One of the many questions I get asked on a regular basis is: is the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM)/Natural Family Planning(NFP)/any other sympto-thermal charting method right for me? Or perhaps they think it is but aren't feeling 100% sure of their choice.
To start this post off, I am going to say: THERE IS NO ONE CONTRACEPTIVE METHOD THAT IS PERFECT OR THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE. THERE IS ONLY THE METHOD THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU.
With an additional caveat of you being both you as an individual and you as in you and your partner.
This is such a potential mine field and it takes into consideration what method of contraception you are willing to use as some can cause long term and short term health issues, some also prevent STDs and also how both of you feel in terms of safety and security of your chosen method. Often more education is needed to make an informed choice.
So What Is The Sympto-Thermal Method of Natural Family Planning/Fertility Awareness?
Just a quick overview: this is a method of choosing, whether to avoid or achieve pregnancy using at least two signs, you basal body temperature (BBT) which is taken first thing in the morning and your cervical fluid. You can also track other symptoms as well but these are the two key ones the focus is on. Using these indexes, you then learn to identify your your fertile and infertile times and can choose whether to have sex, abstain or use alternative intimacy or sexual practices (anything that avoids genital contact) during this time to achieve or avoid a pregnancy.
This is almost an umbrella term for several very similar methods and even two FAM/NFP teachers will have small differences between their methods. However, once you have mastered one method, the other variances are easy to spot and to tweak once you know the basics.
Because these methods rely on you observing various signs and symptoms as well as your temperature, they all come under the description of Sympto-Thermal Method (STM).
The various studies done on various different STM users show that the efficacy with perfect use is between 99.6% and 99.8% effective. This is means that with perfect use, it is more reliable than condoms (97%)effective) and the pill (98%).
However, as with all methods this is the key: knowing how to use the method properly and carrying out your chosen method properly.
What Are The Benefits Of Using A Sympto-Thermal Method?
There are several unexpected benefits to learning STM:
Greater body literacy - I can tell you personally that my knowledge of my body, what all the lady bits are, what hormones do what and how my body is supposed to work. I have also found out what affects my body personally, from lifestyle, nutrition, exercise and even stress.
Greater body advocacy - once I started observing my body and seeing how she changed depending on what was going on in my life, what I ate, drank and even after taking some medications, I realised that everything I did had an impact on me. I am now much more aware of everything I do, and also, I have a greater idea of what I am willing to do and what I am not willing to compromise on, in the name of my health. My period and cycle has become my ultimate guide.
Trust - I now know that my symptoms, were signs that my body was trying to tell me something isn't right. And when I get any sign or symptom, I know my body hasn't let me down, she is telling me that something needs investigating. I now trust my body to guide me implicitly, especially when I know there are things I don't want to admit or deal with.
Pregnancy planning - with STM, you know if you are pregnant very early on and you can even predict your due date far more accurately when you do get pregnant. If you're wondering, it narrows from a 4 week window to a 12 day window, isn't that awesome!
Greater health - it can help guide you (or with the help of a qualified teacher) as to what your underlying underlying health problems are likely to be and what to do to fix them. If you aren't aware of this, period problems such as heavy or painful periods, or any kind of PMS is not normal and charting your cycle can help you fix this.
No hormonal or health side effects - there is no chance of getting a blood clot or getting post birth control syndrome here. Also, anecdotally, many of my clients have had side effects from various birth control methods, including increased PMS, PCOS, insulin resistance, depression, mood disorders and recurring infections being common.
Increased Intimacy - knowing when you are fertile and using alternative ways of increasing intimacy during this period can help bring you closer together as a couple.
Great, So Is It Right For Me?
Well that depends. Only you can decide which method is right, but here are a few things to consider and you may have to ask yourself a few difficult questions and really consider the answers properly before deciding.
Learning The Method Takes Time
This method requires a bit of brain capacity and upfront investment in you taking the time to learn how to chart the symptoms and then how to interpret them correctly.
The fastest I have seen anyone really get to grips with this, is 3 months. But usually it is 6 months before you start feeling confident.
Learning The Method Requires Investment
You need to learn from a qualified teacher. As much as I'd love to say you can learn from a book, I have yet to meet anyone who has successfully done so. Another pitfall is when people crowdsource information. I have seen this happen in Facebook groups and cringed when people have been given either the wrong information or been given information relating to a different method to the one they are learning.
This is always a disaster waiting to happen. If you are going to learn this method, please invest the time to learn it properly from one qualified person, rather than 12 books and various people you may or may not know on social media.
You Have To Be Honest With Your Partner
It is important that you communicate when your fertile window is, when it isn't and when you aren't sure. This is not a method for the relationship where you aren't really sure what is going on or you don't know what each other want (if you are ambivalent on whether
I prefer teaching the method to couples rather than one person because I know that both partners are full invested in making it work
You Will Need To Discuss What You Want To Do In The Fertile Window
This is around 8-9 days in women with regular cycles (longer in some with irregular or long cycles) and you need to decide as a couple what it is you want to do in this period. You can abstain, use other protection such as a condom or diaphragm (this is technically a different method called FAB Fertility Awareness plus Barrier method).
You can also use alternative sex practices: by this I don't mean swinging from the chandeliers (although if this is your thing, then go ahead) but any form of intimacy that doesn't involve naked genital contact. What you and your partner are willing to do in this time is up to you both, and using alternative practices can increase your intimacy as a couple.
Learning The Method Requires Dedication To Learning New Habits
Learning to take your temperature on waking is actually quite difficult for many women to get into. For this reason, I suggest women start doing this for a month first of all before they start learning the method just to get them into the routine.
If it doesn't work for you initially, you can try again later. Most of the FAMers I know started, stopped and restarted when they could finally get into the habit of taking temperature.
You Have To Get Intimate With Your Body
This means you will have to start noticing your cervical fluid (in your knickers or around your vulva) and your period and actually getting used to describing the colour, texture, opacity and viscosity. You will even learn how to stretch it between your fingers. You will learn how to distinguish it from discharge, cell slough and semen.
You will also need to pay attention to your period, spotting and any other bleeding. Whilst many women embrace this, if you don't want to discuss or look at your bodily fluids, this isn't for you.
It Does Not Prevent STIs
Only barrier methods work to prevent STIs, so if you have non regular partners, you will still need to take other precautions.
You Will Become Obsessed Once You Crack It
I have seen this happen to everyone I know. Once you have learnt to chart and started to understand your chart, you will find it fascinating, awe inspiring and the likelihood is you will start getting so enthusiastic, you will recommend it to your friends and join lots of groups to talk about it.
Learning the STM methods has been such a beautiful journey for myself personally and so rewarding. I love the personal insight I get each month. However, it took me a long time and a lot of discipline to get there.
However, if you are reading this and feel it isn't for you, there are other options such as the Daysy fertility monitor which will tell you when you are fertile based on your temperature alone. This is a kind of in between option but will get you started on the path.
If you want to start learning the signs and symptoms and how to record them, you can get part one of my fertility awareness/natural family planning course here. (Interpreting the symptoms is done through one to one Skype sessions for a super cheap price of $25).
Find Out More
Read more about Why You Should't Use The Rhythm Method
Read more about Charting Your Cycle Apps vs Paper
Read more about Charting Your Cycle if You Have Irregular Cycles