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Natural Birth Control? Your questions answered

This is a condensed version of a post originally published at Fertility Charting and is republished with permission from the author, Jessie Brebner.

When I mention to friends, family, and colleagues that I use the Symptothermal Method of Fertility Awareness as contraception (and have done so successfully for a number of years now), I typically get a blank stare, followed by a *lot* of questions!

I decided to gather some of the most common questions I get when I share my experiences with the Symptothermal Method, and address them all in one place.

Join the conversation!

Firstly – what IS the Symptothermal Method?

The Symptothermal Method is a form of Fertility Awareness. During each menstrual cycle, there is only a 6-9 day biological window during which pregnancy could result from unprotected sex. This time is known as the biological fertile window. The Symptothermal Method involves tracking cervical mucus and basal body temperature to identify this window (although the Symptothermal Method adds a buffer of at least several days on either side of the 6-9 day biological window).

With the Symptothermal Method, the presence of cervical mucus (in combination with some calculation rules) opens the fertile window, and a sustained rise in basal body temperature (combined with the drying-up of cervical mucus) closes the fertile window. Users follow a set of specific rules to check and confirm the opening and closing of the fertile window each menstrual cycle. This information can be used to avoid or gain pregnancy, and also offers valuable insight into your hormonal health.

How effective is it?
The Symptothermal Method is evidence-based and research shows it to be up to 99.6% effective with perfect use, and 98.2% effective with typical use. However, when understanding these effectiveness rates you should take into account that they are based on users who were taught a Symptothermal Double-Check Method under the guidance of qualified instructors. Double-Check Symptothermal Methods employ the use of calculations to double-check the opening of the fertile window (instead of relying on cervical mucus observations alone).

The most important thing to remember is that it is proven possible to achieve up to 99.6% effectiveness with perfect use. Working with an instructor of a Symptothermal Double-Check Method will help you achieve this, as will strictly applying the rules. Users who engage in risky behaviour or sloppy adherence to the rules will quickly discover that the method is very unforgiving of imperfect use.

How long will it take me to learn?

This will depend on how you choose to learn the method. If you’re self-teaching it’s recommended to abstain from sex or use a barrier method for at least the first full three cycles as you learn. I was personally self-taught but was in a long-distance relationship at the time, so I wasn’t often testing out whether the method worked. In fact, it wasn’t until I had been charting my cycles with the Symptothermal Method for an entire year that I started to feel confident with the method and my knowledge of the rules.

You can bypass this stage completely by working with an instructor – you can confidently enjoy unprotected sex right from the first cycle if you’re working with an instructor who can check over your charts and confirm that you’re not currently fertile. In addition to this, the upper limits of method effectiveness are based on women who were learning the method under the guidance of an instructor – so it’s always in your best interest to try and mirror those conditions.

How much is it going to restrict me having unprotected sex?
Research shows that Symptothermal Method users with a hypothetical 28-day menstrual cycle would need to abstain from sex (or use a barrier method), for an average of 11 days each menstrual cycle. This would leave 17 days that could safely be used to have unprotected sex. Some of these days would likely fall on your period (meaning period sex). Keep in mind that period sex is not necessarily always safe for unprotected sex, you can read more about the risks of period sex here.

Can I still use the Symptothermal Method if I have irregular cycles?
Yes, you can absolutely use the Symptothermal Method if you have irregular cycles. The Symptothermal Method relies on daily cervical mucus and basal body temperature readings to pinpoint the opening and closing of your fertile window. Essentially, every day you ask yourself “Am I Fertile – TODAY?”, and your answer is based on your physical observations, which occur regardless of whether you have short, long or irregular cycles. The Symptothermal Method makes no assumptions about how your current cycle will unfold based on previous cycles*.

Is it easy to maintain in everyday life?
This is probably the most surprising answer – YES! After the initial investment of time and energy spent learning the Sympothermal Method (often around 3 months), it genuinely becomes second nature. You can’t un-learn this knowledge! It takes all of about 5 seconds to check your basal body temperature before you get out of bed in the morning. And checking your cervical mucus every time you use the bathroom becomes a very easy habit to maintain – I mean, you’re already sitting there so why not! If you want something bad enough and are willing to put in the initial investment of time and energy then the reward is well worth the effort.

If you don’t get 3 consecutive hours of sleep around the same time every night (shift workers and nursing mamas, I’m looking at you!), you may also struggle. This is because basal body temperature is core resting temperature and requires at least 3 hours of consecutive sleep at the same time, every day. Luckily, there are ways around this, one of which is a device called a Tempdrop. Tempdrop is a wearable thermometer that measures your basal body temperature at multiple times throughout the night and has an algorithm that smooths out any disturbances. The result? You have an accurate record of your BBT each day, without having to wake up at the same time every morning! 

Can I use a period tracker app to tell me when I’m fertile?
This is a surprisingly complex question, with a complex answer! Generally speaking, absolutely not. A period tracker app is generally just that – an app that will roughly track your period and predict the date of your next period based on your last period. There are thousands of cheap apps available that all provide some version of period tracking. These apps should never be used to predict when you are fertile – especially if you’re currently trying to avoid pregnancy.

Apps aren’t all bad though! You can safely use a charting app like Read Your Body to record your cervical mucus and basal body temperature observations, but you need to be interpreting those observations yourself, not relying on app predictions.

I hope this was helpful for you! If you have any additional questions please feel free to browse the many free resources on my website.

Jessie Brebner is a certified Symptothermal Method Instructor with the Natural Family Planning Teachers Association of the United Kingdom. She is also the creator and developer of Fertility Charting Journals – one of the first high-quality, hard backed A4 journals designed specifically for users of Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM’s) to chart their menstrual cycles. Jessie is based on the Gold Coast of Australia, but hosts consults and coaching online to people all around the world.

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