Years ago when I was beginning to think about birth control options I felt uneasy about hormonal birth control. I personally didn’t like to take medications or take hormones to alter a perfectly working system. I resigned to the fact that maybe I would just use the ring or an IUD if it came down to it because I figured it would be easier and assumed the hormonal impact would be less.
When my husband and I first began dating (um, yeah, we may be high school sweet hearts…) his cousin was in the seminary and he sent me a book called Life Giving Love by Kimberly Hahn. The book was quite influential in two things: my spiritual life and my sexual one. Much of the book was about Natural Family Planning. Later on, Marc (the husband) and I also had attended a conference by Chris West on the Theology of the body and it reaffirmed some of my newly founded beliefs. But this post isn’t about religion; it’s about birth control (although they were entwined for myself).
There are several birth control options for couples these days. Natural Family Planning or the Fertility Awareness Method, are symptom-thermal methods of birth control. THIS IS NOT THE RHYTHM METHOD! The rhythm method makes the assumption that everyone ovulates on the same timeline – not true. Your doctor may say that NFP is the rhythm method and then tell you that if you want to conceive you should have sex around day 14 (which is actually the assumption of the rhythm method -how ironic). With NFP/FAM you chart your waking temperatures (thermal) and cervical fluid (symptom) observations to determine your fertile window and act accordingly when you are fertile (to either abstain or not). This week is Natural Family Planning Awareness Week so I wanted to highlight my experience and how it works.
For the first couple of years I used charts from the Couple to Couple League. I then made my own on Excel (because I love Excel), and eventually I moved on to tracking them online. I have an app from Fertility Friend that I can track on my phone, or track online. You can upgrade your membership for a cost, or you can use the free site.
book on Fertility Awareness Method is Taking Charge of Your Fertility. The same site also sells software to track your charts. You can view galleries of people’s charts and join the forums for free. They also have a instructional course and videos.
The basics of how it works:
Your cycle is consists of 3 phases:
Phase 1: Your period and the time before you are fertile
Phase 2: Your fertile phase
Phase 3: The infertile time after you ovulate before you menstruate – called the luteal phase
Each phase has characteristic temperature and mucus patterns. When you are about to become fertile your temperatures will be lower and your cervical fluid will be watery or like egg whites. After you ovulate your temperature rises and your cervical mucus dries up or becomes more creamy and opaque.
Sperm can only last 5 days alive, and an egg only survives about 24 hours; 48 hours at the most after signs of ovulation, so you have a fertile window. More conservative users may abstain for a couple of days longer before ovulation.
- Free, or almost free: All you need is a thermometer and the initial training – either self learned from a book, or by taking a class.
- Safe and Natural: You are not ingesting or absorbing and hormones or pharmaceuticals.
- Charting can detect health problems and fertility issues: Your temperature chart can show if your body is not functioning properly by the length of the time after you ovulate and before you start your period, how you shed, and your temperatures. Your luteal phase should be 12-16 days, a time that allows proper preparation for your uterus to be able to house a child if you become pregnant. If shorter, you may have a defect that would inhibit you from conceiving and may indicate a hormonal imbalance. A hormonal imbalance may also show itself in a chart that has no observable pattern; typical of charts of those with PCOS and those that didn’t ovulate.
- Can be used to conceive: when you know when you are fertile, you know when you need to have sex. If you are having fertility problems, the chart, as mentioned above, can shed some light on the problem.
- Empowerment and knowledge: You learn so much about your own body and how it functions – many times you know more than some of the doctors you may meet.
- Opens communication: If you are choosing to abstain from intercourse while you are fertile, you have to continually talk to your partner about doing so. You also learn to show affection in a non-sexual way. Some research may suggest that couples who practice NFP/FAM have lower divorce rates.
- It’s effective: Rates vary from perfect use of over 99% to typical use of 90-93%
- NFP/FAM works best for couples in a committed relationship – it does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
- Practicing this form of birth control can also be more difficult if you work odd schedules, have irregular periods, or just gave birth. The Couple to Couple League, who puts on the classes for NFP can be helpful with any of these issues.
- It may take a couple of months for couples to fully understand how to use this method. I’m a huge fan of excel and charts so I enjoyed the process and didn’t find it overly complicated once I started charting temperatures.
- You have to abstain, or get creative. If you are trying to prevent pregnancy, you wouldn’t have sex while you were fertile. Some couples who do not feel any religious conviction may use condoms or pull-out when they are fertile, otherwise no sex for 7-10 days in a cycle.
- Some people really hate taking their temperatures and writing it down. Although it takes maybe a minute, some people find it irritating to have to go out of their way to temp and chart.
I’ve found that NFP/FAM can be incredibly awarding, enlightening, and sometimes frustrating. I’m not going to lie; some days which we needed to abstain seemed almost like torture, but overall, we are happy we chose this route.
I felt so empowered about learning how my body works. It is also nice to know when exactly you are going to start your period! Before you start your period, your temperature will usually drop that morning. No surprises.
I’ve also learned so much more on nutrition and the effect it has on my body. Not enough of a certain nutrient, or too much caffeine or alcohol can effect how your body functions. My friend was also referred to a nutrition to get her PCOS under control.
I also find it very interesting that you can find out if something isn’t working properly. My friend decided to try NFP after she was unhappy being on hormonal birth control. She found out through charting that she had PCOS. The Couple to Couple League were there to assist her when the doctors said the only solution was to go back on birth control. My husband and I have been facing fertility problems and I am working to improve my cycle through diet and taking certain nutrients. There are resources for natural solutions instead of the doctor deciding all you need is to take a fertility drug.
NFP/FAM isn’t for everyone, but I would definitely recommend it to others. If you are unsure about the whole thing, it doesn’t hurt to do your own research on the topic.