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?
- 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
- 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)
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.
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!