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Fertility awareness methods, also called natural family planning, do not use drugs, physical devices, or surgery to prevent pregnancy. Instead, these cycle-based methods rely on tracking the changes in the body that signal fertility. A woman is only fertile during part of her menstrual cycle. By monitoring certain changes in her body, a woman can more or less predict the fertile phase and abstain from sexual intercourse during that time. She can also use barrier methods if they are not prohibited by religious beliefs.
Fertility awareness methods include:
Temperature Method. To determine the most likely time of ovulation and therefore the time of fertility, a woman is instructed to take her body temperature, called her basal body temperature. This is the body's temperature as it rises and falls in accord with hormonal fluctuations.
By studying the temperature patterns over a few months, couples can begin to anticipate ovulation and plan their sexual activity accordingly. To avoid losing spontaneity, couples should try to avoid becoming fixated on the chart in scheduling their sexual activity.
Cervical Mucus Method. The cervical mucus method (also called the ovulation method) requires a woman to take a sample (by hand) of her cervical mucus every day for a least a month and to record its quantity, appearance, feel, and to note other physical signs connected with the reproductive system. Cervical mucus changes in predictable ways over the course of each menstrual cycle:
Once a woman's individual pattern is understood, analyzing cervical mucus can provide a highly accurate guide to fertility.
Calendar Method. The calendar (rhythm method) is considered the least reliable of fertility awareness methods. Women who have very irregular periods may have even less success with this method. In the calendar method, the woman first keeps a record of her menstrual periods for about 6 - 12 months. She then subtracts 18 days from the shortest and 11 days from the longest of the previous menstrual cycles. For example, if a woman's shortest cycle was 26 days and her longest cycle was 30 days, she must abstain from intercourse from day 8 through day 19 of each cycle.
Symptothermal Method. This method combines the temperature, cervical mucus, and calendar methods and is considered the most effective fertility awareness method. In addition, the woman tracks symptoms that may identify her fertile period. These symptoms include changes in the shape of the cervix, breast tenderness, and cramping pain.
Because of the high risk for pregnancy, fertility awareness methods are recommended only for those whose strong religious beliefs prohibit standard contraceptive methods. Couples who are not guided by religious authority, but who simply want a more natural sexual life, may use a barrier contraceptive during the fertile phase and no contraception during the rest of the cycle. However, they should understand the risk of pregnancy will be higher with this method. To be effective against pregnancy, cycle-based methods require not only training, commitment, discipline, and perseverance, but also the cooperation of the male partner. Cycle-based methods are not recommended for women unless they are in a stable, monogamous relationship, and can count on their partner's willing participation.
Many couples, especially older ones, who have used these methods for a while and are strongly motivated, are able to successfully incorporate fertility awareness into their lives. For those with strong religious beliefs, fertility awareness allows them to have a fulfilling sexual life yet still adhere to the rules of their religions.
Couples who adopt a cycle-based approach to pregnancy avoidance must often abstain from sex or substitute other kinds of sexual intimacy for vaginal intercourse. Some couples find this self-denial and the need for vigilant tracking of the cycle difficult and stressful for the relationship. Failure rates are high. The risk for sexually transmitted diseases is also of particular concern, because such methods offer no protection against infection and religious beliefs may preclude barrier protection.
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