Fertility awareness (FA) refers to a set of practices used to determine the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle. Fertility awareness methods may be used to avoid pregnancy, to achieve pregnancy, or as a way to monitor gynecological health.
Methods of identifying infertile days have been used for over a thousand years, but scientific knowledge gained during the past century has greatly increased the accuracy of these systems. From 1930 to 1980, all research and promotion of fertility awareness was done by those associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Fertility awareness organizations continue to be predominately Catholic, but some secular organizations now exist.
Systems of fertility awareness rely on observation of changes in one or more of the primary fertility signs (basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and cervical position), records of menstrual cycle length, or both. Other signs may also be observed: these include breast tenderness and mittelschmerz (ovulation pains), urine analysis strips known as ovulation predictor kits (OPKs), and microscopic examination of saliva or cervical fluid. Also available are computerized fertility monitors.
Systems of fertility awareness may be referred to as fertility awareness-based methods (FAB methods); the term Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) refers specifically to the system taught by Toni Weschler. The term natural family planning" (NFP) is sometimes used to refer to any use of FA methods. However, NFP specifically refers to practices that are approved by the Roman Catholic Church: breastfeeding infertility, and periodic abstinence during fertile times. A method of FA may be used by NFP users to identify these fertile times.
Women who are breastfeeding a child and wish to avoid pregnancy may be able to practice the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM). LAM is distinct from fertility awareness, but because it also does not involve devices or chemicals, it is often presented alongside FA as a method of natural birth control.
In 1905 Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde, a Dutch gynecologist, showed that women only ovulate once per menstrual cycle. In the 1920s, Kyusaku Ogino, a Japanese gynecologist, and Hermann Knaus, from Austria, independently discovered that ovulation occurs about fourteen days before the next menstrual period. Ogino used his discovery to develop a formula for use in aiding infertile women time intercourse to achieve pregnancy. In 1930, John Smulders, Roman Catholic physician from the Netherlands, used this discovery to create a method for avoiding pregnancy. Smulders published his work with the Dutch Roman Catholic medical association, and this was the first formalized system for periodic abstinence - the rhythm method.
The first organization to teach a symptothermal method was founded in 1971. John and Sheila Kippley, lay Catholics, joined with Dr. Konald Prem in teaching an observational method that relied on all three signs: temperature, mucus, and also cervical position. Their organization is now called Couple to Couple League International. The next decade saw the founding of other now-large Catholic organizations - Family of the Americas (1977), teaching the Billings method, and the Pope Paul VI Institute (1985), teaching a new mucus-only system called the Creighton Model.
Up until the 1980s, information about fertility awareness was only available from Catholic sources. The first secular teaching organization was the Fertility Awareness Center in New York, founded in 1981. Toni Weschler started teaching in 1982 and published the bestselling book Taking Charge of Your Fertility in 1995. Justisse was founded in 1987 in Edmonton, Canada. These secular organizations all teach symptothermal methods. Although the Catholic organizations are significantly larger than the secular fertility awareness movement, independent secular teachers have become increasingly common throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Basal body temperature is a person’s temperature taken when they first wake up in the morning (or after their longest sleep period of the day). In women, ovulation will trigger a rise in BBT between 0.3 and 0.9 °C (0.5 and 1.6 °F) that lasts approximately until the next menstruation. This temperature shift may be used to determine the onset of post-ovulatory infertility.
The appearance of cervical mucus and vulvar sensation are generally described together as two ways of observing the same sign. Cervical mucus is produced by the cervix, which separates the uterus from the vaginal canal. Fertile cervical mucus promotes sperm life by decreasing the acidity of the vagina, and also helps guide sperm through the cervix and into the uterus. The production of fertile cervical mucus is caused by the same hormone (estrogen) that prepares a woman’s body for ovulation. By observing her cervical mucus, and paying attention to the sensation as it passes the vulva, a woman can detect when her body is gearing up for ovulation, and also when ovulation has passed. When ovulation occurs, estrogen production drops slightly and progesterone starts to rise. The rise in progesterone causes a distinct change in the quantity and quality of mucus observed at the vulva.
The cervix changes position in response to the same hormones that cause cervical mucus to be produced and to dry up. When a woman is in an infertile phase of her cycle, the cervix will be low in the vaginal canal; it will feel firm to the touch (like the tip of a person’s nose); and, the os – the opening in the cervix – will be relatively small, or ‘closed’. As a woman becomes more fertile, the cervix will rise higher in the vaginal canal; it will become softer to the touch (more like a person’s lips); and the os will become more open. After ovulation has occurred, the cervix will revert to its infertile position.
Mucus- and temperature-based methods used to determine post-ovulatory infertility, when used to avoid conception, result in very low perfect-use pregnancy rates. However, mucus and temperature systems have certain limitations in determining pre-ovulatory infertility. A temperature record alone provides no guide to fertility or infertility before ovulation occurs. Determination of pre-ovulatory infertility may be done by observing the absence of fertile cervical mucus; however, this results in a higher failure rate than that seen in the period of post-ovulatory infertility. Relying only on mucus observation also means that unprotected sexual intercourse is not allowed during menstruation, since any mucus would be obscured.
Use of certain calendar rules to determine the length of the pre-ovulatory infertile phase allows unprotected intercourse during the first few days of the menstrual cycle, while maintaining a very low risk of pregnancy. With mucus-only methods, there is a possibility of incorrectly identifying mid-cycle or anovulatory bleeding as menstruation. Keeping a BBT chart enables accurate identification of menstruation, when pre-ovulatory calendar rules may be reliably applied. In temperature-only systems, a calendar rule may be relied on alone to determine pre-ovulatory infertility. In symptothermal systems, the calendar rule is cross-checked by mucus records: observation of fertile cervical mucus overrides any calendar-determined infertility.
Calendar rules may set a standard number of days, specifying that (depending on a woman's past cycle lengths) the first three to six days of each menstrual cycle are considered infertile. Or, a calendar rule may require calculation, for example holding that the length of the pre-ovulatory infertile phase is equal to the length of a woman's shortest cycle minus twenty-one days. Rather than being tied to cycle length, a calendar rule may be determined from the cycle day on which a woman observes a thermal shift. One system has the length of the pre-ovulatory infertile phase equal to a woman's earliest historical day of temperature rise minus seven days.
Saliva microscopes, when correctly used, can detect ferning structures in the saliva that precede ovulation. Ferning is usually detected beginning three days before ovulation, and continuing until ovulation has occurred. During this window, ferning structures occur in cervical mucus as well as saliva.
Fertility monitors are available under various brand names. These monitors may use BBT-only systems, they may analyze urine test strips, or they may monitor the electrical resistance of saliva and vaginal fluids.
The failure rate of fertility awareness varies widely depending on the system used to identify fertile days, the instructional method, and the population being studied. Some studies have found actual failure rates of 25% per year or higher. At least one study has found a failure rate of less than 1% per year with continuous intensive coaching and monthly review, and several studies have found actual failure rates of 2-3% per year.
When used correctly and consistently with ongoing coaching, some studies have shown some forms of FA to be 99% effective, the same as oral contraceptives.
From Contraceptive Technology:
The most common reason for the lower actual effectiveness is not mistakes on the part of instructors or users, but conscious user non-compliance, i.e., the couple knowing that the woman is likely to be fertile at the time, but engaging in sexual intercourse nonetheless. This is similar to failures of barrier methods, which are primarily caused by non-use of the method.
Studies of cervical-mucus methods of fertility awareness have found pregnancy rates of 67%-81% in the first cycle if intercourse occurred on the Peak Day of the mucus sign.
Because of high rates of very early miscarriage (25% of pregnancies are lost within the first six weeks since the woman's last menstrual period, or LMP), the methods used to detect pregnancy may lead to bias in conception rates. Less-sensitive methods will detect lower conception rates, because they miss the conceptions that resulted in early pregnancy loss. A Chinese study of couples practicing random intercourse to achieve pregnancy used very sensitive pregnancy tests to detect pregnancy. It found a 40% conception rate per cycle over the 12-month study period.
Fertile cervical mucus is important in creating an environment that allows sperm to pass through the cervix and into the fallopian tubes where they wait for ovulation. Fertility charts can help diagnose hostile cervical mucus, a common cause of infertility. If this condition is diagnosed, some sources suggest taking guaifenesin in the few days before ovulation to thin out the mucus.
Estimated ovulation dates from fertility charts are a more accurate method of estimating gestational age than the traditional pregnancy wheel or last menstrual period (LMP) method of tracking menstrual periods.
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