The Billings Ovulation Method is considered a “mucus only” method. It is one of the least understood methods due to it being instructor taught rather than self-taught. Many charters choose to teach themselves a symptothermal method through books and free online resources.
Symptothermal methods teach a combination of basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and cervix charting. Most individuals who chart with a formal fertility awareness method are familiar with this style of charting. Because of this, it’s common for charters to believe that the mucus charting taught with the Billings Ovulation Method is the same as symptothermal mucus charting. While every symptothermal method has different guidelines, they all work on the same basic principles.
I often recommend Billings to people who are struggling to understand their cervical mucus, or who are postpartum or dealing with long or complicated cycles. Very, very often if the person I’m recommending Billings to has experience with a symptothermal method they assume Billings is the same as the symptothermal method minus temperatures.
The truth is that they are very, very different. Billings is able to “confirm ovulation” (I personally don’t like this common phrase) based on a single fertility sign. It does so by getting very specific about observations (and what that says about our hormones). Whereas, symptothermal tends to generalize mucus observations and fallback on temperatures for a more solid “confirmation of ovulation”.
As a certified educator of both the Billings Ovulation Method as well as a Symptothermal method, I find that there is a lot of misinformation out there about the differences between them. So to combat some of the common myths and clarify method differences, I’ve come up with 5 comparison points on the differences in Billings and Symptothermal cervical mucus charting. Let’s get started.
1. Billings: referred to as “discharge” vs Symptothermal: referred to as “cervical mucus” or “cervical fluid”
Symptothermal methods teach you to chart all observations. But many of these methods, such as ones taught in resources like Taking Charge of Your Fertility, intentionally emphasize referring to these observations as “cervical mucus”, or “cervical fluid”.
The intention is to bring awareness to cervical mucus being NORMAL and not a sign of ill health. Most people are not taught from youth about what is natural. I LOVE this. But the truth is…
Not everything that leaves the vagina is cervical mucus!
There are also discharges from the uterus and the vagina. And all of these should be charted! We shed cells, experience arousal fluid, and various discharges from the vagina and uterus. Not to mention residual seminal fluid which can last up to 24 hours.
Billings calls it discharge because there’s no way to differentiate these discharges with 100% confidence, and they all get charted! Symptothermal methods would have you chart all your observations, but it’s not really accurate to call them allllll cervical mucus.
Charters often ask how to chart a discharge vs mucus. The thing is, you don’t actually have to be able to differentiate them to be able to understand your fertility status. Chart each observation on its own merits, and always chart the most fertile observation of the day. Follow your method’s guidelines for charting when observations are obscured.
2. Billings: Internal Checks Not Allowed vs Symptothermal: Internal Checks Allowed
Most symptothermal methods teach some variation of investigating for mucus internally at the cervix to help those who “don’t see a lot of mucus”. Doing internal checks often gives charters a false sense of security. They get to feel like they understand their discharge and their patterns by over-analyzing it. There are several problems with this but mainly the issue is that it bypasses the Pockets of Shaw, which process cervical mucus as it leaves the vagina.
You can read more about the Pockets of Shaw here! Ignoring the Pockets of Shaw will lead to a longer fertile phase. And ultimately, less time for that intimacy you’ve been waiting for.
But basically, what’s inside the vagina, and at the cervix, is going to be different than what you observe at the vulva. Not to mention that touching and playing with your discharge too much can change its consistency and just generally make things more confusing. Clients in both of my programs have found charting much easier when they STOP using their hands to make observations!
3. Billings: Described in the Charter’s Own Words vs Symptothermal: Must Fit into Pre-set Categories
Having pre-set categories to fit your observations into can stop you from overthinking things. (Examples of cervical mucus categories: non-peak, peak, dry, sticky, eggwhite, etc.). But for some people who may not have what many would consider “typical” mucus patterns, being able to use your own words and basically set your own “categories” can be very freeing.
Almost all methods that utilize cervical mucus require you to write a description of your observations. But because most people like to use apps, and the most popular apps (until Read Your Body came available recently) do not have space to write these descriptions, many self-taught symptothermal charters do not actually write these descriptions and rely solely on the pre-set categories when charting.
With Billings, writing the description is the first of 2 steps to daily charting. There are no categories to choose from because individual observations are most important.
I have seen a lot of people misunderstand the categories with symptothermal methods and choose the incorrect one for their observations. And unfortunately it’s really common for charters not to describe their observations at all because most charting apps do not provide space for that.
I definitely recommend Read Your Body for charting with a symptothermal method so you can be sure you’re writing your descriptions.
4. Billings: Peak Relies Solely on Sensation vs Symptothermal: Sensation is Often a Weakness
Billings teaches that sensation at the vulva is more important than the appearance of discharge. (Dr. John Billings was a neurologist and studied the nerves at the vulva that allow us to sense discharge!)
Some symptothermal methods teach sensation as vulvar sensation, while popular self-teaching resources, like TCOYF, teach it as vaginal sensation. While some people do notice a sensation in the vagina itself, most sensation is actually observed at the vulva. How confusing is that, to call it “vaginal sensation”?! Vulva ≠ vagina.
It’s also really common for self-taught charters to ignore sensation altogether. Again going back to what popular apps allow you to chart. But it only takes a tiny amount of discharge to create a sensation, you may not actually see it! The emphasis that Billings puts on this is why it is so successful. Billings Peak relies on sensation alone.
In my experience, it really takes that one on one feedback for sensation charting to really click. This is why I believe every charter can benefit from learning Billings. Even if they ultimately choose a different method long term. The tools that Billings provides in understanding your sensation is truly invaluable!
Key point here: it only takes a very small amount of discharge for it to be sensed at the vulva and it may never be seen!
Let’s Pause and Take a Look at Peak Differences
Billings has 3 requirements for peak. There must be:
1️⃣ A changing developing pattern [AND]
2️⃣ which ends in slippery [AND]
3️⃣ with an abrupt change the following day to no longer slippery or wet
I’ve added the “[AND]” to emphasize that all 3 of these must be present to meet the requirements of Peak.
If you do not meet all 3 then you do not have Peak.
Symptothermal methods vary a bit on their exact wording but the idea is the same pretty much across the board. Peak can be clear OR stretchy OR lubricative. You only need one for it to qualify as peak.
This can be good and bad. It can be good because it may be easier for some people to identify only one of these.
It’s bad because it means that peak is sometimes identified when ovulation hasn’t actually occurred. Though this usually would be caught with the cross check of temperatures.
But it’s also bad because for many people it can extend the fertile window since clear and stretch don’t always actually indicate fertility. Many people find they identify peak day earlier with Billings than they do with symptothermal!
And just to circle back to the 3 requirements for Billings Peak, this is one of the methods greatest strengths. It’s the abrupt change in sensation that indicates progesterone is on the rise due to the Pockets of Shaw responding to the progesterone released from the corpus luteum after ovulation.
One last note: slippery and wet are sensations! Billings does not care one iota about what the discharge looks like when it comes to identifying peak!
5. Billings: Rules Never Change vs Symptothermal: Different Rules for Different Stages of Life
Billings rules are really simple. There are only 4 rules, and they never change, regardless of your stage of life. What changes is how they are applied to your observations. The cervix changes throughout life, as do all the reproductive organs. And this leads to a change in observations over time. You can go through the classes once and know how to chart in every stage, but it’s always good to refer back to your instructor for help when transitioning into a new life stage.
Symptothermal methods typically have a set of rules for average cycles, another set of rules for postpartum, another set of rules for perimenopause, another set of rules for post-hormonal birth control, etc. etc.. You learn a new way of charting with every life change. It is recommended to work with an instructor, but especially if you have anything other than average cycles. You’ll need to work with them again when you reach a new life stage to learn a new set of rules.
How to Choose Which Method to Learn?
Is Billings or Symptothermal better for you?
Both methods work for every life stage. Symptothermal works BEST for average length cycles (<35 days). If you have long cycles, Billings is better able to handle them.
Billings relies on one fertility sign, so following the rules is crucial for accuracy, including abstinence. Symptothermal methods have a basal body temperature check, and calculation rules which can mean less abstinence during the pre-ovulation phase.
ALL methods recommend abstinence for the highest efficacy. It is up to your intentions how you decide to follow the rules but abstinence is an important part of Billings.
If you have discharge every day of your cycle, you’ll likely experience more “safe” days with Billings than with Symptothermal.
If you have conditions that impact mucus observations, both methods can be tricky. (Think yeast, BV, and even uncontrolled hormonal conditions like PCOS or HA). Symptothermal may be better able to handle it in some situations while Billings may be more difficult. Billings is better equipped to diagnose the situation, but you would want to work with an experienced instructor and/or see a doctor to get things under control.
Remember, there are other options for charting your cycles if you feel like neither is a good fit. But there’s no fertility awareness based method that recommends back up/barrier method use. Some methods just present less risk than others. In this case symptothermal would be better than Billings.