You may have heard the term Fertility Awareness, Natural Family Planning, or Cycle Tracking before. You may even keep track of your cycles start and end using an app or piece of paper (if you’re old fashioned like me). But what really is cycle tracking?
Cycle tracking is typically considered to be a method of Fertility Awareness (FA) because biologically your menstrual cycle is all about fertility. It’s also something people often come across when they are looking for natural methods of birth control or are wanting to improve their chances of becoming pregnant. And it can be incredibly useful in these ways if used correctly.
What it really is though, is a way of understanding your menstrual cycle.
It is a method of getting in tune with the rhythm of your body, learning the natural processes of your cycle, and gaining insights into your overall health.
So who is cycle tracking for?
Any menstruating female can learn to do this to help improve their understanding of their cycle and their body.
If optimizing fertility is your goal, learning to track your cycle can help you accurately identify your fertile window and increase your chances of becoming pregnant.
If natural birth control is your goal some studies have shown that when applied correctly this method can have over a 99% rate of preventing pregnancy. However, it does not protect someone from getting an STI and if you have a medical condition or are on a medication that you absolutely cannot get pregnant on, this may not be your best option for birth control. Talk to your healthcare provider and/or a certified FA instructor if you have more questions about exploring your options.
Besides using it to get pregnant or not get pregnant, what’s the benefit?
When you understand what natural is, what is normal for you, it is easier to be attuned to when something is off.
If you have irregular cycles it can help you and your healthcare provider discover what the cause may be and create a path forward for healing. If you are coming off of birth control it can help you regain an understanding of your true cycle patterns. Even if you are on birth control, starting to learn how to read your body signs can help you connect and understand your body better.
This is primarily a tool to improve body literacy - the understanding of how your body works. This is important because with understanding comes empathy and knowledge. With knowledge comes empowerment.
And feeling empowered about your body?
That is something everyone deserves to have.
Okay, how does it work?
There are a variety of methods out there that use one or more of the following metrics. I find using what is officially called the symptothermal method to be the most useful and thorough.
To help you understand your cycle in depth these are the three main signs that are tracked.
Tracking your cervical mucus, or cervical fluid, is quite possibly the most important sign. When you start to notice discharge mid-cycle or feel a lubricative sensation when you wipe your vulva with a piece of toilet paper, this indicates the beginning of your fertile window. It typically starts out as a whitish - opaque mucus that has a creamy consistency and may stretch a tiny bit between your fingers - this is called non-peak mucus. Right before and up to ovulation you may notice a change to a more clear, much more stretchy (think egg white consistency) fluid - this would be peak mucus.
Both types of mucus indicate fertility as sperm can survive in both.
You are only fertile on the days you notice this fluid. Typically this is 5-7 days before ovulation, but several things can impact or change this number.
After ovulation your body no longer produces this fertile mucus and you will notice “dry days” where wiping with toilet paper does not produce any sort of lubricative sensation. You can cross check for confirmation of ovulation using these other signs.
Basal Body Temperature
Taking your temperature is most likely the tracking sign you are familiar with. On its own it can only tell you that ovulation has occurred after the event has happened. This is because your basal body temperature rises with exposure to progesterone. Your body starts producing progesterone after ovulation and maintains it during the second half of your cycle (your luteal phase), which causes a sustained rise in BBT. You will notice your temperature drop again once you start your period. If you are pregnant, you will keep producing progesterone and your BBT will stay elevated.
To track BBT, take your temperature at approximately the same time every morning when you wake up, before you get out of bed. Ideally after at least 5 hours of consecutive sleep. There are many types of basal body thermometers but in general you want one that goes to 2 decimal points and takes at least 60 seconds to record your temperature.
Over time you will notice patterns in your temperature and may notice that certain situations, such as illness, stress, travel, alcohol etc cause fluctuations from the norm.
This one may be a little less known and is a little more hands on. But in conjunction with the other two can help give you the most accurate picture of knowing when ovulation has occurred.
Just like cervical mucus and your BBT change throughout your cycle, the position and texture of your cervix (the tube - like structure in your vagina that leads to your uterus) does too. The closer to ovulation you are, your cervix will feel softer and will be positioned higher up in your vaginal canal due to the estrogen being produced. After ovulation it moves to sit lower and takes on a firmer more closed feel due to the progesterone.
There isn’t a lot of change day to day with this sign, but it’s another piece of knowing your body, understanding your cycle. It’s best to do it daily for one or two cycles to get familiar with the sensations and positioning. Best time to do it? In the shower! Insert your middle finger into your vagina until you feel your cervix and observe what you feel. If it’s a little harder to find or you have short fingers, try squatting down to make it easier.
How do I keep track?
There are so many apps and devices out on the market today - many marketed as cycle trackers. And yes, many do help you keep track of when your cycle started, when it ended, but when they give you your fertile window or the day you ovulate, it may not be accurate because they use algorithms to estimate - a glorified version of the Rhythm method (which is not particularly useful for the majority of women whose bodies and cycles do not operate like clockwork)
In order to accurately cycle track based on your own observations of your body either look for an app that allows you to turn off the automatic predictions and purely input your own information or consider paper charting. Paper chart examples can be found here
No matter where you are at in your journey, learning more about what’s normal for your body can have benefits. I invite you to be curious about your body and recognize that these are very natural processes.
If you are interested in learning more, reach out for a consult. Additionally, some of my favorite resources for learning more about cycle tracking are Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and The Fifth Vital Sign by Lisa Hendrickson-Jack.
This content is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not medical advice.