Understanding, tracking, and charting fertility signs can be a surprisingly easy and inexpensive shortcut to getting pregnant. Find out how.
Denise Hawks thought that getting pregnant would be easy, but after several months of trying with no success, Hawks decided to track her fertility to discover when her most fertile days were each cycle. This technique of noting fertility signs on a chart is sometimes called Natural Family Planning (NFP) or the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), and it helped Hawks recognize her problem.
“I had always been pretty irregular and never knew why,” she says. It turns out that in most of her cycles she did not ovulate, meaning that her ovaries did not release an egg. “Because of this, my doctor wanted me to take Clomid [a fertility drug],” says Hawks. She conceived after three cycles on Clomid. “If I had not been charting, it would have taken much longer to identify the problem. I feel really lucky to have charted; it saved me a lot of time and trouble.”
Kathryn Golbeck of Penticton, British Columbia, recalls a similar experience. “I was having really long and irregular cycles, and my sister suggested I try FAM,” she says. Golbeck found that unlike the “textbook” woman, she didn’t ovulate exactly two weeks after her period started. “I didn’t ovulate on day 14, but rather on day 18 and often later. My cycles were regular for me what I had thought was irregularity was actually just late ovulation.”
With better timing, she and her husband were able to successfully conceive their son. “I have suggested FAM to many friends who are trying to conceive, and they can’t believe they didn’t know about this!” she says.
Exactly, agrees Melissa Wodzinski, a certified teacher of the Sympto-Thermal Method of NFP in Santa Paula, California. “Monitoring fertility signs is the easiest and cheapest way to achieve pregnancy or to find a problem on your own,” she explains. “In fact, many women who go to see a fertility specialist will find that before the doctor prescribes medications or starts a sophisticated testing regimen, he or she will ask the woman to track her fertility signs.”
A woman who charts her fertility signs and has well-timed intercourse with her partner is encouraged by NFP teachers to consult her doctor after three cycles with no success—compare that with the 12 unsuccessful cycles that doctors suggest waiting when a couple tries to conceive simply by stopping birth control.
NFP/FAM is also cheaper than ovulation predictor kits. The kits will cost the average couple between $15 and $60 per month, but a $10 thermometer is all that is needed to use fertility signs to predict ovulation.
The Goal of Fertility Sign Tracking
A woman’s fertility varies throughout her cycle. She is most likely to become pregnant if she and her partner have sex in the few days leading up to and on the day of ovulation. This fertile window is about three to four days for the average woman. When a woman uses NFP/FAM to achieve pregnancy, her goal is to use her fertility sign information to accurately pinpoint her fertility window and to have sex during that time.
Basal Body Temperature
There are two main fertility signs. The first sign is a woman’s body temperature upon waking each morning, called the basal body temperature, or BBT. This temperature helps indicate levels of the hormone progesterone.
In a normal cycle, a woman’s progesterone level will start out low during her period and remain low until ovulation. After ovulation, the progesterone level surges and will then stay high until her period begins again. Because one of progesterone’s main side effects is to raise a woman’s BBT, the high level of progesterone after ovulation reveals itself in a high daily BBT reading.
When plotted on a chart each day, a woman will see that before ovulation her body temperature stays in a low range, while after ovulation it is in a higher range. Generally the BBT will remain in the post-ovulatory high range for a total of 12 to 16 days (often called the luteal phase), and will then fall back to a low range as the woman’s period begins.
The temperature sign can quickly reveal that something is wrong. If a whole cycle goes by—period to period—without any movement of the BBT to a high range, a woman can tell that she did not ovulate that cycle. While it’s common to have a cycle without ovulation every now and then, perhaps once per year, seeing cycle after cycle like this indicates that there is a problem that needs a doctor’s attention.
Melissa Gentile, of Reading, Massachusetts, discovered another type of problem through her BBT. “I realized I had a slightly short luteal phase—only 10 days,” she says. Short luteal phases can sometimes mean that a woman’s hormonal balance is off, hampering her ability to become pregnant. After using progesterone supplements prescribed by her doctor, Gentile was able to successfully conceive her daughter after two cycles.
How to Track BBT
So how do you track your BBT? The first step is to buy a digital BBT thermometer from a drugstore. Most large drugstores carry these, or they can be ordered by a pharmacist. The rest is simple. “This is the easiest sign to track,” says Wodzinski. “You just wake up, take your temperature with a digital BBT thermometer every day, and write it down on a chart.”
It’s important to remember two things about taking the BBT. First, you need to take your temperature at around the same time each day with the same thermometer. Second, it must be the very first thing you do upon waking—no going to the bathroom, reading, having sex, eating, or moving around before taking your temperature.
The BBT sign alone can help you predict your fertile time after you have charted one or two cycles. You may begin to notice that your temperature shift happens at about the same day during each cycle—say 14 or 20 days after the first day of your period. You can then estimate the day of ovulation in your next cycle and time intercourse accordingly. However, the BBT sign is much more effective in combination with the other fertility sign: cervical fluid.
Cervical fluid, sometimes called cervical mucus, is something that all women have. It is quite different from the fluid produced during arousal. Cervical fluid helps sperm swim from the vagina, through the cervix, and into the uterus during the fertile time.
A few days before ovulation, the cervix produces a very slippery, wet, stretchy fluid resembling egg whites. This fluid can allow sperm to live for up to six days inside a woman’s body. This means that a couple could have sex several days before ovulation occurs and the sperm could live long enough to meet the egg when it arrives days later. After ovulation has occurred and the fertile time is over, the fluid turns dry, pasty, and hostile for sperm.
By keeping track of what the fluid is like each day, a woman can zero-in on days with the wet, stretchy fluid. “By watching the fluid sign, a woman will know when ovulation is approaching,” says Wodzinski. “These are the days that the couple should have intercourse to maximize the chance of pregnancy.” On the flip side, if a woman notices that her fluid is always pasty and dry, she can point this out to her doctor as a possible problem.
How to Track Cervical Fluid
The best way to track this sign is to take note of the fluid each time you go to the restroom. Before doing anything else, use tissue to wipe across the opening of the vagina and note whether there is any cervical fluid present, and if so, whether it is pasty (not fertile) or stretchy and wet, resembling egg whites (very fertile). At the end of each day, write down on your chart what the fluid was like that day. Just remember: Don’t note this sign first thing in the morning, before having sex, or on the day after having sex.
For More Information
Most women feel that charting their fertility signs becomes easy after a bit of practice, but having the advice of a professional is always helpful. “I suggest that a woman who is using NFP to achieve pregnancy should think about taking a class,” says Wodzinski.