Fertility Awareness Methods
There are a variety of fertility awareness methods (“FAM”) of family planning, but all require that the women have fairly regular periods and if not, they will be less reliable. All have the benefit that these methods need no medicines or devices—and thus are free from the side effects of medicines or devices. However, they offer no disease protection, and can have a fairly high failure rate (24%).
Strictly speaking, FAM methods are free or nearly so, except for the thermometer needed for temperature-based methods. However, there are various devices that can help with fertility tracking (search “fertility tracking device”), and these can be beneficial. Costs of these devices range from $20 for an ovulation detection test strip, to $500 for an electronic temperature-based fertility monitor. There are also phone apps available for tracking fertility, ranging from free to a few hundred dollars or even a monthly subscription fee (search “fertility tracking app”).
In general, women are most fertile during the following times:
- 5 days before ovulation
- the day of ovulation
- 12 to 24 hours after ovulation
All fertility awareness methods require that the couple avoid unprotected sex during these fertile times, and the Catholic Church teaches abstinence during these times.
However, FAM can also be used when a couple is ready to have a baby, as it greatly improves a couple’s odds of conceiving if sex occurs during the fertile days.
If you are interested in FAM based family planning, it is generally recommended that you undergo some training in your chosen method. Furthermore, it may be best to start charting your cycle a few months before you get married, so that you have a good baseline with which to start.
Although these methods are somewhat complex, we present some basics here, so that you can begin to learn about these methods and have a basis for further investigation.
There are several FAM methods available, but the methods are grouped into one of three types: 1) symptom based methods, 2) calendar based methods, and 3) breast feeding based methods. There are many combination methods as well, using two or more of these various methods.
Symptom Based Methods
The three primary signs of a woman’s fertility are basal body temperature, thickness of the cervical mucus, and the cervical position. Hormones can also be detected, but require the purchase of test kits, and some are marketed for getting pregnant, rather than avoiding it.
Temperature goes up very slightly after ovulation. For temperature-based methods, you must take your temperature orally each morning before you get out of bed using a special basal temperature thermometer, which can detect very small changes.
If you record your temperature every day, you will see that prior to ovulation your temperature is somewhat regular. As you approach ovulation, you may notice a slight decline, followed by a sharp increase after ovulation.
Because the increase happens after you have ovulated, this method is best used by those who have time to track and study their charts for a few months in advance, to ensure the best chances of success.
Illness, travel, and alcohol or drug-use can affect temperature and make it difficult to establish an accurate reading. Lack of sleep can also affect temperature reading, so it is important to get at least 3 consecutive hours of sleep before taking your basal body temperature.
The mucus based method tracks mucus quality, which is more wet and slippery during ovulation. To practice this method, collect the mucus from the vaginal opening with your fingers by wiping them from front to back. Record it daily on your fertility calendar by making note of the color, consistency and the feel. Ovulation usually occurs within 1-2 days of when the mucus is clearest, slippery, and most stretchy, if not on the peak day itself.
With training one can also feel the position of the cervix. This is done once a day in the evening, and is never used alone, but only in conjunction with another fertility indicator such as temperature or mucus.
During the fertile phase the cervix moves upwards away from the vaginal opening and around the time of the ‘peak’ mucus symptom, at the time of maximum fertility, the cervix reaches its highest point making it difficult to reach with the finger. This is called the maximum cervix position. During the fertile phase the cervix becomes progressively softer and feels wet due to the presence of mucus and the cervical opening will gradually open to admit a fingertip and will be at its maximum width at ovulation.
Any change in position and consistency of the cervix from its original infertile state indicates the beginning of the fertile phase and usually corresponds with the beginning of the mucus symptoms.
Calendar-based methods determine fertility based on a record of the length of previous menstrual cycles. They include the Rhythm Method and the Standard Days Method.
Before relying on the rhythm method, a woman records the number of days in each menstrual cycle for at least 6 months. The first day of monthly bleeding is always counted as day 1.
The fertile time is estimated by subtracting 18 from the length of her shortest recorded cycle. This provides the estimated first day of the fertile time. Then subtract 11 days from the length of her longest recorded cycle. This tells her the estimated last day of her fertile time. Unprotected sex is then avoided during this fertile period.
The concept behind the Standard Days Method is that women with regular menstrual cycles lasting 26-32 days can prevent pregnancy by avoiding unprotected intercourse on days 8 through 19. This 12-day fertile window takes into account the variability in the timing of ovulation and the viability of sperm in the woman’s reproductive tract. A string of color-coded beads in the shape of a necklace (CycleBeads) helps users of the Standard Days Method to identify the fertile and infertile days of their cycle, as well as to monitor their cycle length.
Breast Feeding Based Methods
The lactational amenorrhea method or “LAM” is a method of avoiding pregnancy based on the natural infertility that occurs after giving birth when a woman is amenorrheic—not having periods—and fully breastfeeding the new baby. The rules of the method help a woman identify and possibly lengthen her infertile period.
A woman can use LAM if:
- her period has not returned since delivery (light spotting during the first 56 days does not count) AND
- she is breastfeeding her baby on demand, both day and night and not feeding other foods or liquids regularly AND
- her baby is less than six months old.
As you can see, FAM based methods are somewhat complicated and require some training and consistency. Further, there are many variations on FAM that are not covered here. Our treatment of this topic is by necessity incomplete, and we only touched on the basics. Really, an entire book could be written on this topic, and many have been.
For a quiz on which FAM method might be best for you, visit:
For more information on fertility awareness-based methods, the links below may be helpful: