*Sorry in advance for this long post. I didn't realize that it would be this long until I started writing it*
I learned about cycle charting two and a half years ago. We had been trying to get pregnant for almost six months, and when I was training at work, I started talking about it with the woman I was shadowing. They had also been trying, and she recently picked up a copy of Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler (INCREDIBLE book, a must have for all women, regardless of whether you are trying to get pregnant). We talked for the entire shift about this book. Well, her talking, me taking copious notes.
Ever since, I have been completely hooked. Hormonal birth control made me a little crazy, though I was only on it for six months before my daughter, and then only had the mini-pill for 9 months after her birth, I felt like a crazy person. Now that I know there is a better option out there than birth control, I have grabbed on with both hands and I won't ever turn back!
There are three main components to charting your cycle. 1. Taking your temperature every morning. 2. Checking your cervical mucus and 3. Checking your cervix.
1. Taking Your Temperature Daily
This is one of the most important ways to check for ovulation. It is easy, there are no tests involved besides sticking a thermometer in your mouth every morning and noting down your temperature. The best thermometer to have is one that goes to 98.67 rather than just 98.6, but it is all up to you. You will be better able to see a temperature shift if you have the first kind, but you will see a shift with either one.
When your body ovulations, your internal temperatures rises. It isn't much, maybe an entire degree, but when you are taking your temperature every day, the shift is very obvious.
When you are taking your basal body temperature, pick a time when you normally wake up. To have it be correct and not have false shifts, you need to take your temperature the same time every day. And every day, it needs to be taken before you get out of bed, after at least 3 hours of solid sleep. If you get out of bed then take your temperature, it will be different. If you don't get 3 hours of sleep, it will be different. If you wake up at a different time to take your temperature, it will be different. I know it sounds like more work than it should be, but once you get the hang of taking your temperature, it becomes automatic. Even if you need to set your alarm for a couple hours before you normally get up then go back to sleep, that's fine. All you need is consistency and your temperature will tell you things you didn't even know about your own body.
Here is a sample chart with temperatures taken. This is one of my charts from last year, and I was always a really bad temperature taker. I have only done it a handful of times, but here is one of mine from my pregnancy last year.
The red cross-hairs show ovulation day and my temperature coverline. When you take your temperature, especially if you use charting software or websites like Fertility Friend (the one shown), and input it into the graph, when your temperature rises and stays risen for 3 days, the software will automatically create crosshairs for you. When I ovulate, my temperature goes up an entire degree, so it is really easy to see.
When you are taking your temperature, have seen the rise and find your crosshairs, what this means is that for your luteal phase, or from ovulation until your period, your temperature won't drop below the crosshair. When your period is due, unless you're pregnant, your temperature will start to drop, and once it is below the horizontal line, your period will start. Now, there are some exceptions, like if you took your temperature at a different time of day, or if you didn't sleep very well, but most of the time, your temperature will stay above that line.
Now, as on this chart, there is such a thing as a second rise in temperature after the rise for ovulation. It is called a triphasic pattern, which is an addition rise after implantation and normally means you are pregnant. It doesn't happen to everyone, but it is a really cool thing to see on your own chart.
There isn't much research on this, but one of the best things about charting your cycle is you can truly see if you are ovulating, how long your luteal phase is, and if there are any abnormalities. If you aren't ovulating, you can still have a regular period. You just won't see the temperature shift on your chart, and normally those with anovulatory cycles start their period at about 40 days, though it is different for every woman. And just because you have one cycle without ovulation, doesn't mean all will be that way. Sometimes it could be stress or sickness or something just isn't right, and you don't ovulate. Which is why it is important to chart for more than one cycle.
As for the luteal phase, books say that you need a luteal phase at least 10 days long to successfully carry a child. Shorter than that, and even if your body is pregnant, it will expel the baby because your hormone levels aren't high enough to keep the baby implanted. Personally, I think that any luteal phase less than 12 has that issue. You need a luteal phase long enough to get that baby firmly attached, and to show that your hormone levels are okay. Most women that have shorter luteal phases have progesterone issues, but not all.
As for abnormalities, your temperature can tell you a lot. Temperatures for healthy women should be in the 97's and 98's before and after ovulation. If it is lower than that, it could mean an adrenal issue or a thyroid issue. For people like me, I just run colder. My temperature is in the 96's before ovulation and the 97's after, even though my thyroid checks out, and my adrenal gland is okay for the moment. Even though it doesn't for sure mean there is a problem, it could show that there might be one just by taking your temperature every day.
2. Checking Your Cervical Mucus
This may sound really gross to quite a few people, but you actually don't have to touch any mucus, and if you don't want to, you don't have to reach inside your vagina.
Depending on the time in your cycle, your water intake, and if you are sexually stimulated, the quality of the mucus your vagina secretes is different. It feels different, it looks different, and it reacts differently to air. When I was first married, I thought for sure I had a yeast infection every month because my mucus was thick and that is what I heard marked a yeast infection.
Early in a woman's cycle, normally right after her period ends, everything dries up. There is very little mucus and sometimes sex during this time if you aren't completely stimulated can hurt a little bit, though that is true any time in a woman's cycle.
Slowly as a woman gets closer to ovulation, her cervical mucus goes from dry to sticky to creamy and then finally to an egg-white quality, though some women don't have one or any of the different types of mucus. Learning how your body works is much better than trying to stick to a graph or what the average woman has since every woman is different.
Each mucus has different qualities, and though it may take a few tries to learn the difference between them, all you have to do is check it when you wipe every time you go to the bathroom. The closer you are to ovulation, the wetter and slicker your vulva will feel, and that is also the time where a lot of women end up rushing to the bathroom because they feel a surge of wetness that is mistaken for their period.
Sticky cervical mucus is just like how it sounds. It feels like the paste you used in Elementary School or as a child. It can feel slightly springy, but in essence, this cervical mucus does *not* feel wet.
Creamy cervical mucus which feels and looks a bit like lotion. It tends to feel cool at your vaginal opening, and sometimes it is hard to handle because it is so wet or watery. The big key with creamy mucus is that you will feel wet, almost like your period has started, but when you check, it isn't there. This isn't the most fertile mucus, but this is about the time you start noticing your fertility is increasing and to start doing the deed in preparation. This mucus will be more opaque, just like lotion.
Eggwhite cervical mucus is just how it sounds, and I know that sounds a little gross. Eggwhite mucus is extremely slippery and can stretch 1 to 10 inches. This is when you feel your most wet, and when you go to the bathroom, some might drop into the water and instead of stringing and falling to the bottom of the water, it will ball up and float for a minute before it falls. This mucus will look like eggwhites, and might have streaks of white, but is mainly clear and stretchy.
To check your cervical mucus, you don't ever really have to touch it if you don't want to. All you need to do is every time you go to the bathroom, when you wipe, see how it feels. Do you feel wet and slippery? Or do you feel dry and sticky? You can check the color of the mucus, see how much there is, and if you flip it over and sometimes it will stretch down before breaking if it is eggwhite mucus.
If you want to check it by hand, you just need a tiny bit in between two fingers, and rub them together. The wetter they are, ie the more fertile the mucus, the longer it will stay on your fingers. When you pull your fingers apart, eggwhite will stretch as far as 1 to 10 inches.
Your mucus is one of the biggest things when trying to get pregnant. Without the fertile quality of eggwhite mucus, the sperm will have a very hard time traveling to the uterus and actually reaching the egg. There are things you can take to increase the quality of your mucus, but mainly, lots of water will increase it to a normal consistency and quality for the majority of women.
3. Checking Your Cervix
This one is optional, even more so than the other two. Most books will look over this since checking your cervix is very sensory based and you do need to practice a little bit before you will ever be able to feel any difference between the days in your cervix.
Your cervix changes depending on your fertility. It changes lengths, it opens, and it softens. When you aren't fertile, your cervix will be long, firm, and the opening will be closed. As you become more fertile, your cervix will rise up, becoming shorter, becoming softer, and the opening will become more open. Once you ovulate, your cervix will lower and close within a few hours to up to a day.
When your cervix is firm, it will feel like the tip of your nose. When your cervix is soft, it will feel like your lips when they pucker. It is indistinct, but the more you check, the more proficient you will become.
Your cervix changes depending on the time of day also, so if you are checking your cervix, it is best checking around the same time every day.
To check your cervix, it is best to get in a position that will open your pelvis, like squatting or one leg higher than the other. Personally, I like to put one foot on the toilet and lean slightly over. You only need one finger to check, and your cervix will normally be the length of your middle finger from the vaginal opening, though every woman is different.
Really, the best way to do this is practice, practice, practice. And again, this one is totally optional.
This is just a summary of the ways to chart your cycle, and I really do highly suggest the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility because it truly is a wealth of information.
And the best part is next week I will give you another option on how to chart your cycle, though it is a little pricey, it can really be a much less confusing way to track your fertility.