Despite decades of medical progress and technological advancement, researchers have yet to design a perfect form of birth control and many women still struggle with infertility. But ancient wisdom may help answer these modern dilemmas. One of the oldest and most widely practiced strategies of conception and contraception, Fertility Awareness empowers women to become knowledgeable and active in their reproductive health. Whether they want to avoid a pregnancy, achieve one or simply learn more about their bodies, understanding monthly hormone cycles is essential for better health and better health care.
Fertility Awareness (FA), also known as the Sympto-Thermal Method, helps women and couples understand basic information about fertility and reproduction. Three fertility signs – waking body temperature, cervical fluid and position of the cervix – are charted on a daily basis to identify the fertile days of each menstrual cycle, and to determine if and when ovulation and pregnancy occur.
Like any new skill, FA must be learned and used correctly to be effective. Many women can learn the charting techniques and rules of interpretation by reading a book. Others may prefer to take a class with a certified instructor. Once the basic principles are learned, charting only takes minutes each day but requires a commitment to consistent practice.
According to Planned Parenthood, Fertility Awareness is 97 to 99 percent effective when used correctly. Unlike other methods of contraception, FA is free of chemicals, exogenous hormones and side effects. Through identification of fertile days, FA shortens the time that couples need to use barrier contraceptive devices, such as condoms, diaphragms or cervical caps.
Fertility Awareness is often confused with the Rhythm Method and Natural Family Planning. Although none prevent sexually transmitted diseases, all three can be used as birth control, with varying degrees of success.
The Rhythm Method relies on past cycles to predict future fertility. In contrast, FA is based on daily observation of current fertility signs to determine if a woman can become pregnant on any given day. Women are only fertile a few days each month, around the time of ovulation. Because the length of each cycle and the exact day of ovulation may vary from month to month for each woman, FA is much more accurate than the Rhythm Method.
Natural Family Planning is similar to FA, but couples abstain from intercourse during fertile days, rather than using barrier methods of contraception. Couples who use Natural Family Planning may have religious reasons to choose abstinence over contraception, but like couples who practice FA, they desire a natural method of effective birth control.
Just as the identification of fertile days can be used to avoid pregnancy, it can also be used to achieve pregnancy. Menstrual cycles vary among women, usually from 24 to 36 days, but many health care practitioners assume that women have 28 day cycles and ovulate on day 14. Women who are treated for infertility often undergo expensive and uncomfortable tests and procedures, but these are only effective when timed correctly.
When couples are trying to get pregnant, FA will not only determine when sexual intercourse is likely to result in conception, but it can provide vital information for the diagnosis and treatment of infertility. Women who practice FA can help their doctors determine whether their fertility problems result from hormone imbalance, infertile cervical fluid, anovulation, late ovulation, a short luteal phase or miscarriage. With this information, doctors can time tests and procedures to ensure optimal results.
Fertility Awareness can also be a useful tool in other areas of reproductive health. When women regularly chart their fertility signs, they recognize changes that may indicate potential health problems. Those who experience irregular bleeding, cervical abnormalities, premenstrual syndrome and vaginal or urinary tract infections can provide their doctors with information to facilitate diagnosis and prevent unnecessary and invasive tests. Many health care practitioners diagnose common conditions based on the average women’s symptoms, but women who practice FA can help their doctors identify individual irregularities based on the unique nature of their menstrual cycle.
For more information about Fertility Awareness, books are a great place to start. Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer are both excellent resources.
Or find a certified instructor near you by contacting your local health department or Planned Parenthood for information and referrals. For classes and workshops in New York City, contact the Fertility Awareness Center at 212-475-4490.