All Natural Birth Control: SymptoThermal Fertility Awareness Natural Family Planning Review – Does it Work?

4 out of 5 leaves

4 out of 5 leaves

While birth control is a hot topic, an estimated 99% of sexually active women have used a form of contraception at some point during their lives.  There are many different types of birth control available: surgical, barrier, periodic abstinence (calendar method) and hormonal.  The most popular method by far is hormonal contraception like the Pill or the Patch, used by almost 30% of women.*  However the World Health Organization classifies the hormone combination used in the Pill as a known carcinogen to humans.  Fertility Awareness Method (known by Catholics as Natural Family Planning) is an all natural method that uses signs your body gives to determine which days a woman is most fertile.  Then she can use that information to avoid, or try for pregnancy.  But do Fertility Awareness methods actually work, and are they easy to use?

The Good

  • Very Effective – Fertility awareness contraception methods have a 98%-99.6% effectivness rate when used correctly.
  • Better for You – no carcinogens, implants, or surgeries necessary
  • Better for the Earth – less chemicals or plastics produced makes a happier planet
  • Saves Money – after a small initial investment for supplies or software, your monthly cost is free!
  • Good software available – takes the guessing out and calculates your fertile days for you

The Bad

  • Must take your temp before you get out of bed each morning, preferably the same time of day – this is especially difficult when your alarm clock always seems to be a crying baby
  • Must feel comfortable with daily monitoring and assessment of your cervical mucous
  • Periodic abstinence is required – this is harder than it seems (more on this later)

My Experience

A Basal Temp Thermometer for Ovulation Monitoring – accurate to 0.1 degree F

Right before I got married, I started on the Pill.  It was awful.  Those little pills brought with them an extra 8 pounds, wicked mood swings, and super anxiety whenever I forgot to take one.  After a few months I switched to the patch.  It delivers hormones through the skin and only needed changing once a week.  My doctor assured me that it was safe, and I should not be concerned about all the dire warnings of blood clots, strokes, etc.  I was young, and didn’t care to do much research, and certainly hadn’t gotten on the crunchy wagon yet!

A few years after we were married we decided it was time for kids, but they were quite a long time in coming.  It took my body months and months to regulate after several years of being constantly filled with artificial hormones.  Then it turned out I had some other hormonal issues that had been masked by the chemicals and needed to be dealt with.  We weren’t sure if we would ever conceive.  After our son was born, my husband and I agreed that I was not going back on hormonal birth control again.

After my son’s birth, I was protected from pregnancy by lactational amenorrhea for the first six months, and still did not see a return to fertility until after his first birthday.  We felt ready to welcome another child, so we let nature take it’s course.  Our daughter arrived shortly after our son’s second birthday.  Unfortunately, my postpartum period with her was very difficult and I was terrified of getting pregnant again.  I had to find a more natural way to prevent pregnancy.

My research led me to the Fertility Awareness Method, or Natural Family Planning.  I settled specifically on the SymptoThermal Method.  In this method, you track your basal body temperature (temp immediately upon waking up, before you get out of bed), your cervical mucous, and your cervical position if desired.  Around the time of ovulation your temperature spikes, your mucous turns into something like egg whites, and your cervix drops low and soft.  During this time you don’t have sex if you don’t want to get pregnant, and you do have sex if you do.

This is my fertility tracker. Red is menstruation, blue is fertile, yellow is not fertile.  I saw fertile mucous around day 14 and 15, temp spiked on day 17, and at the end of day 19 I was no longer fertile.

I bought the special thermometer and placed it on top of my bedside alarm clock, so I have to pick it up to turn off the morning alarm.  I do my best to take my temperature at the same time each day, after at least three hours of continuous sleep and before getting up.  Unfortunately, the baby didn’t get the memo and felt free to wake me up at any hour of the night.  She didn’t like waiting for me to take my temperature either.  (The basal thermometers can take up to a minute to register — way too long to listen to your baby cry).  My temp tracker rarely followed the typical pattern you see above during the first year postpartum.  It has gotten better as she has gotten older, but it was really difficult to get an accurate basal temp for a long time.

I also monitor my cervical mucous.  It turns out that your vaginal discharge can tell you pretty clearly whether or not you’re ovulating if you pay attention.  Really, just a quick peek at the toilet tissue after a routine trip to the bathroom gives me all the info I needed.  I didn’t typically check my cervix location or softness, because my app doesn’t require it, but it has a spot to add that info if I want to.

Yes, I track all of this with an app on my smart phone (isn’t technology amazing?!).  The app takes the info I provide and tells me which days I am fertile, and which days I am REALLY fertile, and which days I am safe.  “Safe” in this case meaning that I cannot get pregnant, as I have informed the app that I don’t want to.  There are multiple apps out there that track this info on your phone (here’s a list).  There are other web-based services that collect and provide the same information (google search).  Some of these have one time fees, others have monthly subscriber fees.

Overall, I feel that fertility awareness combined with abstinence during fertile periods is the safest and most natural way to prevent unwanted pregnancy.  It works well, and is pretty straightforward.  I can’t see switching to another type of birth control unless as some point we decide to do something more permanent.  There are just a couple watch-outs I feel like I need to share with you though, as you consider this method.  Knowing these little things ahead of time will help your use of this method to be that much more effective.

Other Things You Should Know (this is where it gets juicy, folks…)

  • Biology is strong.  Remember that part of science class where you learned that the number one goal of all organisms is to reproduce?  Turns out people instinctually have the same goal.  There is a practically irresistible attraction my husband and I feel towards each other during my most fertile days each month.  We had not experienced this when I was on hormonal birth control, or when I was infertile due to breastfeeding.  There are some crazy love hormones, pheromones, something floating through the air at precisely the time I do want to have sex because I do not want to get pregnant.  Why am I sharing this TMI?  This birth control method only works if you don’t have sex during these irresistable days.  Plan ahead, resolve yourself, get creative or use a back-up barrier method during this time.
  • Trust the App.  On one of these biologically strong days discussed above, my app told me it was a fertile day.  I didn’t believe it, however, as so far I had physically seen no signs of fertility in my body that month.  My husband and I went for it because I was sure I hadn’t ovulated.  Three weeks later I was staring at a positive pregnancy test.  Sadly, I miscarried several weeks after that.  Lesson learned though – if I don’t want to get pregnant, I should always trust the app when it tells me I’m fertile.  And in retrospect, with the whole sperm can live for several days business, what was I thinking?!  These crazy natural love pheromones can make you kind of dumb…
  • Do your homework.  Before you launch into using fertility awareness methods to prevent pregnancy, learn what you are doing.  I do not recommend downloading the cheapest app, and taking your temp with the medicine cabinet thermometer every day.  There is a lot of science you should understand before you get started.  I recommend studying the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility (amazon affiliate link), or inquiring with your local Catholic diocese about a Natural Family Planning class.  Birth control failure has pretty high stakes, and you need to be armed with as much information as possible to be successful in naturally planning your pregnancies.

Have you tried Fertility Awareness methods?  What has your experience been?  Please join the conversation in the comments below!

* Facts on Contraception in The United States

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50 Responses to All Natural Birth Control: SymptoThermal Fertility Awareness Natural Family Planning Review – Does it Work?

  1. Andrea says:

    Glad it’s working for you.

    I’ve never used that method and absolutely never would. I have health issues that lead to a decision to never have children. But hormonal birth control was probably the worst thing I have ever done to my body. I have a paraguard iud, the non-hormonal one, and I am considering sterization. I need to do more research on that to see if it has the same kind of adverse hormonal effects on women as vasectomy can for men. I think the WHO says that iuds are the most widely used method of non-barrier birth control in the world, though they are not widely used in the US because of the dalkon shield fiasco. When you decide to look for something more longterm I unreservedly recommend paraguard.

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for sharing your journey, Andrea. The very personal decision on what type of birth control to use can be a tough one.

  2. Gail says:

    I have used the sympto-thermal method, and do recommend it for newbies to natural family planning, but I’ve since given up on temperature taking and just go by the mucous secretions now. There are actually some methods that are taught (Creighton is one) that just use the mucous observations I think. So if taking your temp. every morning doesn’t appeal to you, there are effective methods of nfp that avoid that.
    As for iud’s, they are known to abort already fertilized eggs before they they implant in the uterus, so if that’s not something you’re comfortable with, then that choice may not be for you either.
    I absolutely love knowing more about how my body works and working with it to achieve or avoid pregnancy. It feels so much better than contraceptives to me. And if I happen to concieve when not trying to? Well, I have nine months to realize what a blessing that is!

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Gail. I’ve heard of the creighton method, but I’m not as familiar with it.

  3. Rachel says:

    I’ve used this method since I’ve been married- almost 9 years now. I don’t do the temperature as much as I monitored just my cycle as far as menstrating and also the cervical mucus. I’ve had 3 babies with this method ( on purpose) and I’ve been able to prevent pregnancies during the times that I have wanted to.

  4. Melissa F says:

    I used the FAM method once we wanted to start trying to have another baby. So far we have been successful twice- sadly though we miscarried the first time. We are now just waiting for my cycles to begin again to start charting. I use Fertility Friend.

    • Melissa F says:

      Clarification- we started to use FAM after our first baby once we wanted to try for #2. BC really messed my body up and it took over a year to get out of my system. Never again for us

  5. 'Becca says:

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    I have used FAM based only on symptoms very successfully. Earlier this year I had a “surprise” pregnancy which ended in miscarriage, but the only reason it was surprising was that I had an unusually long cycle and then a very sudden ovulation–we knew we were taking a chance but did not think that the chance would result in pregnancy for *us* because we had such trouble conceiving our son. Live and learn!

    I have never used tracking software. I just keep the info in my head. But I am a data manager by profession; I’m unusually good at detecting and remembering patterns. I think it’s great that there are apps to help people keep track.

    A tool I used when I was getting started is the Ovulens, a reusable gadget that lights and magnifies your saliva sample so you can look for the fern pattern that indicates ovulation. It worked for me, but it did take me a while to learn how to get a good clear sample.

    • Victoria says:

      I don’t know much about saliva patterns and how they relate to fertility. I can’t wait to learn more.
      Thanks for sharing with us, Becca!

  6. Nicole says:

    From my understanding and reading up on the subject- Fertility Awareness Method is a sub-category of Natural Family Planning. NFP uses no barriers (so they abstain while fertile- what the Catholics do) whereas FAM uses barriers while fertile. And NFP as a whole uses the symptothermal method- mostly temps and CF and then folks can choose to use their cervical position as a 3rd measure. I’ve been off the pill for about 4 months and have finally ovulated this month- which was exciting to see. However, I’m almost to day 18 of high temps, and I’m sure you know what that may mean. At this point, my husband and I are just letting nature take it’s course, as you said with your second 🙂 Thanks for bringing to light this natural method- I know a lot of people feel that NFP is like the rhythm method of old when it is not!!

    Nicole, Working Kansas Homemaker (.com)

    • Victoria says:

      NFP is definitely not the rhythm method, although I was also under that impression for a long time.
      Best wishes to you Nicole 🙂

  7. Katie says:

    We have been using this method for years. I have gotten to the point that I don’t need to take my temps, because I can tell by my mucus and the tell-tale ovulation pain when ovulation occurs.

  8. Carly says:

    We use NFP and LOVE it! More specifically, the cervical mucus is the tell tale sign for my fertility. We love NFP and the natural approach to family planning. It allows my body to be drug-free, encourages my husband to have a role by helping with charting, and spurs me on to know my body more thoroughly. Love NFP and have shared it with 4 other couples who also love it 🙂 Great post!

  9. This is great, I am so happy to see more women open to this form of birth control. I, too, was on the pill for years until I discovered that the extra hormones in my body might have been making my IBS worse (and lo and behold when I went off them it did get better), my husband and I decided to try NFP even though we werent quite ready to have kids yet. ANd it worked just fine for us. I charted, used my thermometer ever day, watched the signs, etc. I also discovered during my education on NFP that many women (including myself) dont realize that the pill can actually be an abortificant, because it may not always supress ovulation, but makes the womb hostile to any fertilized eggs that may descend into the uteras. This was too much of a grey area for me as a Christian, as I believe life starts at conception, so for me, I would never go back to hormone-based birth control again.

    After our first child I stopped taking my temps and now I just go by my mucous signs and that has worked just fine for us. my body is very good at telling me when Im fertile, so we just rely on that and we’re good to go Now we’re trying to have baby number two, and its such a blessing to have this education and know when you are fertile.

    thanks for sharing!

  10. Amanda Z says:

    When we first got married we used Cycle Beads, which is based on the Standard Days Method, to prevent pregnancy. There is a bead for each day of the cycle, and the beads are color coded, red for the first day of your cycle, brown for “safe” days and white for potentially fertile days. Standard Days Method is challenging if you don’t want to use any form of barrier contraceptive, as it simply looks at all women’s cycles averaging from 28-32 days and estimates which days are most likely to be fertile – 12 straight days a month of abstinence is really challenging to any marriage.

    I started tracking cervical mucous after we found that method to be less than friendly to our marriage – and I found it much more reliable and less stressful. I didn’t use anything to track other than marking the start of my cycle and my estimated ovulation date in my calendar.

    • Victoria says:

      I haven’t heard of cycle beads, but it does seem a bit too much. Thanks for the info Amanda!

  11. Sundi Cowser says:

    I was so excited to read this post! I did a post a few weeks ago about natural birth control. I have three children, and my baby is 12 weeks old. I plan to buy a fertility monitor, and use a barrier method on my fertile days. I’m glad to see that this method works well for others.

  12. I love love love love love this post! And I LOVE FAM. We’ve been using it for almost 7 years now, both for trying to avoid and trying to conceive. It’s worked both ways, which is the most awesome part about it. I’ve gotten so good at it, I don’t even chart anymore. I just pay attention to the basal temp (watching for the 3 high-temp days) and my cervical fluid and that’s our green light, lol. I highly recommend this method!!!!

  13. Your post was SO helpful !! I have been reading about infertility and tracking for 4 years and have never found anytthing as understandible as what you wrote. I dont blog about my infertility, but I do plan on checking out your blog again ! Thank you so much.

  14. Thanks for this post! My baby is 4 months old and we are really starting to consider some of the different methods of BC we can use. This is at the top of our list!

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Jackie! I started tracking my basal temp a few months after my second was born. By the time I returned to fertility, I was already used to the temps and mucous reading.

  15. Brandi S says:

    I just want to say that I love your blog! I’m already thinking about switching to the crystal deodorant and I would love to try the natural family planning method (for cost and chemical/hormone reasons). My only problem is that when I went on a lower hormone bc pill, I developed what they think were cysts in my uterus (painful!). The doctor wasn’t precisely sure, but for good measure switched me back to the higher hormone pill. This seemed to solve the problem, but now I’m not sure what would happen if I went off the pill completely….

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Brandi! Thanks for your kind words! I had a doctor prescribe BCP when I was having hormonal issues, and they just masked the real problem. It may be worth it to get a second opinion. All the best to you!

  16. I’m not a big fan of hormonal birth control either. I’ve had bad, personal experiences with it. I think we need to try something like this. More scientific and more peace of mind!

  17. frugalmomma says:

    I love FAM to help conceive children. I got pregnant each time the first time we tried due to using this method of charting (long before apps, lol). However, I did get pregnant once accidentally on day five of my cycle. We were in an all-systems-go phase, no symptoms of impeding ovulation. Dh went out of town the next day for a week and sure enough, by the time he came back I had already ovulated over a week early! High temps for the next few days prompted me to take a test and sure enough, I was pregnant!

  18. happytogether says:

    We used this method since marriage 12 years ago. The SymptoThermal Method developed for us naturally. DH was in charge of all of the tracking. It’s been wonderful in helping through two pregnancies, 6 years of consecutive breast feeding, PPD, and irregular cycles. After PPD, I thought I was fine. A look at a few months of charting helped me see the irregular cycles, and I proactively dealt with hormonal imbalances. We use a paper chart and thermometer. For a while, the symptoms were very volatile. The chart helped determine a few things, including the hormonal imbalance, and my “neediness” during ovulation, which otherwise made no sense to me.

    I’m no longer an uneducated slave to my hormones. A greater relationship has developed from the understanding, both with myself and my husband. Today we are happy, healthy, and love sharing our joy in love together when we can, without latex or silicon. : )

    We’ll look into the apps. Maybe we can do away with the pen and paper in the morning.

    Thanks for sharing and keeping the conversation alive!

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for sharing your story with us! I’m interested in hearing more about how your husband is involved in the tracking.

      • happytogether says:

        He is in charge of all the notations. It’s his way of being part of “our” fertility. And each day he marks the chart and we share our interpretation. It hasn’t always been consistent, and we use alternate methods to fill in the blanks, but it has helped our understanding, communication and belief in each other. 🙂

  19. Meridith Murray says:

    Wow. A new generation of moms is wrestling with the same issues I wrestled with! My children are now 32, 31, 29, 27 and 25. As you can see, although I read all the books and followed the system, Natural Family Planning did not work so well for us, although I kept trying! I think I was just too irregular and unpredictable with regard to my cycles. We laugh about it now, but at the time it was a little frustrating. I absolutely agree that the pill is NOT a healthy lifestyle; I think that too many people are willing to accept it as The Answer, which has discouraged research into better non-hormonal birth control methods. If you really, really do not want to conceive, you need to hedge your bets with some kind of barrier method. Good luck, ladies!

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks for the encouragement Meridith! I wasn’t sure how long NFP had been around.

  20. Dea says:

    My children are 41 and 39. I tried the “pill” when I first married in 1969 and had a severe adverse reaction, so I chose to try alternative methods. My daughter was conceived the day my husband was leaving for ‘out of state’ job and forgot to bring the ‘foam’ home. after her birth we decided we wanted a “planned” second child, not too soon, but also not too far apart. I had always had an unusually long cycle, 30 days between periods with 7 days of flow. I knew to the day when I was fertile, and so planning our son was easy. At that time we were hearing rumors of a way to increase the chances of chosing a son or daughter. Using my knowlege of my cycle, we followed the “plan” and got the son we were hoping for. (I don’t know if it was just luck or the “plan” worked.) Obviously there were no “smart phone” apps back then, but I can see how they would help even better. I guess I was real lucky for it to work as well for us as it did, this was befor temp tracking was popular also. The abstainance or barrier method did work for me well until the Dr recomended an IUD.

  21. Sarah R says:

    I am not married and live on the other side of the country from my boyfriend, so birth control is not a big issue right now (and I haven’t been using hormonal BC), however, when we ARE together (we are planning to be married soon) I will be using this method. I actually learned about it from a different book, The Garden of Fertility, which was very informative, even talking about the temperature your body has to be to be fertile, and giving you tips on how to deal with infertility issues and other kinds of natural health issues that people can deal with themselves (lighting at night, raising thyroid levels, how to stimulate regular ovulation, etc.). I’m so happy to read this and see how it works in real life, and get some tips on what to do when I do start. Thanks!

    • Victoria says:

      I’m glad this info was useful to you, Sarah. And thanks for the book reference – it sounds like a good read!

  22. Jane says:

    Thank you for such an informative post! I was just wondering if you would be willing to share which app it is you use? Thanks!

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Jane, I was using the “Sympto” app on the iphone. It was free, but now has a monthly supscrition fee. I stopped using it when I got pregnant in June of 2012. The Sympto was good because it was free, but also tricky because it was in German with bad translation. If I’m going to pay, I would rather have a super easy to use and understand app. When I begin tracking my fertility again (after the new baby is not so new), I plan to move to a different app. I’ll have to re-evaluate what’s on the market before I choose another.

  23. Tanea says:

    It’s nice to read that other people use NFP as well. My husband and I are newbies and find NFP very refreshing. It’s nice to do things the natural way and to accept God’s plan. After only about three months of charting, I ended up on getting pregnant on day 28 of my cycle. I really thought that I had interpreted all my signs correctly but apparently not! My last baby was only six months old at the time, so this came as a shock. But we are looking forward to our new blessing. I am also looking forward to restarting NFP after the delivery of this child. I may buy an ovulation kit though too, just to help determine when I am actually ovulating until I get better at interpreting my signs!
    I also use an app called Kindara and its excellent. It’s based very closely to TCOYF charts and even has alarms to remind you to take your temp and cervical fluid. It’s also free!

  24. Natalie says:

    I have been using ovuview for almost a year and it offers a free version and a ONE TIME paid version for five bucks. i got it for i think 2 dollars on a special via facebook page. Many methods .used . Do try it