Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re about to hook up with your partner; it's hot. You're ready. They're ready. Just one problem: You're fresh out of condoms. Oh, and maybe you forgot to take your birth control pill yesterday, too. So you start doing some high level menstruation mathematics. There are only a handful of days each month that you're fertile, right? So maybe you can just risk it. Girl, stop. If you're gonna throw procreation caution to the wind, you need to know a lot more about the rhythm method to actually decrease your risk of pregnancy in this scenario.
You've probably heard of the rhythm method of birth control, aka fertility awareness methods (FAMs), and have a rough idea of how it works. While it can decrease your risk of pregnancy, it's not as effective as most other forms, and it does not protect against STDs, like, at all. FAMs are about 76 to 88 percent effective, compared to the pill, which is 91 percent effective, an IUD, which is 99 percent effective, or even a condom, which is 85 percent effective and protects against STDs.
That being said, if you do opt for using FAMs as your regular form of birth control or in an emergency situation, then here's what you need to know about it, to maximize its pregnancy prevention effectiveness.
First of all, the point of FAMs is to track your ovulation so that you can avoid having sex or take other precautions on "unsafe days." Before we dig into the three techniques (which work best when used together), let’s quickly go over the basics of when it is or isn't a "safe day."
Each month when you ovulate, the egg stays in the fallopian tube for about one to 24 hours. If sperm — which, by the way, can live up to six days in your uterus and fallopian tubes — meets with the egg, it travels down to the uterus to attach to the wall, and ta-da, you're pregnant.
But you know all this. The reason I'm explaining it again is because it's how you calculate the number of fertile days you have each cycle, which are the five days before you ovulate, ovulation day, and two days after. Meaning you are fertile seven days a month. Sounds pretty good, right? That means you have three solid weeks of safe days, right? Yes, but it’s still a bit more complicated than that because you need to know how to identify the seven unsafe days to avoid, and there are three methods for that.
1. The Calendar Method
How the calendar method words is that you start tracking your period on a calendar (duh). You will need to track about six cycles for this to really be accurate though. Basically what you do is mark the first day of you period as "day one," then mark the day your next period starts. Count the days between. If, after several months of tracking, you discover that some or all of them are under 27 days, then the calendar method isn't an accurate tool for you. While the calendar gives you some guidance, it only really works if your periods are regular and none are under 27 days.
However, if your periods are regular, here’s how to predict which days are safe, according to Planned Parenthood:
- Find the shortest cycle in your past record.
- Subtract 18 from the total number of days in that cycle.
- Count that number from day 1 of your current cycle, and mark that day with an X. (Include day 1 when you count.)
- The day marked X is your first fertile day.
Next, you will need to figure out when your last fertile day is so that you have the full range of days to avoid. Again, from Planned Parenthood:
- Find the longest cycle in your record.
- Subtract 11 from the total number of days in that cycle.
- Count that number from day 1 (the first day of your period) of your current cycle, and mark that day with an X. (Include day 1 when you count.)
- The day marked X is your last fertile day.
This method is most effective when use it along with other methods, like the temperature method.
2. The Temperature Method
In order to use the temperature method, you need to take your temperature first thing every morning before you do anything else, especially eat or drink anything. The reason is that your temperature will raise slightly before ovulation, aka the fertile days.
Like with the calendar method, you have to track your cycles, this time for about three. Your temperature fluctuates through your cycle. “Safe days begin after the increase in your temperature lasts for at least three days, and end when your temperature drops just before your next period begins," according to Planned Parenthood. As you can see, this is not the most convenient form of birth control. The next is a bit more so.
3. The Cervical Mucus Method
The name may sound a bit gross if you're squeamish, but actually this is super interesting, whether you're considering using FAMs or not. Basically the hormones that result in your cycle also are responsible for making your cervix produce mucus. Because of this, your mucus changes consistency and in volume through out the month, and by getting to know those changes, you can recognize when your fertile days are. Cool, right?
To really make this method of birth control effective, you should track your mucus for a month by inserting a clean finger into your vagina, then rubbing the mucus between your thumb and forefinger to check the consistency. Here's what the different consistencies mean, according to Planned Parenthood:
- During your period, the blood flow covers your mucus, so you won’t notice any. Days when you’re on your period are unsafe days.
- After your period, you usually have a few days without mucus and discharge in your underwear. These are called “dry days,” and they may be safe days if your cycle is long.
- Your body makes more mucus when an egg starts to ripen, before ovulation is about to happen. This mucus is usually yellow, white, or cloudy, and it feels sticky or tacky. You may notice it at the opening of your vagina.
- Usually, you have the most mucus right before ovulation. It’s clear and it feels slippery — kind of like raw egg whites — and can be stretched between your fingers. These “slippery days” are your fertile (unsafe) days, when you’re the most likely to get pregnant.
- After about 4 slippery days, you may suddenly have less mucus and it’ll get cloudy and sticky again, followed by a few more dry days — these are also safe days. Then, your period starts and the cycle repeats.
When are the safe and unsafe days? The safe days typically start after the slippery mucus is gone and has become cloudy and sticky. The dry days after that are even more safe. Things start becoming unsafe again two to three days before the slippery mucus reappears (hence why it's important to track your cycle and can predict it).
If you want to know the safest days to have unprotected sex, your best bet is to really get to know your body. Become an expert in your menstrual cycle. Track it, learn the subtle and not so subtle clues of where you are in the cycle. Only then can you be (relatively) confident foregoing other forms of birth control.
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