So you decided to start charting your menstrual cycles! Congrats! It’s a big step.
Deciding to come off the pill in favor of learning the fertility awareness method can be terrifying. It was hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that I wasn’t fertile all the time, but once I started charting my cycles I gained a much better perspective of what was happening down there. After at least 10 years of keeping track of my fertile signs it is a habit that I don’t even think about that much anymore. It’s just part of what I do now. I have used the fertility awareness method for birth control (in combination with barrier methods and withdrawal) and I used it when I was trying to conceive, and it’s much easier than you think once you start paying attention.
I started charting my cycles before smartphones and cool apps, so when I started I used homemade excel spreadsheets that were inspired by the charts in Toni Wechler’s Taking Charge of your Fertility. I now use the Kindara app to chart my fertile signs, and I love it. I can customize the settings to my liking and I can turn off the ‘fertility predictor’ settings. I definitely don’t rely on an app to tell me when I’m fertile but I use it to record all of my observations from day to day.
Remember to rely on what you see today – not what you saw last month!
The key to using the fertility awareness method effectively whether you want to try for pregnancy or avoid pregnancy is focusing on what you actually observe. In spite of all the ovulation calculation predictor apps and website calendars, the fertility awareness method is based on day to day observations. Instead of using predictor tools to guess what days will be fertile fertility awareness involves using daily observations to determine fertility each day of the cycle.
Ditching the whole prediction idea is hard especially when there is so much information that has programmed women everywhere to think all of our cycles should follow a typical 28 day cycle pattern where ovulation happens on day 14. The key to using fertility awareness is learning to observe and make note of the fertile signs you observe each day. This takes out the guess work and reliance on prediction and lets you live in the now based on what is actually happening in your body on any given day.
The 3 main fertile signs to observe are cervical mucus, basal body temperature, and cervical position
1. Cervical Mucus
The key to understanding your cervical mucus pattern is to get into the habit of checking for cervical mucus every day. It sounds like a big time commitment, but one way to make it easier is to check whenever your pants are down! When you go to the bathroom your pants are down anyways, so may as well make the most of it. When I first started charting I used to check internally but I found it to be confusing because there was always some degree of dampness in the vagina and I found it difficult to determine whether or not I was observing cervical mucus or not.
What’s the best way to check?
- Use a piece of toilet paper folded flat as your observation tool
- Gently wipe from front to back making sure the toilet paper passes over your perineum. Do this whenever your pants are down! Once before you pee or poo and once after (after you pay dry).
- When you wipe pay attention to the sensation you feel as you wipe across the perineum. Is the sensation dry, smooth, or slippery?
- Look at the paper. What do you see? Is there any cervical mucus present? If so, is it creamy like lotion, is it clear like egg whites? Is the paper dry? Is it shiny? Is there enough for you to pick up and examine between your fingers?
- If there is cervical mucus present touch it and pick it up if you can. How much is there? If it is creamy is there any stretch? If it is egg white texture how far can you stretch it between your fingers?
What are some of the different types of cervical mucus you may observe?
- Dry – in a healthy cycle there are several days when no cervical mucus is present.
- Creamy – cervical mucus may have a lotion-like texture and color
- Egg white – there may be lots or a little, the cervical mucus is clear and stretchy like egg whites
- Wet – the cervical mucus may have such a high water content that it is very wet and you can’t even pick it up. You’ll observe a slippery sensation when you wipe from back to front!
All cervical mucus is fertile, so if you observe cervical mucus you are fertile on that day plus 3 days after.
Putting it all together
When trying to conceive you may want to make the distinction between peak cervical mucus (egg white and stretchy) and non-peak mucus (creamy/pasty), because having sex when peak cervical mucus is present will optimize your changes of conception. When trying for a baby you want to have sex on the days you see the egg white, wet, slippery, peak cervical mucus, as well as the days you observe ANY cervical mucus at all, but the emphasis is on the days with peak quality cervical mucus.
When trying to avoid pregnancy it is important to remember that all days that you observe cervical mucus are fertile days, AND the three days following the last day you observed cervical mucus are also considered fertile. During the fertile days a barrier method can be used, or you can engage in creative alternative sex practices (i.e. oral sex) that do not involve semen coming into contact with the vulva/vagina, or a couple can abstain during those days. Whatever works.
The important takeaway is ALL CERVICAL MUCUS IS FERTILE! If you see cervical mucus, then you are fertile that day + 3 days after. Sperm can live in the body for 3-5 days when cervical mucus is present.
In a healthy cycle you may observe a cervical mucus pattern that begins with menstruation, followed by dry days, then you may notice a progression from sticky/pasty to creamy, then egg white, then dry until menstruation happens again. After getting into the habit of observing cervical mucus for a few cycles it gets easier to differentiate between the different types!
2. Basal Body Temperature
Checking basal body temperature is one of the best ways to confirm that ovulation has taken place. The basal body temperature is a measure of the body’s metabolism. Once ovulation has occurred, the surge in progesterone causes a rise in metabolism that results in a measurable shift in temperature following ovulation.
What’s the best way to check?
- First you’ll need a basal body thermometer that takes your temperature to the 10th of a degree (i.e. 37.6 C)
- Check your temperature first thing in the morning before you get out of bed
- Try to check your temperature around the same time each day
- Take your temperature before you have a shower, get a drink of water or brush your teeth
- Note any differences in time the temperature is taken or sleep disturbances on your chart/app
- If you get less than 5 hours of sleep your temperature is not considered to be accurate – make a note of it
- The temperature shift should correspond with the other fertile signs you are observing
- Ovulation is confirmed by a sustained thermal shift at least 2/10ths of a degree higher than the highest temperature
- If the temperatures remain high for 3 consecutive days that is an indication that ovulation has occurred.
Putting it all together
Basal body temperature (BBT) monitoring is often associated with the ability to predict ovulation, but the point of measuring BBT is to confirm when ovulation happened not to predict it. Observing your thermal shift is important because it is an accurate way to confirm that ovulation has occurred.
When trying to conceive, measuring BBT is extremely useful as a tool to determine if you are pregnant. The luteal phase (post-ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle) is consistent usually lasting 12-14 days followed by a period when conception has not happened. The general rule of thumb is that if you are measuring temperature and you record 18 consecutive temperatures after the initial thermal shift you are pregnant! But with that said, if you are trying to conceive don’t wait until the temperature goes up to have sex! If you do that you’re actually missing the window! By the time the temperature has gone up it is an indication that you have already ovulated. Stick to watching for cervical mucus to help you figure out when to have sex.
When avoiding pregnancy, measuring BBT is helpful to confirm that ovulation has happened. Since pregnancy is impossible after ovulation has happened measuring BBT is helpful to identify when the infertile phase of the cycle has started.
3. Cervical Position
Also called the cephalad shift the cervix changes in the shape, position, and feel (soft or firm) throughout the cycle. On day 1 of the menstrual cycle (first day of your period) the cervix is low and firm to the touch. The cervix remains low during the dry days following menstruation; however as the body prepares for ovulation the cervix begins to move upwards and becomes softer.
Before ovulation the cervix is soft, high, open and wet (SHOW) which often coincides with peak cervical mucus production. After ovulation, the cervix changes position to low, closed, and firm. The cervix feels firm to the touch, and the os (cervical opening) is closed during the post-ovulatory phase; it will feel similar to the end of your nose. During fertile times the cervix is high and very soft, similar to the feel of your lips. The os is open during these times and you may be able to feel that opening. It feels like a dimple when you touch your cervix.
What’s the best way to check?
- Checking the cervix means getting up close and personal with yourself!
- You can check your cervix while in the bathroom either sitting on the toilet or putting a leg up somewhere, or check while you’re in the shower
- Wash your hands, and insert your middle or index finger into your vagina and feel around for your cervix.
- Check at different times during your cycle and you will start to feel the cyclical changes.
- How does it feel is it firm or is it soft? If it is soft can you feel the opening (feels like a dimple)?
- Where is it located? Is it high up in the vagina or is it lower?
- Try squatting down to lower the position of your cervix if you’re having a hard time finding it
Putting it all together
Everyone who uses fertility awareness doesn’t necessarily check their cervix on a daily basis, however observing changes in the cervix is a great way to confirm what is happening if you are ever unsure of one of the other fertile signs. Checking and recording all 3 signs can help to make sense of what is happening by providing a complete picture of the cycle.
- When using the fertility awareness method the first step is to observe what you see each day, and use that information to determine if you are fertile or not
- Don’t rely on past charts or previous cycles to tell you when you are fertile because that is not an accurate measure of your fertility
- All cervical mucus is fertile. If you observe cervical mucus regardless of what type (peak or non-peak) you are fertile that day (plus 3 days afterwards)
- The sustained BBT shift confirms you that you have ovulated already!
- Changes in cervical position are a great way to confirm if you are fertile.
- FERTILE = peak and non-peak cervical mucus, cervix is soft, high, and open
- NOT-FERTILE = dry days with no cervical mucus (3 days after the last day cervical mucus was observed), cervix is low, firm and closed**
- Fertility awareness helps you to identify what is happening in your body, but it is up to you to decide what you do with that information!
Now I want to hear from you! Have you used the fertility awareness method? What are your charting tips? Please join the conversation in the comments below!