The Hormone-Free Birth Control Method No One Talks About (It's Not An IUD)

What's it really like to use "fertility awareness" as birth control? If you listen to popular opinion, you're probably thinking the following: It's really difficult, extremely risky, and anyone who uses it is probably either a total hippie or a religious zealot.

But, in fact, none of that applies to me.

Fertility awareness, also called natural family planning, is the name for a group of hormone-free birth control methods that help determine when a woman is potentially fertile — which is usually only about eight days of your cycle.

By knowing when you're fertile, you can take measures to prevent pregnancy during that time, whether that's abstaining from any type of sex, using a barrier method like a condom, or having sex that doesn't involve a chance of pregnancy (use your imagination on that one!).

I use a method of fertility awareness because I want to avoid hormonal birth control for health and environmental reasons. I also appreciate that it's one of the most effective non-hormonal methods out there, as long as it's used correctly.

In general, fertility awareness gets a bad rap. That's because some methods that fall into this category, like the rhythm method, aren't actually very effective. The rhythm method typically only bases your fertile days on what happened in your body during previous cycles. For example, many women track the length of their cycle to pinpoint their fertile days, and then record that on a calendar, so they know for the next month. I don't know about you, but my cycles don't always behave in exactly the same way. So the rhythm method tends to do a bad job of telling you what's really happening in your body.

But what most people don't understand is that there are other, more reliable methods. Like the one I use, and love: the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness.

How I Use the Sympto-Thermal Method

I like this method because I evaluate actual signs in my body that indicate my current fertility. This means checking two things: my basal body temperature (your temperature when you're at rest) and my cervical fluid.

This doesn't require too much time: When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is simply check my temperature. Then throughout the day, I observe my cervical fluid when I go to the bathroom — it's as easy as seeing what comes off on the toilet paper.

So what does all this tell me? By taking a close look at these two indicators, I can see exactly what's going on with my hormones that day, and whether my body has any chance of getting pregnant. That's because your temperature jumps up slightly with ovulation (a good indicator to use a barrier method or abstain from sex that day). Further, cervical fluid starts getting wetter — and often stretchy, like egg whites — before ovulation. After ovulation, cervical fluid dries up.

Fertility awareness means working with your body — not against it.

I keep this information in a chart so that I can easily refer to it and remember what each day has indicated. Of course, this method requires that you learn the details well and follow the rules very closely. But when you do, research shows that with perfect use, it has a failure rate similar to that of the Pill.

Of course, since it's a method that's only used by a little over 1% of women, there's still a lot of confusion around it. So I want to let you in on what it's really like for me:

1. I feel extremely liberated.

It's so nice to know that no matter what happens, I'll always have a handle on my own body and what it needs to stay baby-free. (Or even to get pregnant, if that's what I wanted.) I had a copper IUD for two years and had to deal with the hassle of going in for doctor's check-ups on a consistent basis, and didn't even have the peace of mind that I do now.

2. I know exactly when I'll get my period.

When you use this method as birth control, you have enough information about your body to know exactly when your period is coming. That's because your period timing is pretty consistently linked with ovulation. You generally get your period 12 to 16 days after you ovulate, and it stays consistent from person to person, meaning if it was usually 13 days for you, it's likely to stay that way. Know when you ovulate using this method, and you'll know when your period will come.

Seriously, this method is great for control freaks.

3. I can see what's happening with my hormones.

One of the coolest benefits of using the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness is that you can see what's going on with your hormones on a daily basis. Sometimes, I'll freak out at the littlest thing and overscrutinize what in my diet or lifestyle could have led to my hormones being funky that day. It's a love/hate relationship, though. Ultimately, this aspect of fertility awareness led me to loving it so much I decided to study and teach the method to others.

4. I feel more connected with my partner.

Most people think that a method like this could do nothing but bad things for your relationship. But for almost everyone I know who uses this method, that's not the case.

In fact, most people enjoy taking joint responsibility for birth control. For example: You chart your cycles and your partner puts on a condom while you're fertile. Or he could even help you chart. You also are attuned to your body and moods better, which can help relationships.

5. I don't have to put up with even one side effect from birth control.

Every birth control method has its pros and cons. The cons I'm just not willing to deal with are unhappy responses from my body about things that I am putting into it. With fertility awareness, I don't need to worry about that since I'm not changing anything about my body.

And if you're interested in working with your body — instead of against it — fertility awareness can sound like a pretty appealing choice.

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