Learning to use the Fertility Awareness Method is kind of like learning a new language or learning to drive a car. It takes some time to get used to it. Not because it’s so difficult, but because to truly understand how it works you have to learn through the experience of doing it.
Can I start using it right away?
When you first discover fertility awareness, it’s probably the first time you’ve ever really seen your cervical mucus, let alone trying to figure out what type of mucus it is so you can write it on your chart. Before you start using the fertility awareness method for birth control you need to give yourself at least 2-3 full cycles to really get comfortable interpreting your fertile signs. It is recommended that you rely on a barrier method or another form of non-hormonal birth control until you’ve given yourself enough time to get comfortable charting and interpreting your fertile signs.
Is it effective?
The fertility awareness method is a highly effective and reliable form of birth control that is 99.6% effective when followed properly. Perfect use of the fertility awareness method involves abstaining from genital contact (i.e. sexual intercourse) during the fertile window. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use a different form of birth control (such as a barrier method like condoms, diaphragm, cervical cap or withdrawal) during your fertile days, but if you use a different birth control method on those days, you will be relying on the effectiveness of the method you choose. Some couples abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile days, but still, have fun and enjoy each other by having alternative sex without genital contact.
Why does it work?
The reason that the fertility awareness method works because it is physically impossible to get pregnant without an egg to fertilize and without cervical mucus to keep the sperm alive. Women can only get pregnant during their fertile period. The fertility awareness method allows you to identify your fertile days so you can avoid unprotected sexual contact on those days.
How do I know when I’m fertile?
All cervical mucus is fertile. Let me say that again for effect.
All cervical mucus is fertile!*
Whether you observe peak mucus (clear, stretchy, lubricative, wet) or non-peak (white, creamy ) all of it can keep sperm alive for 3-5 days, and that’s why it’s all fertile regardless of the type. Peak mucus is optimal for women who are trying to conceive and that is why it can be important to make the distinction, but any days you observe cervical mucus are fertile days.
Your fertile window typically begins shortly after your period ends. As estrogen levels rise you’ll start to notice cervical mucus. It often starts out white, or sticky, and changes to an egg-white, clear, stretchy consistency. Some women have a wet sensation and they notice that it is lubricative and slippery when they wipe before and after going to the bathroom.
During your fertile window in addition to observing cervical mucus, you’ll also observe your cervical position and texture changing. During the fertile window, you’ll notice that your cervix moves into a high position and becomes soft. Also, you may notice a dimple in the centre of your cervix which is an indication that your cervix is open. If you touch the end of your nose that gives you an idea of how firm your cervix may feel on the days when you aren’t fertile, and if you touch your lips that give you an idea of how soft your cervix feels during your fertile days.
Tell me the rules already!
First 3 Days Rule
The first 3 days of menstruation are considered infertile IF you have observed a clear temperature shift confirming that you have ovulated.
Recording an obvious and sustained temperature shift in your previous cycle allows you to confirm that you’ve ovulated and that you are having true menstruation and not ovulatory spotting or anovulatory bleeding. True menstruation can only occur after ovulation. If you’ve been on the pill for a while, the bleeding that you experience between pill packs is called withdrawal bleeding. It is bleeding that happens after the artificial hormone level in your body drops during the week when you take those sugar pills. That’s why the withdrawal bleed is often lighter and less problematic for women who are taking the pill because it’s not a real period.
It’s possible to get pregnant during the last few days of your period if you have a short cycle. Cervical mucus can develop any time after day 3 of your cycle, and your period would make it difficult for you to tell if there’s any mucus. During a short cycle, you could ovulate as early as day 8 or 9.
With that being said, menstruation should be considered fertile when you begin to chart until you are able to confidently identify true menstruation. It is important to note that only the first 3 days of menstruation are considered to be true menstruation, and when a woman is menstruating the level of estrogen in her blood is too low to trigger ovulation.
Anovulatory bleeding is bleeding that occurs after an anovulatory cycle, a cycle where ovulation has not occurred. Anovulatory bleeding will be different from true menstruation; it is generally lighter, shorter in duration, and does not have the bright red color associated with true menstruation. Also, true menstruation is often accompanied by cramping, and thus feels and looks different from other types of bleeding.
Ovulatory spotting is bleeding that occurs around the time of ovulation. Like anovulatory bleeding, it is different from true menstruation as it is generally lighter, spotty bleed that has a darker red or brown color when compared with menstrual bleeding.
Dry Day Rule
Before ovulation, you are infertile the evening of each dry day.
A dry day is any day where you have not observed any cervical mucus all day during your pre-ovulatory phase, and that is not within a count of 3 (which I’ll explain below). In order to use the dry day rule, you have to get into the habit of checking for cervical mucus throughout the day every day. A good practice to get into is to check for mucus every time you use the bathroom both before and after.
How do I check for mucus?
- When you go to the bathroom you check before you go by taking a piece of toilet paper folded flat and wiping from front to back making sure you wipe across the perineum and pay attention to the sensation you feel as you wipe (does it feel dry, smooth, lubricative/slippery?)
- Look at the toilet paper. Do you see any mucus? Can you pick it up? Does it stretch between your fingers? What color is it? Is it creamy/smooth/white/clear/stretchy or just wet and lubricative?
- If there is no mucus is there anything on the toilet paper? Is the paper shiny?
- Now, go to the bathroom and CHECK AGAIN after you urinate or have a bowel movement. First, dab or clean yourself off, and then make sure to take a fresh flat piece of toilet paper and repeat the steps I outlined above.
Why do I have to check before and after I use the bathroom?
It is important to check both before and after because of your urethra and the anus are parallel to the vagina, and after you’ve gone to the bathroom you may have also “pushed” out any cervical mucus that was inside the vagina. If you don’t check afterward you might miss the mucus!
Back to the dry day’s rule
Dryness is observed by checking for cervical mucus throughout the day every day. If there is no cervical mucus present at the vulva at any point during the day you are considered to be infertile that day. It is important to check frequently during the day to determine whether any cervical mucus developed throughout the day.
The day after intercourse should be considered fertile due to the presence of semen, lubricant or spermicide. These fluids can mask the presence of cervical mucus or make it difficult to identify cervical mucus. You may not want to check for mucus right after you have been sexually aroused because the added wetness may make it difficult to distinguish between arousal fluid and cervical mucus.
Why does it work?
This rule works because sperm cannot survive without cervical mucus. The environment in the vagina has an acidic pH that sperm can’t actually survive in. On the pre-ovulatory dry days, the cervix is closed and in a low position. And the cervix is blocked with G-type mucus that acts like a mesh and prevents sperm from getting through the cervix.
Without cervical mucus, it is impossible for sperm to live long enough to fertilize an egg. Also on days without any observable cervical mucus, your estrogen levels are too low to trigger ovulation. So there’s no egg, and your body is actively killing sperm in 3 different ways (acidic environment, a physical barrier (G-type mucus plug), and the cervix is closed).
Temperature Shift Rule (3-day rule)
You are infertile the evening of the third consecutive day that your temperature has shifted and remained above the cover line.
What is a cover line?
A cover line is a horizontal line that you draw (or your app draws) to divide your low pre-ovulatory temperatures from your high post-ovulatory temperatures. You draw the cover line after you’ve ovulated and it shows the clear distinction between your low temperatures before ovulation and your high temperatures after ovulation.
For the most part, when a woman has ovulated there is an obvious thermal shift that is easy to identify. A sustained thermal shift above the cover line confirms that you’re ovulated. Ovulation only happens on one day in a cycle. Women may release more than one egg during their cycle, but only within the same 12-24 hour period. After ovulation happens progesterone levels rise and suppress ovulation for the rest of the cycle.
The 3-day rule allows for the possibility of multiple ovulation during that 12-24 hour period. Three temperatures above the cover line indicate that your progesterone levels are high enough to suppress further ovulation.
It is normal to have the occasional random temperature that falls out of the pattern, especially if you’re not feeling well. If one temperature is not consistent with the general pattern you can use the “rule of thumb” and simply ignore that temperature. However, if your temperatures are all over the place and you can’t figure out if you’ve ovulated or not then err on the side of caution and assume that you are fertile until you’ve recorded three consecutive temperatures above the cover line.
Peak Day Rule and count of 3
You are infertile the evening of the 4th day after your peak day of cervical mucus.
What is peak day?
Peak day is the last day that you observe peak cervical mucus. Peak cervical mucus is egg white, clear, stretchy, wet, slippery or lubricative, and peak day is the last day that you observe mucus that has any of those peak qualities. Keep in mind that you won’t know that it’s peak day on your peak day, you’ll know the day after when you don’t observe any more peak mucus.
Why does it work?
This rule works because when cervical mucus is present it changes the pH of your vagina and keeps sperm alive for up to 5 days. Once your cervical mucus dries up for the cycle it takes a few days for the vagina to return back to the normal, acidic pH. The 3-day rule allows for enough time for your vagina to return to a sperm killing machine!
What is a count of 3?
There are times when your mucus pattern may not be easy to interpret. Some women occasionally experience a double peak when they are charting their cycles. A double peak just means a cycle where you might have more than one “peak day”. For example, you may have started to see mucus for a few days, and then you observe some dry days, and a few days later you start seeing a mucus pattern again. If you have one isolated day of peak mucus you would consider yourself fertile for 3 days afterward.
Dry days during a “count of three” are considered fertile!
*What if I have mucus every day of my cycle?
There are a few reasons why this might be the case. The first question I have for you is, are you checking your mucus correctly? When you check internally you will see something every single day. Checking internally often results in confusion since you will have moisture on your finger every single time you check for cervical mucus. If you’re checking for mucus externally and you are observing some degree of cervical mucus every single day of your cycle you can still accurately chart your cycles and use fertility awareness for birth control, but you may need some additional support to help you understand the difference between your basic infertile pattern and your fertile window.
This is the caveat to “all mucus is fertile,” because there are situations when you may be observing mucus on an infertile day (i.e. non-peak mucus observations in your post-ovulatory phase). An important point to consider is that if you do have some degree of mucus that you’re observing every single day of your cycle it could be indicative of a hormonal imbalance or even some sort of bacterial overgrowth. In cases like this, you’ll benefit from working with a trained Fertility Awareness Educator like myself to help you sort it all out so you can feel 100% confident about your mucus observations.
What it comes down to is that if you’re using the fertility awareness method for birth control and your intention is to avoid pregnancy then it is best to be cautious. Especially when you are first getting the hang of charting your cycles, if you find yourself confused or if your charts aren’t making sense to you the best thing to do is to consider yourself fertile. It can be helpful to find out if there are any fertility awareness instructors in your area or instructors that you help you via skype. And just remember that learning to chart your cycles can be like learning to ride a bike. Reading about it is only helpful to a point. It takes practice, and I would definitely recommend at least 2-3 full cycles of charting to allow you to get some practice under your belt before you start relying on it for birth control!
Now I want to hear from you! How do you check for cervical mucus? What set of fertility awareness rules do you follow? Are you using a different method to chart your cycles? Please share your experience in the comments below!