By identifying the phases when you are fertile during your menstrual cycle, you can plan or avoid pregnancy. Our resident pharmacist is here to help you choose the right contraception.
By Rita Ghelani
Contraceptive methods are designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy. If done correctly, you can have sex without the worry of getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant.
To help you make an informed choice about contraception, our resident pharmacist Rita Ghelani offers her expert advice on natural family planning:
What is natural family planning?
Using natural family planning for contraception is also known as fertility awareness. This form of contraception involves being able to identify the signs and symptoms of fertility during your menstrual cycle.
By identifying the phases when you are most fertile as well as those phases when you are less fertile, you can plan or avoid pregnancy.
How does natural family planning work?
Natural family planning works by observing and recording your body’s different natural signs or fertility indicators on each day of your menstrual cycle.
There are three fertility indicators and monitoring these can help you identify your most fertile time:
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
✔️ The length of your menstrual cycle.
✔️ Your body temperature.
✔️ Cervical secretions (mucus discharge).
What happens during your menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is the time from the first day of your period to the day before your next period starts – on average this is 28 days but can be longer or shorter. During your cycle the following occurs:
❤️ Eggs develop in your ovaries and usually one is released.
❤️ The mucus in the cervix changes to allow sperm to pass more easily through the cervix to reach the egg.
❤️ The lining of the uterus thickens to prepare for a pregnancy.
❤️ If the egg isn’t fertilised by sperm and you don’t get pregnant, the uterus sheds its lining as your period, which signals the beginning of a new menstrual cycle.
❤️ Regardless of how long or short the cycle is, ovulation usually happens around 10-16 days before the start of the next period. This is the most fertile time in the menstrual cycle.
Some women may experience ovulation-related pain, also known as mittelschmerz, to one side of their lower abdomen and occasional mid-cycle spotting.
How to track ovulation
Accurately identifying the time of ovulation is the key to natural family planning. This can be done by monitoring changes in fertility indicators – there are three methods used to do this:
✔️ The calendar method
This method involves using your past menstrual cycle to estimate the time of ovulation. You need to make a detailed note of your periods for at least 12 months. Each month, you should note the number of days between starting one period and the next.
You should work out the shortest interval between your periods and then subtract 20 days to find the first fertile day.
⚠️ Using the calendar method is the least reliable way of working out your fertile time (usually around 8-9 days of each menstrual cycle). It should not be used on its own as a fertility indicator.
✔️ Monitoring basal body temperature
The hormones oestrogen and progesterone cause your body temperature to change throughout the menstrual cycle – it rises slight after you have ovulated. By tracking these changes and recording your temperature daily you can work out when your fertile time ends.
You need to use an accurate digital thermometer to monitor your basal body temperature or waking temperature. You need to do this before you get out of bed or after you’ve had at least three hours rest. It needs to be done at the same time each day and before you have anything to eat or drink.
The fertile time ends where you’ve recorded temperatures for three days in a row, which are higher than all the previous six days. The difference in temperature is about 0.2 degrees centigrade.
✔️ Tracking changes in cervical mucus
The levels of oestrogen and progesterone vary during the menstrual cycle, and this alters the quantity and type of cervical mucus discharged. By monitoring the changes in your cervical secretions, you can identify the start and end of your fertile time.
Cervical discharge during your cycle
Your cervical secretions will undergo the following changes during your menstrual cycle, which can help you identify the start and end of your fertile time:
- Just after a period you may notice a few days when your vagina and vulva feel dry. You may not see or feel any cervical mucus.
- As the level of oestrogen rises, your body prepares for ovulation, these results increased cervical secretions and a change in the texture of the secretions. The secretions may be sticky and appear white or creamy in colour. You will feel some sticky and moistness as the cervical secretions change – this is the start of the fertile time.
- Just before ovulation the secretions become clearer, wetter, stretchy and slippery in texture – often described as raw egg white. This is known as fertile mucus and is a sign that you are at the most fertile phase of your cycle.
- After ovulation the cervical secretions become thicker and sticky, after three days of having these thicker secretions you will no longer be fertile.
- It important to remember that the amount and quality of cervical secretions from woman to woman and also from one cycle to the next.
- Every morning (or every time you use the toilet) check to see what is coming out of your vagina and remove a little with your fingertip.
How reliable is natural family planning?
The effectiveness of any contraceptive is dependent on your age, how sexually active you are and how well you follow the instructions on how to use the contraceptive.
However, the effectiveness of natural family planning depends on many variables, such as:
❤️ Which fertility indicator tracking method you use.
❤️ How regular your menstrual cycle is.
❤️ How reliably you track your menstrual cycles.
❤️ If you have unprotected sex near to when you were ovulating.
If you are inexperienced with monitoring fertility indicators than the chances of getting pregnant increase. Encouraging your partner to become familiar with the tracking of fertility can make it a more effective method of contraceptive – monitoring correctly and consistently is vital.
⚠️ Using condoms as well as monitoring fertility indicators if you do not wish to get pregnant is also an option, and helps protect against STIs.
Natural family planning is more effective when taught by a specialist natural family teacher, or when more than one fertility indicator is used.
Natural family planning advantages
Fertility awareness and tracking your menstrual cycle as a form of contraception has the following advantages:
✔️ It is hormone-free.
✔️ It safe to use, has no side-effects and can be stopped immediately if you decide to have a baby.
✔️ It helps you recognise normal and abnormal vaginal discharge and makes you more aware of your fertility, so you can avoid a pregnancy or plan for a pregnancy better.
✔️ Natural family planning is acceptable to all faiths and cultures.
Natural family planning disadvantages
Natural family planning methods have a higher failure rate than other methods, especially if you are not familiar with how to monitor your fertility indicators. It also comes woth the following disadvantages:
✖️ Natural family planning won’t protect you against sexually transmitted infections; you’ll still need to use condoms for that.
✖️ You need to track your menstrual cycles for at least six months before using natural family planning as a reliable method of contraception. You must be fully confident about how to monitor fertility indicators.
✖️ You need to keep daily logs to know when you are fertile.
✖️ Changes in your life, such as increased stress, travelling long distances, illness or lifestyle changes may affect your menstrual cycle, making it harder to track the fertility indicators.
✖️ If you have irregular periods than natural family planning may not be suitable for you.
⚠️ You should always use a condom during the most fertile phase of your menstrual cycle if you do not wish to get pregnant.