We are in exciting times for menstruators. Knowledge reclamation about the menstrual cycle is rising. Many are fostering a deeper flow in their lives through this awareness. It’s never been easier to learn how to understand your menstrual cycle and gain full agency over your body and fertility.
I am both a naturopath and a certified Fertility Awareness Educator, so I’m rather passionate about sharing this knowledge. The Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) is a golden tool of sovereignty. It’s a portal to a whole new level of understanding and personal agency.
What is the Fertility Awareness Method?
In a nutshell, the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM for short) is understanding the changes in your body’s fertile signs.
These are cervical mucus and temperature. When you understand what these signs mean, you know what days of your cycle’ you’re fertile and which you are not.
There are a couple of different methods out there. Some of them grounded in science, others are not. Before using any Fertility Awareness Method, make sure you’ve got all the facts first.
This method uses a combination of cervical mucus observation and temperature to identify fertile times. When in the fertile window, if trying to get pregnant, this is the optimal time to have sex. If using for birth control, sex must be protected (i.e. condoms, diaphragm, etc.) or abstained. The symptothermal method is the type that I teach.
Natural family planning
Natural family planning is the same principles as FAM. The one difference is during the fertile window; sex is avoided. It is the method backed by the Catholic Church, as this system of faith does not believe in using barriers to conception.
User beware, the rhythm method is what gives FAM a lousy name. Please note, this is NOT a reliable form of birth control.
Introduced in the 1930s, the Rhythm Method based itself on the discovery of the timing of ovulation in the menstrual cycle. The studies found that ovulation usually occurred around day 10 – 14 based on a 28-day cycle.
It does not give you real-time information about your unique cycle. Ovulation can occur at completely different times for different women. Even though the rhythm method has been outdated for around five decades, many people still rely upon it. The Rhythm Method is what many apps developed upon.
How does FAM work?
FAM’s mode of action is through your knowledge and observations of your menstrual cycle and correctly identifying your fertile window. The method works by having an intimate understanding of YOUR biology. Not a textbook woman’s biology. Not an app telling you about yours.
It’s that simple and that tricky, as we’re not taught how to tune into our bodies so carefully.
Your Fertile Signs: Cervical Mucus & Basal Body Temperature
The cervix is the neck of the uterus that leads down to the vagina. Within the cervix are a series of glands that are mucus-producing machines. When there is no egg around, thick mucus creates a plug that closes off the vagina to the uterus. For roughly 3/4 of your cycle, the sperm has no access and are killed. More simply put, cervical mucus the gatekeeper of fertility.
As ovulation approaches, fertile mucus is produced. You will typically experience this as a wet or slippery sensation. This is a sign that the cervix is open and the sperm has free passage up into the uterus.
Fertile mucus is very accommodating to sperm. It can keep sperm alive for up to 5 days (6-7 days in some instances) and contains channels that create speedways for the sperm to travel.
During the fertile window, from the time of ejaculation to the sperm hanging out in the fallopian tubes awaiting our egg is 20 minutes. It’s a very efficient system!
The presence of this type of mucus indicates that you’re in your fertile window – a.k.a the time you can get pregnant.
For the rest of the cycle, you’ll experience infertile mucus. This is much thicker and stickier. You’ll typically experience a sense of dryness at this time.
This type of mucus is not accommodating to sperm at all. It forms a mucous plug that secures itself in the cervix which is impenetrable to sperm. There are no channels. It contains more of a mesh that traps the sperm, and rich in immune cells that engulf them. They will die within 2 hours. This is the time that you cannot get pregnant.
Take-home point: Ovulation only occurs once each cycle, and if the egg is not fertilised, it dies within 12-24 hours. You can not get pregnant unless you have unprotected sex during your fertile window.
Basal Body Temperature (also referred to as ‘waking temperature’)
When you track your temperature every day, you will notice a pattern. It’s different for every menstruator, but will generally be divided into low temperatures in the first half of the cycle, and high temperatures in the second half.
Our basal body temperature (BBT) is the lowest body temperature taken after 4-6 hours of complete rest (i.e. sleep) before any activity.
After ovulation, BBT will shift 0.2-0.5 degrees celsius (or and will usually remain elevated until menstruation. The rise is caused by increased levels of progesterone produced by the ovary ONLY after the release on an egg. It is possible to have cycles where ovulation did not occur.
Progesterone is a hormone that increases our metabolic rate. When our metabolism goes up, so does our body temperature. A rise in temperature that remains elevated is a clear sign that ovulation has occurred and that you’re in the post-ovulatory phase.
What are the benefits of FAM for natural birth control?
FAM is an effective alternative to hormonal birth control without any side effects or impacts on long-term fertility.
It’s free, and it invites you to tune in to your body and your womb. And it is a method that provides you with ‘live information’.
Many factors can affect your cycles. By knowing how to interpret your mucus, you will know precisely how these factors are impacting your fertility.
How reliable is the Fertility Awareness Method for natural birth control?
The symptothermal based FAM when combined with barrier methods during the fertile window is 99.4% effective “provided the appropriate guidelines are consistently adhered to” (Frank-Herrmann et al., 2007).
Knowing how to use this method correctly and confidently is the key. There have been excellent studies that have looked into what conditions are needed for women to gain full confidence and competence in the method.
These factors are:
- skillful teaching – an educator that is thorough, –concise, relevant and uses everyday language
- the teacher uses the method
- regular review, support and supervision
- using barrier methods through the learning phase
- continuous and complete charting
- reinforcement from partners, book, friends and community
(Hampton, Mazza, & Newton, 2013; World Health Organisation, 1981)
So, get a good teacher, be very careful in the beginning, have excellent resources, get your partner on board and chart every day.
Frank-Herrmann, P., Heil, J., Gnoth, C., Toledo, E., Baur, S., Pyper, C., … Freundl, G. (2007). The effectiveness of a fertility awareness-based method to avoid pregnancy in relation to a couple’s sexual behaviour during the fertile time: a prospective longitudinal study. Human Reproduction (Oxford, England), 22(5), 1310–1319. https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/dem003
Hampton, K. D., Mazza, D., & Newton, J. M. (2013). Fertility-awareness knowledge, attitudes, and practices of women seeking fertility assistance. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 69(5), 1076–1084. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2012.06095.x
World Health Organisation. (1981). A prospective multicentre trial of the ovulation method of natural family planning. I. the teaching phase**Supported by the Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland. Fertility and Sterility, 36(2), 152–158. https://www.doi.org/10.1016/S0015-0282(16)45671-2