Most women remember their 10th grade health class, which may have been devoted primarily to teaching you how not to get pregnant, probably with a heavy emphasis on use of abstinence or birth control.
However, if you suddenly find yourself embarking on the (hopefully) fun project of actually trying to conceive, you may feel a bit bewildered. That’s why we’re going to try to demystify the process. Your 10th grade health teacher may have glossed over a few details. Not to worry. We’re here for you.
Step 1: Retire your contraceptive method and start having regular sex.
Seems so obvious, right? Unfortunately, this method does not always work right away. In addition to putting away the birth control, it’s helpful to learn about your cycle in detail.
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Step 2: Know your cycle.
Let’s start with the very first day of your period, CD 1. ‘CD’ is shorthand for cycle day, and ‘1’ refers to the first day you see blood.
What’s going on:
CD 1-6: Your uterus sheds its lining. This occurs because sperm and egg are not implanting, pregnancy is not happening. Since the role of the lining is to encourage pregnancy, it isn’t needed. It sloughs away. You might feel some cramps, a byproduct of uterine muscles contracting to shed the lining. If your cramps are bothersome, regular exercise, a hot water bottle, ibuprofen, and acupuncture can be helpful. While it is extremely rare, it is not impossible to conceive during these early days of your period.
CD 7-15: During the midpoint of your cycle, the follicles in your ovaries are released and travel from your pelvic cavity into the fallopian tubes. When you are trying to get pregnant, this is your fertile window. Having sex regularly during this peak time maximizes the likelihood of conception. After ejaculation, the sperm tries to find an egg, penetrate its protective coating, form a zygote and travel together to the uterus.
Generally, having sex every 36-48 hours maximizes the likelihood of conception. Sperm take about that long to regenerate, so increasing your frequency of intercourse may not increase your chances of conceiving.
CD 16-30: This part of the cycle is called the luteal phase. If pregnancy occurs, the zygote finds a cozy, well-nourished spot in the uterus and implants itself. Once implantation occurs, a hormone cascade triggers the release of human chorionic gonadatropin and prevents your period from coming for the duration of the pregnancy.
Things to Keep in Mind
Regular Menstrual Cycles
A ‘regular’ cycle is one that comes with little fanfare, other than maybe just some mild PMS. It should be predictable, with similar intervals between periods, as well as comparable lengths of flow. The ‘textbook’ number of days ranges from two to seven; the interval from one period to the next is typically about 26-36 days.
You shouldn’t feel wiped out after your period. Cramps should not be so painful that you can’t maintain your daily activity. Blood flow should be manageable by regularly changing your pad, tampon or diva cup.
Many women don’t meet these criteria. That’s common, and definitely worth a conversation with your health care provider who may have suggestions to help you become regular. The reasons for irregular cycles are varied and many are easily treated.
Tricks of the Trade
Ovulation Predictor Kits
Ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) are used to help confirm the peak time of your fertile window. The sticks detect concentrations of luteanizing hormone (‘LH’) in your urine and are generally used first thing in the morning. (Hint: Women are most fertile when the LH surge is highest.) A smiley face or solid blue line registers on the stick when your urine contains the highest level of LH.
For some women, OPKs are unmistakably obvious with their clear positive signs. Others find them to be hard to read, with faint or intermittent blue lines. They are not cheap – prices range from $15 – $50 – so if you’re using them one a week each month, it can add up. Also of note, it is possible to have an LH surge and not ovulate, and it’s possible to ovulate without detecting it on the OPK, so this is not a foolproof method.
Basal Body Temperature Charting
By taking your temperature with a special, extra-sensitive thermometer every morning upon waking, you can create a picture of the two distinct parts of your menstrual cycle. In the first half, the follicular phase, you’re ovaries are working on pushing out healthy follicles. In the second half you’ve already ovulated, the transition between the two phases usually occurs over one to four days. Temperatures go up in the second phase by about half a degree, Fahrenheit. With this data, you can predict when you usually ovulate after you establish a regular pattern over a month or two and time intercourse accordingly. The key to success with this method is taking your temperature at the same time every morning, and having a decent nights’ sleep prior to recording.
This is useful for women with regular cycles. If you’re not a great sleeper, do a lot of traveling, or are easily stressed by seeing large (>.5) fluctuations in temperature, this may not be the best method for you. It is also most useful as historic information, since your temperature shifts after you’ve ovulated, and at that point you are past your fertile window.
Another way to help confirm your most fertile time is to pay close attention to your cervical moisture. Elsewhere on HelloFlo we’ve talked about vaginal discharge. Specifically for getting pregnant, the best discharge for fertility comes out looking and feeling like egg white. When you start seeing this, it’s time to have intercourse. Again, as we’ve said before, all of our bodies are different and some of you won’t see the “egg white”. This doesn’t mean you’re not fertile, it just means you need to pay attention to more subtle changes in your cervical moisture.
Now that you know the mechanics we hope you’ll feel a bit more confident about how you can manage your fertility. We’ll be adding more to this series over the next few weeks.
About the Author: MARGARET SIKOWITZ graduated from the PACIFIC COLLEGE OF ORIENTAL MEDICINE, one of the nation’s oldest accredited colleges granting masters degrees in Chinese Medicine. She practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine in New York City.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.