Have you ever heard of cycle tracking or charting? I believe that every woman should chart their cycles to remain connected with their hormones and avoid surprises.
Cycle charting is the daily practice of recording bodily signs, signs of fertility. These are signs such as basal body temperature (BBT), and symptoms, such as cervical mucus and cervical position. Other signs charted may include cramps and other PMS. A very simplified version of cycle tracking is just noting period start and end dates. In my opinion, one of the best ways to track your cycle health is through the Sympto-Thermal Method.
Who should track their cycles?
Women Trying to Conceive
Using the sympto-thermal method is a great way to identify when you’re fertile so you can take advantage of your most fertile days for trying to conceive. Unfortunately there are a lot of myths out there about the lengths of women’s cycles. Many women fail to conceive because they are unknowingly trying at the wrong time in their cycle. Doctors push the belief that every woman ovulates on day 14, which is inaccurate for a lot of women. Especially for women that have extended cycles; they could finally ovulate and conceive on cycle day 200 without having had a period for at least 6 months! Charting allows you to see when your body is preparing to ovulate, giving you the best chances of conception.
Women Trying to Avoid Pregnancy
By charting your cycles you are able to determine when you are unsafe to have unprotected sex and either abstain or use other methods of prevention to avoid pregnancy. If you are charting to avoid pregnancy it is really crucial that you understand and follow all of the rules unless you are okay with the risk of pregnancy.
Women Actively Managing Hormonal Imbalances
By charting your cycles you will be able to see what needs to change. If you have long cycles or short luteal phases, for example, patterns discovered through charting may help you determine the underlying problem. This can help you come up with a management plan. And as you begin a management plan, you will be able to track the changes that you experience and determine if it is working well for you.
One of the big concerns with infertility is whether or not you are ovulating. With charting you don’t have to guess anymore, you will be able to see whether you are or not based on your signs of fertility. Even if you believe you are ovulating based on LH test strips/OPKs or symptoms alone, it’s entirely possible for your body to attempt to ovulate and fail. But you won’t know for sure unless you’re tracking your temperature. Don’t rely on any one sign alone, get the most accurate information by looking at the whole picture!
Even if you are not sexually active, or don’t care if you conceive or prevent pregnancy, all women can benefit from tracking their cycles. Having the knowledge of your hormonal patterns give you the power to manage your health. If something changes you will know right away! No more guessing, no more worrying about being “late” or whether or not you ovulated. It takes work, but I promise you, it’s worth it.
What is the Sympto-Thermal Method?
The Sympto-Thermal Method, or STM, is a method of tracking hormonal symptoms. Specifically cervical fluid (sympto), as well as orally or vaginally measured basal body temperature (thermal). All tracked on a calendar based chart to determine fertility. This can be for the purposes of tracking health, trying to conceive, or trying to avoid pregnancy. It is under the umbrella of “Fertility Awareness Based Methods” (FABMs). Some FABMs you may have heard of are: Natural Family Planning (NFP), Rhythm/Calendar Method, Sensiplan, Couple to Couple League, Justisse, Creighton, Billings, Marquette…. Just to name a few.
With STM you will take your basal body temperature (BBT) every morning upon waking and write this down on a paper chart, or in your preferred app. You will also take note of any cervical fluid/mucus that you see throughout the day. There are other optional signs you can chart, such as cervical position and firmness, and LH. When combined with BBT and cervical mucus charting, these signs can help you determine ovulation. This is useful for both attempting and preventing conception.
Changes in cervical mucus helps you know when ovulation is approaching. The rise in progesterone that is the result of ovulation causes your BBT to rise, marking your luteal phase. This helps you to determine that you have likely ovulated. For a more detailed look at the hormonal fluctuations throughout the cycle combined with BBT, see this image.
What tools do I need for charting?
- Education materials or an instructor
- A basal body thermometer
- An app for charting, or paper charts if preferred
- Patience and a willingness to learn!
To ensure that you are charting correctly it is best to educate yourself through books, or classes if possible. The most recommended book for the average person is Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. Otherwise known as TCOYF. You want the 20th Anniversary Edition for the most updated information. This can be purchased on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle ebook, or check your local library! My library has 3 different versions, including the most recent.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility is a great guide to Fertility Awareness and reproductive health. But, as far as learning Fertility Awareness as a solid method of charting your cycle, my top recommendation is Natural & Safe: The Handbook: Family Planning with Sensiplan. This is the most studied sympto-thermal method, and is typically easier to follow than the method taught in TCOYF.
Working with an Instructor
Classes with an instructor are highly recommended if you are having a hard time understanding the rules of proper charting. All of the studies done on the efficacy rates of FABMs are based on individuals who were taught by an instructor. The truth is, we don’t know if self-teaching is as efficient and it’s estimated that it isn’t. For this reason, I highly recommend working with an instructor, especially if your intention is to use fertility awareness as contraception. I understand that cost may be an issue for some people. Be aware that many instructors offer payment plans or reduced rates for those who are low income. I currently offer classes in 1:1 and group formats, contact me if you’re interested in getting started.
Basal Body Thermometer
A basal body thermometer measures temperatures in the hundredths (eg 98.67) for the most precise temperature. Basal temperature is the lowest temperature during a prolonged period of rest, such as sleep, that can most accurately be measured immediately upon waking and before any activity is begun. It is ideal to take your temperature at the same time every day, or within no more than an hour of your regular time; always after a minimum of 3 solid hours of sleep. Many people choose to set alarms early in the morning and then go back to sleep until their regular waking time. This provides the most accuracy for charting. Though some people have been able to chart successfully even without waking up the same time every day. Just be aware that it may be a necessity for chart clarity.
Although you want to use a basal body thermometer that reads in the hundredths, you only want to record the temperature to the tenths degree. TCOYF recommends dropping the last digit for simple charting. For example, a 98.67 temperature would be charted as 98.6. However, many people prefer to use scientific rounding, 98.67 would be charted as 98.7. Whichever way you choose to chart, keep it consistent throughout your cycle. Charting in the tenths degree helps you to interpret your temperature pattern more clearly. The exact temperature is not important, you are looking for a specific pattern, as seen in the examples above.
Most people choose to take their temperature orally. However, many people find their temperatures are more consistent when they take their temperature vaginally. Whichever you choose, make sure you follow the same method throughout your cycle.
Basal body thermometers are cheap and easy to find. You can get them at Walmart, Target, Amazon or some drug stores for just a few dollars. Just make sure that it is labeled as basal!
For recommendations on the best basal body thermometers available, read: Getting Started with FAM: What kind of thermometer do I need?
I have already shown examples from two apps available for charting, Kindara and Fertility Friend. These two options are great for anyone following the method taught in Taking Charge of Your Fertility. For a beginner, I highly recommend Kindara. This app allows you to interpret everything for yourself and doesn’t give excess information or forced predictions. This helps you to learn and understand your chosen method without extra input to confuse things. It’s a simple app that is fairly user friendly, and by far the most popular.
Fertility Friend is also extremely popular and has been around since 1998. The app is a bit clunky and not super attractive. But it does allow you to make your own interpretations with a settings override option that overrides their algorithm. So you can set your own ovulation date, which is strongly recommended. It also allows you to track an unlimited number of symptoms. Any symptoms I have, from headaches to digestive issues, I add to my chart so that I can determine if they may be hormonal.
Read Your Body
While both of these options are fairly easy to use and free versions are available, my very favorite charting app is Read Your Body. This app was created by the Body Literacy Collective, a UK non-profit started by Fertility Awareness Educators. Read Your Body works for any method, including sympothermal methods like Sensiplan, NFPTA, or TCOYF. It also has options for mucus only methods like Billings and Creighton. It is extremely customizable so that you can make your chart look exactly the way you want. This is the only app I will teach with because it is so amazing!
There are many other apps out there and not all of them work well with this particular method. I strongly recommend that you start out with either of the two mentioned. And then only transition when you are confident that you understand the rules of charting; after charting at least 3 cycles.
I also strongly recommend avoiding apps that use the Calendar or Rhythm method. Apps such as Natural Cycles and Period Tracker (also known as P Tracker). Unless you are specifically TTC, but even then, interpreting your own information is vital. The calendar or rhythm method bases its information on past cycles. This is especially risky for women with irregular cycles who are trying to avoid pregnancy. Ovulation times can differ from cycle to cycle and should not be calculated based on past cycles.
Paper charting is another popular option. It gives you freedom to create your own charts and customize them to look however you want. Many people like to use bullet journals. But there are a lot of free resources out there, some of which are mentioned in TCOYF.
Charting can be really confusing in the beginning. It takes a a willingness to learn the signs and symptoms and how to interpret them; a deep desire to understand your own body. It can take 3 cycles or more to feel comfortable with your interpretations. It also takes a lot of self discipline to note your fertility signs every day and evaluate them for level of fertility. And it can take a lot of self control to avoid unprotected intercourse during your fertile phase if you are trying to avoid pregnancy. But don’t let this intimidate you. Learning to chart and understand your cycle and your personal hormonal patterns is incredibly empowering. I truly believe that every woman should have this knowledge.
I’ve intentionally left out the major details about charting and interpreting the results. It’s really important for you to learn for yourself how to do it. Working with an instructor gives you the best chances of understanding, and the highest efficacy rates. Ready to get started? Send me an email!
Some great articles on charting for health:
- Beyond Family Planning: Using FABMs for PCOS
- Basal Body Temperature Charting for Fertility and Hormones
Downloadable PDF brochures of more detailed information on natural birth control methods as well as efficacy rate statistics can be found here. The one titled “Medical Update” is great to print and take to your doctor if you are trying to get their help in getting off of prescription birth control to switch to a Fertility Awareness Based Method.