The Fertility Awareness Method (Part One)

Note: This post is possibly of the "too much information" variety, and it's directed toward female readers, especially those that are married. It's really not for kiddies or males to read, so if you are a kid or a male, go ahead and skip this post. Okay, you've been sufficiently warned.

Also please note that I am not a doctor or a medical professional, I'm just summarizing some of the research I've done.  Please consult your medical professionals with concerns.  These posts include information as well as my opinions based on research I've done and are for your information only.  They are not intended to replace proper medical diagnosis or treatment.


I recently had a request to explain how I monitor my fertility signs, and I thought, well, why not do a blog post on the subject? I haven't really talked about this since last year, and it's good information for any woman to know. Whether you're trying for a baby, trying not to have a baby, or haven't even thought about this before, if you're a woman with menstrual cycles, you should know this stuff.

I'd like to say right here that I got most of this information from a book called "Taking Charge Of your Fertility" by Toni Weschler. If you are interested in using FAM, you should definitely read this book - it addresses proper charting, special situations, and more information on how to use FAM for a natural method of birth control. I'm just going to present you with the basic information in my own words here, but you all should really read the book. I'm not an expert, she is - I'm just giving you a summary.

So here we go.



Background Information



A little background first: Derek and I started using the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) last year after we went off the pill. If you have never read that post, you should read it. It explains why Derek and I decided to go off the pill, and why we will never go on it again, and honestly, doctors should be telling any woman this before prescribing the pill, especially if they know you're pro-life. Okay, I'll get off that soap box now.

Anyway, we initially used FAM to try not to get pregnant, but once it became apparent that I may not be able to get pregnant, we decided to start trying for a baby. Then we started using the FAM method to get pregnant, and if I didn't know this stuff, it would have been very easy to miss our opportunity.

If my dear friend Amber did not tell me about the pill last year, and then tell me about the FAM method, we would not have this sweet child that we do now, so if I've never said it before, thanks Amber.



The Basics



So without further ado, I now pass the information on to you, my dear blogging buddies. I know alot of you already know this stuff, but just in case some of you don't.

Okay, let's talk about the basics first (I know you all know the basics, but just so we're on the same page). In order to get pregnant, two things have to happen: (1) Your body must release an egg from one of your two ovaries, and (2) the sperm must travel through the cervical fluid and join with the egg. Then (bam!) you have a baby.

There's a few numbers that the FAM method is based from. First, the egg can only be fertilized for the first twenty-four hours after it is released. Second, sperm can live inside your system for 3-5 days (closer to 3, but up to 5). Third, the sperm must be in your system for a certain period of time in order to be able to fertilize the egg (the process is called capacitation - see Resource 1). I don't think they've actually proven the exact amount of time it takes for sperm to become capacitated, but it generally takes several hours.

With this information, the thought is that if you can abstain from sex or use some other form of birth control for the 5 days before you ovulate and the 2-3 days after, you will most likely not get pregnant. Inversely, if you want to get pregnant, you should time sex to coincide with your fertile time, particularly the 3 days before you ovulate (because remember, the egg is only good for 24 hours at the most after it is released, and the sperm have to be in your system for several hours in order to fertilize the egg).

So the trick is to know when exactly you ovulate, and how do you know that? I'm so glad you asked!

Your body gives you several observable signs to let you know when you are fertile and when you've ovulated. The main ones are (1) a shift in basal body temperature, (2) a change in the consistency of your cervical fluid, and (3) changes in your cervix.



Shift In Temperature



After the egg is released the corpus luteum (which was previously encasing the egg) releases a hormone called progesterone which prepares your body for a potential pregnancy. One of the effects of this rise in progesterone is that your basal body temperature will rise. It’s usually pretty subtle, by 5/10ths of a degree or so. If you take your temperatures daily, you'll see an upward shift in your temperatures after you've ovulated, and your temperatures will stay up until you have your period. If you get pregnant, they'll stay up until you have the baby.

Here's an example a temperature shift in an ovulation cycle, and this is also a pregnancy chart. You'll notice how the temperature stays up well past the 14 days . . .




How To Check It: Your basal body temperature is your temperature at rest. You determine your basal body temperature by using a basal body thermometer (which has smaller graduations of measurement) to take your temperature directly after waking up in the morning, before you get out of bed or move or speak (because too much movement or speech can throw it off).

You should try to take it at the same time every morning. I take mine at 4:45 AM, which sounds really early, but that's when I have to get up on the days that I work, and during the rest of the week I still take it at 4:45 AM and go back to sleep afterward. You should also try to get at least 3 hours of continuous sleep before taking your temperature, to ensure that your body is completely at rest.

Lots of people think that this would be impossible to do every morning, but once you get into the habit of it, it's no big deal. I don't even think about it anymore - the alarm goes off, I reach for my thermometer, snooze while the thermometer is computing, look at the temperature, go back to sleep. Easy as pie. After three weeks of temping you'll be there too.

Once your temperature goes up, you'll get your period in about 12-14 days after that. If you don't and your temperature stays up for 18 consecutive days, you're most likely pregnant.

Temperature charting lets you know that you've ovulated after the fact. The main benefit of charting your temperature is to determine whether you did, in fact, ovulate, and it also gives you a heads up of when your period is coming (or not coming). This is especially helpful for people with irregular cycles, like myself, It's also great for determining if your body is actually functioning properly.

If you are just going off the pill, don't be surprised if your temperature chart looks like a bunch of spikes. For several months after I went off the pill, my temperatures kept going up and down every couple of days. My chart looked like a mountain range. It'll probably take a little while for you body to normalize, but charting can also tell you if you're not ovulating.

Charting alone, however, will not help you get pregnant or prevent pregnancy in any given cycle, because as I said before, it doesn't let you know you've ovulated until after the fact. By the time your temperature actually goes up the egg is already dead and gone, or you're already pregnant. The next two signs are the ones you really want to pay attention to, because they let you know when ovulation is imminent.



Change In Cervical Fluid



You all know what I'm talking about with this one, whether you realize it yet or not. Your body produces cervical fluid, and it produces it in different amounts at different points in your cycle. Cervical fluid can range from white and sticky to clear and watery, and it changes in consistency the closer you are to ovulation.

Cervical fluid has different functions, the most important one for our purposes being that it allows sperm to live inside you and travel to the egg. If your cervical fluid is thick and sticky and white, the sperm can't live in that. They can only live in the clear, watery variety.

It's amazing how perfectly the Lord has designed our bodies. The closer you are to ovulating, the more fertile your cervical fluid becomes. Fertile cervical fluid is of an egg-white consistency, clear, watery, and it peaks right around the day you ovulate - so you'll get lots of wet cervical fluid. You know how sometimes in the middle of the month you get that gush of something, and you run to the bathroom to check, and your underwear are just wet? That would be it, and (aha!) that would be the day to try for a baby.

If you can monitor the consistency of your cervical fluid, you can know when you're about to ovulate, and you can plan accordingly. Keep in mind that you can have the fertile cervical fluid 1-3 days before the day you ovulate as well, so if you're trying not to get pregnant, you should do something else on those days. If you are trying to get pregnant, make sure you take advantage of those days. Either way, you need to be checking this sign, because it's the most important one for both groups. This one is not optional, it's vital.

How To Check It: You can check your cervical fluid either by taking charge and reaching in for a sample, or just by wiping with toilet paper and seeing what you got.

Alright, enough said about that.



Changes In Your Cervix



This sign is optional, but it can be nice to have a third confirmation of the other two signs. It's also the most awkward to describe and the most difficult to understand.

Your cervix is the lowest part of your uterus, and you can actually feel it with your fingers. It feels like a small, round protrusion, with a small dent in the middle. You want to check for three things - firmness, openness, and position.

When you get close to ovulating, your cervix becomes softer, more open, and higher (to allow for sperm to enter easily so they can reach the egg). When you are not fertile (example: after you ovulate) your cervix will feel firm, low and closed.

The change in firmness is subtle - "Taking Charge Of Your Fertility" describes it as the difference between touching your nose and touching your lips. The small dent in the middle is the opening to your cervix, and it will feel more open the closer you are to ovulating. You'll also notice through consistent checking that your cervix will be higher the closer to ovulating, and lower after ovulation.

How To Check It: The cervix is rather awkward to check, because you need to reach a finger inside of yourself and try to find it. You should also make sure your standing in the same position each time you check, because the way you stand affects it's position. Make sure your hands are clean.

It's going to take you a while to figure this one out, and if the whole thing just sounds scary, just skip this one. It's not entirely necessary, especially if you have regular cycles. But if you have crazy cycles, or you don't think you're ovulating, it might be a good idea to check it. It just gives you more information to use to estimate ovulation.

This one just takes alot of practice, and if you're totally overwhelmed and freaked out about checking it, just skip this one.


To Be Continued

Those are the three main signs you want to monitoring with FAM. Now you know the basics; tomorrow I'll post some additional information you should know about a couple other signs you may have, some resources, and some information on when things aren't functioning properly.

Note: You can use FAM for birth control or to increase your chances of conceiving in any given cycle. Plus it's just good to know what's going on with your body. If you perform FAM properly, it is just as effective as the birth control pill in preventing pregnancy - a 99.5% success rate (see Resource 4). I didn't address the proper way to use FAM for birth control in this post, so if you would like more information on that, please look into Resources 2-4, listed below.





Resources:

1. Medical Dictionary by The Free Medical Dictionary. Definition of Sperm Capacitation. http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/sperm+capacitation

2. Weschler, Toni. Taking Charge Of Your Fertility, Copyright 2002, 1995.

3. Taking Charge Of Your Fertility Website. http://www.tcoyf.com/.

4. Frank -Hermann, P.; Heil, J.; Gnoth, C.; Toledo, E; Baur, S.; Pyper, C.; Jenetzky, e.; Strowitzki, T.; Freundl, G. The Effectiveness Of A Fertility Awareness Based Method To Avoid Pregnancy In Relation To A Couple's Sexual Behavior During The Fertile Time: A Prospective Longitudinal Study. February 20, 2007. http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/dem003v1.
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Kelley said...

Great post! I had myself a little laugh when you talked about "taking charge" of your cervical fluid!

Anna said...

Thanks for this information, Callie! Have you heard of Natural Family Planning? Is that the same thing, or not really?

Rachel and John said...

Excellent post!
I love FAM and I am also really against the BCP.

Jessica said...

Thanks so much for providing this information! I think it's good for all women to know and understand.

Have you seen the documentary "The Great Sperm Race?" It is fascinating. It shows you exactly what happens in order to conceive. I think the video can be found on you tube.

And I agree with you that doctors should have to tell patients ALL the effects of the birth control pill. I will never go on the pill again!

Stephanie said...

Came across your blog today, and just have to say I think it's great! I'll definitely be adding it to my Google Reader feed! :D

Natalie said...

a good friend of mine was explaining to me how the bcp can prevent implantation which I did NOT know for the 4+ years I was on it. I was SO mad, just like you! I can't imagine know that I basically aborted my own baby. BUT now I know and I'll never go back on it again. I totally agree that doctors really should inform patients of that. Let's spread the word : )

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering where you got your chart from? If it comes with the book or if you made it yourself...

Anonymous said...

Great post, been looking for that.

Anonymous said...

Great writing, I've been looking for that.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the GREATEST blog I have read ever :)

Whitney said...

So glad I came back to see this. I took the BCP for a long time when I was younger, but since having a miscarriage and now a baby, I'm just not doing it anymore. I'm Catholic, and they call this Natural Family Planning at church and I have been very interested in seeing more about this. Definitely going to look into doing this!

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