Are you one of the many women who can’t tolerate the side effects of the pill? But you aren’t ready for something permanent, like tubal ligation?
Or maybe your religion or culture prevents you from using medical birth control. Don’t worry; you’re not alone.
There are plenty of women in the world like you, who aren’t looking to have a baby right now. Natural family planning may be an alternative. While it takes some research and know-how to go about it, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
If you’re looking to learn the ins and outs of natural family planning, we’ve got you covered. We’re here to share the lowdown on these methods, what’s involved, and what it takes to go about things the natural way. Step by step, you may realize there are more options than you originally thought.
What Is Natural Family Planning?
Natural family planning, also called fertility awareness, is a term related to a group of contraceptive methods that don’t involve taking any medications. It relies on the self-monitoring of your fertility signals to figure out the days you’re most likely to get pregnant, so you can avoid a surprise announcement (1).
The three primary signals you need to look out for in natural family planning are:
- Ovulation days, which you can determine by tracking your menstrual cycle.
- Basal body temperature fluctuations, which you’ll track on a daily basis.
- Cervical secretions, which you will also assess regularly.
Tracking and recording one or more of these will be the basis for most natural family planning methods. However, take note that some of the methods will be more effective if used in conjunction with another one. We will explain how to track these fertility signals in the following sections, and map the benefits and pitfalls as well.
Benefits and Disadvantages
Before choosing natural family planning as your birth control method, you must understand the pros and cons. Let’s take an in-depth look below.
Benefits of Natural Family Planning
- No Side Effects: Most forms of contraception come with a slew of physical side effects, but natural family planning has none. No chemicals, hormones, or devices are being used to change your natural processes. If you’ve previously had difficulty with specific birth control methods, natural family planning might be attractive to you.
- Reversible: When you’re no longer interested in preventing pregnancy, you can use the same system to get pregnant. Knowing your most fertile days of the month will help you when you’re ready to start your family or add to the family you already have. Plus, you won’t have to wait any length of time for your birth control effects to fade away.
- Acceptable for Religious Individuals: For those with religious restrictions when it comes to birth control, natural family planning may also be the way to go.
- It’s Empowering: Monitoring your fertility signals can bring about a new awareness of your own reproductive system. This knowledge can be rather empowering and, once you fully understand it, you can do all the monitoring on your own. You will no longer need a health professional to help you make sense of it all. The in-depth information that you gain from monitoring your bodily secretions will also help alert you to something being amiss. You will be able to spot possible infections or abnormalities much sooner.
- Budget Friendly: This method is inexpensive to start, and you don’t have to worry about budgeting to maintain it (2).
- Partner Inclusive: With natural family planning, your partner can also be engaged in the process, learning more about your cycle while strengthening your bond with each other. If the time comes to get pregnant, he will then be better prepared for action.
Disadvantages of Natural Family Planning
- No Protection From STIs: While using fertility awareness as your main form of birth control, you will not have any protection from STIs. If you’re not in a monogamous relationship, you could be leaving yourself open to contracting infections or diseases, like chlamydia or HIV.
- Requires Partner Cooperation: This method will also require cooperation from your sexual partner. There may be fairly long periods of abstinence or a backup method — like condoms — will have to be used. This means communication, patience, and trust are all important for success.
- Time Commitment: The learning curve on this one is a little steep. Following and tracking all of your fertility signs can be more challenging than popping a pill once a day. You will have to commit to learning about your body and keeping accurate records. When learning about the process, it may take you several months to confidently and accurately identify when you are fertile. If you aren’t using another form of birth control, you may also need to abstain during this time.
- It May Be Unreliable: Your fertility signs can be disrupted by many environmental factors. Stress, illness, travel, and hormone treatments can all change your body’s balance, throwing off your signals. Even using the emergency contraceptive pill will change the accuracy of your signals. You’ll need to wait for two menstrual cycles before you can rely on natural family planning again (source).
- Every Woman Is Different: For some women, the fertility signs may differ from the norm. Others may find the signals just aren’t overt enough to track. These differences can add to the possible complications of natural family planning.
Who Shouldn’t Use Natural Family Planning
Unfortunately, the natural family planning method doesn’t work with equal success for everyone.
The factors that may negate your natural family planning attempts can come from three main areas: your body, your medications, or your lifestyle. If one or more of the following conditions or situations apply, NFP may not be right for you.
The systemic reasons why you should not use this method include:
- Your periods are irregular more often than not.
- You are currently breastfeeding or are newly postpartum.
- You recently had a miscarriage or an abortion.
- You have short or long-term conditions that affect your fertility, like pelvic inflammatory disease or a vaginal infection.
- You have cardiac disease, or your blood pressure is poorly controlled.
Some of these health-related factors are temporary, like having a vaginal infection. It’s possible you could begin natural family planning after a waiting period. You could start tracking your fertility signals to monitor when the condition has cleared.
Some medications make it hard to track your fertility signals, or they may even change them. This could put you at risk of getting pregnant. Natural family planning may not be right if:
- You’re taking a medication that could pose a health risk to a fetus (4).
- The medication you’re taking disrupts your body’s production of cervical mucus. Your doctor should be able to tell you if this applies to you.
- You recently stopped taking a hormonal contraceptive.
If your medication is a possible concern, speak with your physician. He or she may be able to change your prescription to something more suitable.
Finally, you may want to choose an alternate method of birth control if you:
- Regularly travel through different time zones.
- Are unable to take your temperature with an oral thermometer.
- Currently have multiple sexual partners.
- Consume more than eight alcoholic beverages per week (5).
You probably can’t do anything about the travel aspect, especially if it is work-related. However, if your alcohol consumption is holding you back, that can be adjusted so NFP could be an option.
If your goal is to definitely use natural family planning for birth control, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor. He or she might have suggestions to help you with your NFP struggles.
Natural Family Planning Methods
Before we can explore each of the natural family planning methods, we need to understand the menstrual cycle. While you probably got that little overview in health class when you were a kid, it might not be sufficient.
How Effective Is Natural Family Planning?
The proof is in the pudding, right? To decide which method is for you, efficacy is the key deciding factor. So, let’s take a look at these natural planning methods and some traditional methods to see how they stack up.
All birth control methods are only as good as the consistency and accuracy of their use. Remember that the percentage of people who fail will include people who didn’t use them correctly, so it’s important to take it seriously.
Here are the statistics on medical or barrier birth control methods (15):
- Tubal Ligation: Less than 1 percent of women become pregnant each year after being sterilized.
- IUD: Less than 1 percent of women become pregnant with an IUD.
- Birth control pills: Seven out of 100 women will become pregnant while using pills.
- Male condoms: 13 out of 100 women will become pregnant while using a condom.
Let’s see how natural family planning methods compare:
- Calendar method: 13–24 out of 100 women become pregnant using this method alone (16).
- Basal temperature method: 24 out of 100 women will become pregnant using only the basal temperature tracking as their form of birth control (17).
- Cervical mucus method: 23 out of 100 women will likely become pregnant when only monitoring their cervical mucus (18).
- Lactational amenorrhea method: For the first six months after childbirth, only 2 out of 100 women will become pregnant (19).
- Withdrawal: Up to 25 out of 100 women become pregnant each year while using this method as their sole form of birth control (20).
- Sympto-thermal method: One out of 100 women will become pregnant while using the sympto-thermal method (21).
- Using Apps: As these are quite new, the statistics are limited. However, the FDA did study the Natural Cycles app before approving it. Women using the app ended up pregnant at a rate of two out of 100 (22).