If you and your partner have tried to conceive but have been unsuccessful, you may need a lesson in fertility (or at least some brushing up).
The menstrual cycle begins every month on the first day of menstruation and generally lasts 28 days. Ovulation generally occurs on or around the 14th day of the cycle. It is important to remember, however, that many women have cycles that are very different from this pattern.
How it Works
If the egg is not fertilized by sperm, the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) is shed, which rids the egg and creates a clean environment for the next ovulation cycle. This process is the menstrual period.
For conception to occur, there must be three factors working together: sperm, an egg and cervical mucus.
During sex, the sperm are ejected into the vagina - which is a very hostile place for sperm to be. As they travel towards the uterus, they must first pass through the neck-like opening called the cervix. A few days after ovulation and for most of the cycle, the cervix is closed and sealed by a protective, thick mucus. This mucus protects the uterus from infection and prevents sperm from entering.
Right before ovulation, however, the mucus changes into a thinner, slicker consistency and becomes beneficial to sperm. Not only does it act as the perfect lubricant for the vagina, but it also provides an environment where sperm can easily travel through the cervix and into the uterus. Before entering the uterus, the mucus "feeds" the sperm, nourishing the cells so that they are stronger, while filtering out the abnormal cells. The number of sperm dwindles before reaching the fallopian tubes; only the strongest will make it. They continue to travel up through the uterus and into the fallopian tubes, where the egg is traveling down.
Tracking Mucus Changes
These mucus changes are generally noticeable to a woman during normal visits to the bathroom. A few days before ovulation, you may notice the mucus when using toilet paper. The first phase of the mucus is generally white and sticky. It can be stretched from thumb to middle finger easily. After a few days, the mucus becomes wetter and more abundant. Most women report that the mucus is very slippery. It is right around these slippery mucus days that ovulation should occur.
This method of tracking mucus changes was introduced in the 1960s and is commonly referred to as the Billings Ovulation Method. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that in five different countries, 91 percent of women who were taught how to track their mucus changes for only one cycle were rated as having a good or excellent understanding of the method.
Tracking the Basal Body Temperature
Upon awakening, the body is in a "basal state."
Taking your temperature with a special thermometer each morning at the same time gives you your basal body temperature. Like the ovulation tracking method, changes in the body are recorded on a chart, in hopes to predict ovulation. But, unlike the ovulation method, the changes are recorded on a daily basis throughout the cycle and past charts are studied for prediction more seriously because ovulation is not apparent on the chart until after it has occurred.
So, when taking your temperature for the first cycle, the reading will remain about the same (with no large changes) for the first weeks of the cycle and through ovulation. It is after ovulation has already occurred that the temperature reading will rise. This is due to the progesterone that is released. This higher temperature remains until menstruation begins.
After charting a few cycles, a couple may begin to notice a very scheduled pattern. Ovulation can then be predicted.
Using the Methods Together
Commonly called the "Sympto-thermal" method, using both the basal body temperature tracking method and the ovulation tracking method together can increase the awareness of fertility.
Charting both temperature changes and mucus changes may seem daunting, but can greatly improve your chances of conception. It can help both you and your partner become more aware of fertility changes that might affect your mood or sexual appetite.
Many couples will use these methods to avoid pregnancy once they have had a child.
In the end, working together to understand fertility on such an intimate level may be the best way to strengthen the relationship and prepare for parenthood.
Talk to your gynecologist about your interest in learning fertility tracking methods like those mentioned in this article. Some doctors have sample charts and basal thermometers and will explain the method in more detail.
Using these methods based on information in this article alone is not recommended.
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Tracking Your Fertility - Just the basics