referring to my menstrual cycle. For many years, I truly felt my cycle just happened to me. My role in the process was that of an unwilling participant. So, overwhelmed by the various birth control pills and devices on the market today, and searching for a solution with less “warnings”, I came upon fertility awareness-based methods for birth control.
Phone apps related to fertility awareness and tracking your cycle have been on the market for years, but I never paid major attention to them until I began seeing headlines such as “New fertility awareness app promoted as replacement for the pill” and “Get pregnant…or don’t! Fertility apps help with both”.
Intrigued, I set out to become more aware of the history and methodology of the fertility awareness-based methods used in many of these trending apps.
What is Fertility Awareness?
Fertility Awareness is a term used to describe methods that allow women to track and predict fertile periods during their cycle to determine when they are most likely to get pregnant — or not. These methods, also referred to as natural family planning or rhythm method, employ techniques ranging from maintaining a calendar of menstruating days to monitoring changes in body temperature and cervical mucus. None of the methods involve pills and the only device used across all methods is a thermometer to track body temperature.
In an article by the American Pregnancy Association, the objective of fertility awareness is “to become familiar with your menstrual cycle and to begin charting your fertility pattern”. The benefits and versatility of fertility awareness have increasingly compelled more and more women to try more natural family planning:
- Effective birth control when used correctly (about 90% rate of effectiveness)
- No cost to maintain
- No harmful side effects
- Functional for both those trying to conceive and those seeking to prevent pregnancy
There are some notable downsides to fertility awareness-based methods as well:
- Requires a period of abstinence or the use of a contraceptive
- Does not prevent against STDs
- Largely dependent on diligence to the practice
The pros and cons experienced vary based on the method used. The latest phone apps combine a mixture of methods to better control for user error. Some also utilize scientific patterns and formulas to provide greater predictability to users, though it’s important to understand that every woman’s body is different.
Despite the pros and cons, a 2009 study led by Stephen R. Pallone at the University of Iowa found that although 1 in 5 women were interested in using Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs) to prevent pregnancy, only 1% to 3% percent of women in the United States were actually using these methods at the time. This imbalance in interest as compared to actual use may be tied to requirements of the methods themselves — like constantly monitoring your cycle.
The Methods Behind the “Magic”
There are four primary fertility awareness-based methods that appear throughout the literature. One overview of the methods identifies them as (1) Calendar (Rhythm) Method, (2) Ovulation (Mucus) Method, (3) Basal Body Temperature Method (BBT), and (4) Sympto-Thermal Method.
One of the most widely used and easiest fertility awareness-based methods is the Calendar (Rhythm) Method. This method relies on recording the date of your menstrual cycle to better predict when future cycles will occur. Much research to date uses an average cycle length of 26 to 32 days long to best predict when your next cycle will begin.
The Ovulation (Mucus) Method is another frequently used fertility awareness method due to its ease of use, as well as additional biological indications on cycle status. In an overview of the process, the Mayo Clinic proposes that the Ovulation Method is a valid method for tracking fertility “…[because] cervical secretions change (before ovulation) — creating an environment that helps sperm travel through the cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes to the egg.” By frequently monitoring the amount, color, and consistency of your cervical secretions, you can better predict when you are fertile. Although an effective fertility awareness method, this method requires daily monitoring and, preferably, more formal training to increase its effectiveness. The Mayo Clinic lists the following as general guidelines for using the Ovulation (Mucus) Method:
- No noticeable cervical secretions for three to four days after your period ends
- Scanty, cloudy and sticky secretions for the next three to five days
- Abundant, clear and wet secretions for the next three to four days — the period before and during ovulation
- No noticeable cervical secretions for 11 to 14 days until your next period begins
The Basal Body Temperature Method (BBT) has received the most mention in articles and phone apps concerning fertility awareness. An overview of BBT on WebMD defines Basal Body Temperature as a person’s at-rest temperature. If taken at the same time daily, fluctuation in this temperature indicates shifts in hormone levels, letting you know when you are most and least likely to conceive.
The BabyCenter describes how to use the Basal Body Temperature Method in conjunction with the Ovulation (Mucus) Method to improve your potential to conceive. Because of the varied use of these methods, the same combination can also be used to increase your ability to prevent pregnancy!
The Sympto-Thermal Method utilizes the combination of the Basal Body Temperature and Ovulation (Mucus) methods as well as additional indicators of fertility such as cervical changes and breast tenderness. Phone apps like Clue, Ovia, and Kindara use variations of the Sympto-Thermal Method to improve the accuracy of their fertility algorithms.
Bedsider provides more details on Fertility Awareness Based Methods, their benefits, and limitations.
Chose the Best Method for You
Now, which method is best for you? Therein lies the critical question. As is the case with food, exercise, hygiene products, and other activities and items directly related to your well-being… it depends on your body and your preference.
After reviewing the fertility awareness methods described above and searching the app store for these ‘fertility aware’ apps, choose the method that works best for your lifestyle and provides the assurance you seek in a birth control method.
P.S. Don’t be frightened if the app or method boasts effectiveness for both birth control AND conception. Remember, fertility awareness methods provide solutions for both, so you can use the same method no matter what your fertility plan.
Omega Tennant is an avid learner, passionate traveler, vegan “macaroni and cheese”-ian, conference junky, and self-certified social anthropologist. Native born “Georgia peach”, Omega currently provides business and personal development services to clients around the world as founder and chief consultant of OmegaMind, LLC.
Photo Credit: Bratislav Milenkovic