Image courtesy of annstheclaf
For better or worse, I’ve been pretty open and public about our difficulty conceiving babies. It just takes us a long time — 20 months the first time; 19 months the second time.
So every now and then, I’ll get an email from a friend or reader in a similar place seeking advice. Something like the following:
“We’ve been trying to have a baby for 10 months. What do you think we should do?”
And my first question is always the same:
“Well, are you charting?”
Most often, they’re not.
So my first piece of advice? Start charting!
(Please note that I am NOT a qualified medical expert; I’m just speaking from experience and personal research. This is my own personal opinion.)
Regular readers will know what I’m talking about; but new readers might not, so I’ll explain:
I’m talking about learning about and tracking your fertility signs.
The broader term for this approach is known as Natural Family Planning (NFP) or Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) (I generally prefer the second). It is a form of birth control used either to avoid or achieve pregnancy, by being aware of when you’re fertile and timing sex accordingly. (The average woman is only fertile for a handful of days every cycle, so you can choose what you want to do during that time: abstain or use a barrier method if you want to avoid pregnancy, or have well-timed sex if you want to have a baby.) There are several forms of NFP/FAM, including the symptothermal method, the Billings Ovulation method, and the Creighton method, just to name a few.
If used properly, FAM can be as effective as contraception for preventing pregnancy. And it can really enhance your chances of getting pregnant when you want to have a baby.
But knowing your fertility signs can do so much more than that, too. It can also give you valuable clues about your fertility and overall health. This information can be key when you’re having a hard time conceiving.
You can see whether or not you’re ovulating, or if you’re just ovulating late in your cycle. Maybe you’re just not timing sex right. You might find that your post-ovulatory phase is too short to support a pregnancy, or that you don’t have enough fertile-quality fluid. Maybe you’re actually repeatedly miscarrying very early and missing it. The easiest way to find out is to start charting.
In my opinion, learning about the Fertility Awareness Method is the least invasive and most empowering step towards understanding and enhancing your fertility.
Now, charting mostly just provides insight into the female half of the fertility equation (and about half of all fertility issues involve the man). As far as I know, the only way to get insight into the male half is for the husband to get a sperm analysis. I definitely recommend considering this option at some point as well; but I understand that many men are reluctant to take this step. I don’t blame them. And it’s possible that this unpleasant step may be avoided if the woman’s charting shows that her fertility needs improvement. Yes, it’s possible that both have fertility issues that need to be dealt with — in fact, about 10-20% of cases involve both partners. But depending on how long you’re willing to wait, if correcting the woman’s problem alone doesn’t help you could always take a look at the man’s later. (Or at the same time, if you’re in a hurry.)
Conversely, if the woman’s charts seem to show a very healthy cycle and strong fertility, you could look into male factor issues with more confidence that that’s where the problem lies.
Basically, as far as I can see, there are NO down sides to charting. It just provides you with knowledge.
It takes some time to learn, of course. And if you want to take classes with a qualified instructor (which I recommend) there is usually a bit of a cost (much less than most fertility testing and treatments, though). And charting can be more difficult if you already have children (who follow you into the bathroom and wake you up multiple times at night, making it slightly more challenging to observe your cervical fluids accurately and get a good basal body temperature reading). But no matter what, the information you get from charting is empowering.
(Of course, some women report feeling more stress when they’re always keeping such a close eye on their fertility signs, and worry that this might put a strain on their fertility. But in my personal experience, it’s more stressful not knowing what’s going on; and I can’t see charting being any more stressful than medical testing and treatment.)
If you identify any fertility problems in your charting, you can know more precisely what issues to target:
Not ovulating? There are approaches you can take — both medical and alternative — to stimulate ovulation. Luteal phase too short? There are approaches you can take to increase progesterone and lengthen that phase. Inadequate cervical fluid? There are ways to encourage production of fertile-quality mucus. Wildly irregular cycles? You can learn to pinpoint exactly when to time sex, regardless of cycle length, to maximize your chance of conception.
Charting does not in any way have to replace getting medical help. Rather, it can enhance it: if you need fertility treatment, your charts will arm you with another layer of information about what needs correction. This can reduce the amount of testing that needs to be done, and hurry the process along.
Instead of telling the doctor, “We’ve been trying for ten months and we have no idea what’s wrong,” imagine being able to say, “I know I’m ovulating every cycle on day 21, but my post-ovulatory phase is too short to allow implantation. I think we need to work on that.” (Or even, “I can tell that my cycles are regular and I ovulate every month, and we’ve been having sex at the right times. But nothing has happened in ten months. We’d like to have a sperm analysis.”)
Already knowing your body can eliminate unnecessary steps in the process, and help put the focus on the right things. And most of all, it puts you at the helm so that you know what’s going on. In my experience, this is so empowering.
Of course, the ideal time to start charting is before you even start trying to conceive. That way you’re already familiar with your cycles by the time you want to start trying. You might already have some clues into potential problems before you get started. (This would require you to go off the Pill, if you’re taking it, several months before you want to conceive; but that sounds like a good idea to me regardless.)
But it’s never too late to get started.
If you’re hoping to conceive, or think you would like to start trying soon, I highly recommend you look into NFP/FAM and start charting. Knowledge is power!
Resources for further research:
- Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health by Toni Weschler (my absolute favourite FAM resource. Great for getting started!)
- The Couple to Couple League offers resources and classes with certified instructors in the sympto-thermal method. I haven’t read their student guide, The Art of Natural Family Planning, but I’ve had it recommended by friends.
- Honoring Our Cycles: A Natural Family Planning Workbook by Katie Singer was also recommended by several friends.
- Fertility Flower is a highly-recommended online resource for charting. On the site you’ll find blogs, forums, and online charting.
- FertilityCare offers instruction in the Creighton model — a highly scientific and thorough approach that focuses on cervical fluid (the site can help you find a teacher in your area). I’ve worked with the Toronto branch — they helped me find a teacher, and arranged an appointment with a NaProTECHNOLOGY physician. This is a costlier approach but I highly recommend them if you’re dealing with infertility issues.
*If you have any additional resources to share, please let us know in the comments!*
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