Cervical mucus is the key to using and understanding the fertility awareness method. Without cervical mucus you can’t get pregnant (naturally). Cervical mucus is what keeps the sperm alive long enough to fertilize the egg, and without it sperm pretty much die on contact. Many women have seen or felt it before. On those days when you feel really wet and there is that creamy white stuff on your underwear. As a teenage girl I had no idea what that stuff was. I just thought it was gross and started wearing panty liners (and kept wearing them until I learned about the lovely chemicals and bleach that they are treated with).
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to observe changes in your cervical mucus if you are using the pill or any other form of hormonal birth control, but once you go off it can be pretty enlightening.
I’m a bit of a science nerd. I love learning how things work, and when I discovered the fertility awareness method I was pretty amazed. The fertility awareness method is a bit complicated to learn at first, but at the same time, it’s remarkably simple. I was amazed that these changes could be going on in my body every month without my knowledge. Once you get the hang of making the observations it is hard to imagine not knowing what’s going on from day to day with your fertility.
What it boils down to is that women are only fertile for a few days each cycle. The rest of the time it is actually impossible to get pregnant. That’s right…impossible. It’s been proven scientifically, so for the science nerds like me, you can read about it in more depth here and here.
For the majority of the cycle the vagina has an acidic pH level that kills sperm, the opening of the cervix closes and changes position to prevent sperm from entering the uterus, and in addition to that, a mucus plug forms in the opening of the cervix that acts as a barrier to sperm. The mucus plug is made up of a type of cervical mucus referred to as “G” type mucus (gestagen-ic). G mucus acts like a tight mesh that the sperm can’t actually swim through. G mucus also has an acidic pH level that sperm can’t survive in. You won’t see this happening because in a healthy cycle these will be your “dry days”; days without any observable cervical mucus. These are the days when your body is a sperm killing machine!
So for the majority of the cycle, women’s bodies are actively killing sperm. Sperm dies within a few hours because of a) the acidic pH level in the vagina kills them off, b) they can’t swim through the mucus plug in the cervix so they can’t enter the uterus, and c) the mucus plug is acidic too so it also kills them off. Not to mention that ovulation only happens once during the cycle during a 12-24 hr period, so there is no egg for the sperm to fertilize for most of the cycle either.
Vaginas are pretty awesome I must say. Our lady parts are amazing!
With all that said, during the fertile window there is a different type of cervical mucus present referred to as “E” type mucus (estrogenic), and it has pretty much the opposite qualities when compared to the G type mucus. First of all, you can see it. Cervical mucus is produced in the cervix and when it is there it has nowhere to go but down. That means that when cervical mucus is present you will be able to observe it. But making accurate observations involves getting into the habit of checking for mucus regularly. Second, cervical mucus provides the ideal environment for sperm to thrive. It has a sperm friendly pH, and as a result, it changes the pH level of the vagina during the fertile window so that sperm can live long enough to fertilize the egg. Cervical mucus nourishes sperm and keeps them alive for up to 5 or 6 days.
Since the egg only lives for 12-24 hours, in order for us ladies to be able to make babies cervical mucus is needed to extend the fertile window long enough for pregnancy to be possible. Cervical mucus provides a second home for sperm and helps them travel through the cervix and into the fallopian tubes where conception takes place. Cervical mucus is produced as estrogen levels rise before ovulation takes place so that ideally the sperm is already in the fallopian tubes hanging out at the time of ovulation.
Lets break it down: a couple has great sex (yay!). Sperm are released into the vagina. She is fertile, so her cervix is open and producing cervical mucus. This changes the pH of her vagina from acidic to alkaline so her vagina is now sperm friendly. The sperm are kept alive and nourished by cervical mucus, and they swim through the cervix and uterus into the fallopian tubes. This journey can take a day or two and when they reach the fallopian tubes they are waiting for the egg to drop (ovulation). Once the egg drops they all go straight for the egg. Sperm have a special enzyme that weakens and breaks down the cell wall of the egg. Finally at the moment of conception one of the sperm makes it through the barrier and into the egg. This causes a chemical reaction that prevents any other sperm from entering.
Yay for conception! The important point here is that none of this would have happened with out the cervical mucus.
This is why the key to using the fertility awareness method is knowing how to identify the fertile window. Since a woman can only get pregnant during her fertile window if you know how to tell when that is then you can use that information to inform your choices around sex during that time, whether that involves using barrier methods, avoiding sex altogether, having alternate sex practices that don’t involve intercourse or having sex on those days when you’re trying for a baby. Whatever it is, this knowledge gives you those choices.
Most women will want this information at some point in their lives, so why can’t we all have access to this information from a young age? In my perfect world, every girl would be taught this information before her first period. It is simple biology. I learned about my ears and my eyes so why not my female reproductive organs? It’s really a basic bio, and it’s completely ridiculous that this basic information is not ever taught to both men and women. Doctors aren’t even taught this stuff in significant depth. I also have this crazy notion that if more women knew about fertility awareness, and that it can be used as birth control effectively since it’s based on science, that more women would choose to use it for that purpose.
Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever observed your cervical mucus? Can you pinpoint your fertile window? Join the conversation in the comments below!