Natural family planning – you’ve heard the one about the people who use that, right? They’re called parents.
No, I hadn’t heard that a million times! The truth is that there is a family planning method – let’s not call it birth control or contraceptive, which it’s not – which is natural, safe, easy to use, approved by all (most?) faith groups and shockingly effective. (Parental advisory – this is likely not appropriate for any pre-pubescent children.)
There is a family planning method that is safe, easy to use, essentially free, causes no changes to your body, and is acceptable to most (maybe all) faith groups. If you’re not familiar with Natural Family Planning, you need to learn more.
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One thing needs to be established right off the bat, though. Natural Family Planning is not
the rhythm method”.
It does not consist of simply counting days on the calendar.
It certainly does not involve hoping and praying (although, that’s not to discount prayer!).
This is the method that I used for years, and, under normal circumstances, it allows couples to time pregnancies. That is, it can be used to get pregnant or to postpone pregnancy.
The female body is rather amazing in its design. We have built in signs that indicate exactly when we ovulate and are fertile. Years ago, before I had any of my children, I learned about Natural Family Planning and I was absolutely astounded. It almost seemed too good to be true.
The ironic part, though, was when I would go to my doctor, armed with my charts that showed exactly when I ovulated and conceived, with the exception of two midwives, they never believed me. That was a shame, really, since my charts were always more accurate than their ultrasounds.
There are three main signs, and they are easy to learn and understand.
Basal Body Temperature
This is a woman’s body temperature in the morning before she engages in any activity. (Yes, before going to pee!) Ideally, it is taken at the same time every morning after a full night’s sleep. In practice, it can be taken after a minimum of three hour’s sleep.
The basal body temperature drops during menstruation and rises during ovulation.
It’s that simple.
The temperature difference is very tiny, though, from 0.4-1 degree Fahrenheit and special thermometers have been designed to read these small variations.
Understanding Your Cervix
Every woman knows about this stuff.
It goes through stages – thick and sticky, creamy, dry, thin and stretchy. Like dealing with poop, we need to stop treating this as something gross and realize that it’s an important part of our body’s design. Really, and truly, my sister, if you’re old enough to have cervical fluid, you’re old enough to understand why you have it.
That last stage – thin and stretchy – indicates peak fertility and is frequently extremely noticeable on the day of ovulation. Yes, the cervical fluid shows what stage you’re at in your cycle.
After ovulation occurs, cervical fluid dries up. Any cervical fluid indicates that ovulation is approaching.
Cervical fluid is a clear indicator of the beginning of the fertile portion of a woman’s cycle.
Cervical Position and Texture
Shall I tell you one of my pet peeves? Most adult women have no idea where their cervix is and what it normally feels like. Doctors support this lack of awareness about our bodies, and it really needs to stop.
When I was about fourteen, I was reading a book, sort of an “owner’s manual” for the female body, and it gave some startling advice. If I didn’t know where my cervix was, it said, grab a mirror and go find it. Very Important Body Part.
With that said, the cervix also changes in position and texture during a woman’s cycle. At the beginning of the cycle, it is hard and low, but during fertility it softens and moves higher.
It’s That Simple
Every morning, before getting out of bed, reach for your handy basal thermometer and take your temperature. Make note of it (or save it on your thermometer) and then go pee.
While there, check cervix and mucus. Grab your chart and record temperature, cervical position and texture, and mucus. There are apps and online programs for recording this, but for years I used sheets of graph paper.
After a few months, a very clear pattern should start emerging, however it may take several months to understand your cycle completely. Remember, women are fertile for the five 24-hour days before, and the day of, ovulation.
This is the method I used for years and, while some might look at my large family and think it didn’t work, the opposite is true. It worked perfectly.
Now let’s look at how to interpret the pattern that you’re charting.
Interpreting The Pattern
- the temperature is lower
- no mucus until a few days before ovulation, and then it becomes slippery and stretchier as ovulation approaches
- the cervix is low and hard, softening and rising as ovulation approaches
- basal temperature rises 0.4-1 degree Fahrenheit
- cervical mucus dries up
- cervix lowers, firms up and closes
It’s important to know that the temperature rise occurs only after ovulation, so this must be used in conjunction with the calendar, cervical and mucus signs.
The calendar provides an estimation of when fertility is likely possible.
Cervical position and mucus indicate the beginning of the fertile phase.
Temperature rise shows that ovulation has happened. Twenty-four hours after ovulation, pregnancy is no longer possible.
While not every woman has a 28 day cycle, the normal range is 28-32 days, with ovulation occurring somewhere between day 11 and 21. When charting, consider the first day of menstruation to be day 1.
Generally, a woman is fertile for about 24 hours after ovulation. Usually only one egg is released, but if there are more, they will all be released within a 24 hour period. Sperm can live up to five days (rarely longer). This means that women are fertile for five days before, and the day of, ovulation. That’s all.
After charting for at least six months, and preferably longer, go through the charts and find the shortest and longest cycle.
Subtract 18 days from the shortest cycle (let’s say it was 28 days) to find out the first day of your fertility window. Subtract 11 days from the longest cycle (let’s say it was 32 days) to get the last day of the fertility window.
In this example, ovulation can be safely assumed to occur between days 10 and 21 and the other days can be safely considered non-fertile. Every month, quickly recalculate to keep this up-to-date.
Of course, this is a large window and depending solely on that is very limiting. Use this as a guide only to understand the earliest and latest days on which you are likely to ovulate. The other signs must be used along with this.
If the basal body temperature is high and has not dropped three weeks after ovulation, with no menstruation, there’s no need for a pregnancy test to make a diagnosis. Save yourself the cost of the test – no menstruation and three weeks of high basal temperature indicates pregnancy.
To determine approximate due date, take the first date of temperature rise, subtract 7 days and add nine months. This gives a date of 38 weeks after conception and is far more accurate than the calculations the doctors use. If you have a doctor that insists on dating pregnancy from last menstrual cycle, subtract 14 days from the date of conception and provide that date as the LMP.
Doctors have flat out told me in the past that “Women don’t really know when they ovulate, but they all know when they had their last period.” Even with a chart showing the date of ovulation, some doctors will refuse to accept the information.
There ARE exceptions – women who probably shouldn’t rely on this method. Want to know if you’re one of them?
Those Pesky Exceptions
Natural Family Planning won’t work for everyone. I’ll put that right out there.
Women with irregular cycles are going to find it more difficult. As I entered my forties and my body approached menopause, my cycles became quite erratic (with my post-ovulation phase dropping down as low as ten days!) and I would have multiple months without a detectable cycle. This made it very difficult to detect ovulation. Of course, it still happened, and that’s why I had two beautiful little girls very close together. Women who are approaching menopause should use caution if a pregnancy would cause health or financial issues. Pregnancy can certainly occur even without menstruation.
By the same token, if you have an erratic schedule so that you are not getting a solid and consistent night’s rest, Natural Family Planning may not work. Today, with two toddlers who frequently wake us at odd hours, I am often leaping out of bed to answer a distressed call for aid and I’m glad I’m not worrying about tracking my signs.
Women who work shifts may have difficulty with it.
Women with multiple little ones may not get even three undisturbed hours of sleep and should be extra careful. And some women find that their signs are a complete mess and unreadable for quite a while after childbirth.
And finally, women who do not have the support of their partner, or have multiple partners, and those who have sexually transmitted diseases that affect cervical fluid are not going to find this useful.
This does not, obviously, protect against diseases.
In order to be effective (to prevent or achieve pregnancy), it requires daily, consistent commitment.
Unlike some proponents of NFP, I do not think it is the perfect choice for all women today.
Then again, what is?
I think menstruating women of all ages should learn how their bodies work and how to identify signs of fertility. Even in cases where it does not work perfectly, understanding your cycle and how your body works will help you help your doctors.
This is the only family planning method that is essentially free and requires nothing more than a basal thermometer (which can be used for a very long time) and a piece of graph paper.
Seriously – that’s all I used for years.