Natural family planning, or fertility awareness, is a bit of a hot topic. Technically, this birth control method can be 75-99 percent effective, and that’s an uncomfortably wide range. That’s because this method only works when it is done perfectly, and not everyone is willing (or able) to take that gamble. For that reason, many doctors are hesitant to recommend it.
Despite that, natural family planning is used by many (mostly married) couples. Some use it to improve their chances of becoming pregnant, since it tracks a woman’s peak fertility time. On the other hand, it can also be used as a form of natural birth control. To be effective, this requires fully understanding a woman’s fertility cycle.
Honestly, you should consider another form of birth control—such as condoms, the pill, implants, or an intrauterine device (IUD)—if you have irregular periods, have recently given birth, are breastfeeding, or have any other conditions that may cause an irregular cycle. Natural family planning relies on a consistent and predictable fertility cycle to be effective.
Here’s how natural family planning works: Couples using natural family planning will track a woman’s menstrual cycle closely, and then abstain from sex (or use a barrier method like a condom) during ovulation.
There are several ways to track your fertility:
Track the calendar. The first day of a woman’s period is considered day one of the cycle. Typically a woman will ovulate between days 13-15. (Here’s a more in-depth look at the female reproductive system and the menstrual cycle.)
Monitor your temperature every morning with a basal body thermometer. The day your temperature peaks is an indication that the egg has left the ovary and you are in your fertile window.
Note the changes in the amount and consistency of what doctors call “cervical mucus” (and what women recognize as the totally normal discharge that kinda resembles raw egg whites). It varies in texture and color, but during a woman’s fertility window, it will be more clear and heavy.
By tracking one or more of these symptoms, you can determine when ovulation happens. The fertility window is considered to occur three days before ovulation and three days after, so abstain or use other birth control methods during this time.
While natural family planning can be effective for some couples, it does have some serious issues to consider. Natural family planning does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unlike condoms. And of course, it’s really easy to make mistakes with this method, so if you’re going to use it, talk to your doctor to learn how to accurately track your cycles.