Written by: Seeking Health
Trying to get pregnant might seem like it should all be fun, but it can feel hopeless if it doesn’t happen effortlessly. But keep the faith! Understanding the many factors at play can increase your odds of a positive pregnancy test.
Trying to conceive, or TTC as it’s often abbreviated, isn’t just for those undergoing IVF. For many, the journey to pregnancy starts with fertility charting, a process of tracking specific details of a woman’s menstrual cycle to know when ovulation is happening. It’s important for targeting intercourse at or around the time of ovulation. It can also be helpful to know when a pregnancy test might be positive if you did conceive.
We wrote this blog to help you understand why and how to start tracking your ovulation and charting for fertility.
Fertility charting might seem like a foreign concept, especially if you aren’t used to tracking your menstrual cycle. The good news is that fertility charting can now be done on smartphone apps, unless you want to do it by hand. You can put as much time as you wish into charting, but it does not have to be a complicated task.
The most meaningful part of charting is understanding why you’re doing it in the first place. You have to know what you’re looking for. Information gathering without strategy won’t help you get pregnant any faster, so you need to be intentional and informed.
When you’re charting fertility, it’s about more than just testing for ovulation. You’re also looking for other signals into overall reproductive health. Fertility charting looks at several factors, including:
You can also track any number of other health-related aspects, like what medications you are taking, symptoms and how you are feeling, and any other data that might be relevant.
If you are charting for fertility signs, you can learn a lot. For example, conventional wisdom says that a woman's regular cycle is 28 days and that they ovulate on day 14. But this is only an average, and women’s cycles can vary—even on the normal side—by up to 7 to 10 days. (1) Since you only ovulate once, and your mature egg is only viable for about 12 to 24 hours after ovulation, missing this window by a day or two can result in a failure to conceive.
If you ovulate early, for example, on cycle day 11, but you think you’re not fertile until cycle day 14, you might think that having intercourse on cycle day 13 would guarantee a good chance at getting pregnant. But, by that point, your egg is probably not viable anymore. The same is true for having intercourse up until cycle day 14 and thinking you’ve done what you need to do—but you don’t actually ovulate until cycle day 18. Sperm can live for up to five days, but it may only be viable for two or three days. (2)
Getting pregnant is not about having unprotected sex around cycle day 14. It’s about knowing when your body ovulates and ensuring that there is sperm ready and waiting when an egg is released from your ovary.
Fertility awareness can make the process of conceiving a lot easier since you don’t have to blindly guess when you’re fertile, and you don’t have to make assumptions. When done correctly, it can also serve as a natural form of birth control and facilitate family planning. Fertility charting can also offer insights into why you’re not getting pregnant even if you’re timing intercourse correctly. An ultra-low basal body temperature, for example, might indicate an underlying thyroid or metabolic problem. A short luteal phase, less than ten days, might indicate insufficient progesterone levels following ovulation that can make it hard to sustain a pregnancy even if you do conceive.
The length and heaviness of your period, as well as the overall length and regularity of your cycle, can help pinpoint underlying fertility problems, like endometriosis, PCOS, or fibroids. Once you have this data on your cycle, you can more easily communicate with your gynecologist or fertility specialist about what’s going on in your body and target treatment from there. Even though there are hormone tests and other ways to assess your fertility, getting a real-time snapshot of what your body is doing helps provide a more complete picture.
There are entire books devoted to the subject of fertility charting. Instead of giving you all of the details here, which we’d never have space for, we’ll cover the basics and then point you to expert resources that can help you succeed.
Fertility charting has one major essential: temperature tracking. It is also helpful if you note cervical mucus, which can be a big indicator of your time of ovulation, but some women also don’t have noticeable amounts. Cervical position charting is entirely optional.
To track your temperature for fertility, you need a special thermometer known as a basal body thermometer. It measures your body temperature in a more fine-tuned way, more specifically than a fever thermometer, down to 1/10th or even 1/100th of a degree. This specificity allows your temperature changes to be more noticeable on your fertility chart.
To track your temperature accurately, you’ll want to take it every morning as close to the same time as possible, then record it on your chart. For example, if you generally wake up at 6 AM, try to take your temperature at 6 AM every day. Record your result immediately so you don’t forget. Be sure to take your temperature before you get out of bed, or even get up to go to the bathroom. You want your basal body temperature (BBT) reading to be a baseline temperature upon first waking, before any movement.
Basal body charting is helpful because, for most women, you have an obvious temperature shift after ovulation.
For example, the first half of your cycle may have an average temperature of 98.1 while the second half may average around 98.8. Even though these seem like very minor differences, when using a basal body thermometer on a fertility tracking chart, they are enough to identify a thermal shift. This is one of the ways to help confirm and track ovulation.
Sometimes there is no distinct thermal shift. Or your temperatures may be all over the map throughout your cycle. This information can offer insights into identifying possible anovulatory patterns or other hormone issues, which can help fertility specialists better understand why you’re not conceiving.
Your cervical mucus functions to help create an environment that can facilitate the sperm’s journey up the vaginal canal into the uterus. The vagina is typically acidic, but that would destroy sperm since it needs a more base pH. Cervical fluid is watery and mutes the acidic nature of the vagina during the fertile period. While some women have an abundance of it, others don’t necessarily have noticeable amounts. This does not automatically mean that it is an infertility problem.
You can chart your cervical mucus (vaginal discharge) by noting the four categories on your chart. They are:
You may have several days of cervical mucus, or you may only notice it for a few hours. If your cervical mucus is not easy to chart, you can also check fertility signs by noting the position of your cervix. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, and if your cervical mucus is easy to track, you may not need to.
Tracking cervical position is relevant because when you’re ovulating, your cervix is higher and more open, facilitating the entrance of sperm into the uterus. When you’re not ovulating, your cervix is lower, tighter, and closed. You will only be able to tell the difference by monitoring your cervical position for a cycle or two and making observations based on your own body’s response. But most fertility charts have places to note whether your cervix is high or low, whether it is hard or soft, and open or closed.
For more information about charting your fertility signs, check out the following resources.
If you want to become a pro at charting for fertility, here are some excellent resources to help you.
Many other fertility apps and even wearable fertility monitors will track your basal body temperature for you. These devices and apps are loved by some but considered less reliable by others. As with everything, it’s about finding the system or tools that work for you, so explore and find out what you like!
Each of these comes with its own app for tracking. They can range in price from just under $100 to over $300. If budget is a factor, you can easily track for little to no cost by using Fertility Friend or the principles gained in Taking Charge of Your Fertility (TCOYF, as it is often abbreviated in the TTC world).
Many women believe that they have to have intercourse every day during their fertile window to maximize chances at conception. However, when you consider that sperm lives for at least a few days, this isn’t actually true. If you’ve been trying to get pregnant for months, the thought of daily intercourse isn’t as fun as it sounds either—just ask many in the infertility community.
You can relieve some pressure from the situation by understanding your fertility cues. Once you start having fertile cervical mucus, opting for intercourse every other day (or even every two days, if you have a longer fertile window) can be perfectly acceptable. The exceptions would be if you never have fertile mucus and are not quite sure when your fertile window is, or if you know that your partner’s sperm has low motility or he has low sperm count. If he has a low sperm count, you may require fertility treatment, or it might be best just to have intercourse twice, timed as close as possible for one to two days before ovulation.
If you have ovulation pain, don’t assume that that means you have officially ovulated.
You should wait until you see the thermal shift on your chart to assume that you have ovulated.
Until your chart confirms it, assume that you could still be fertile. Sometimes women have ovulation pain a few days before ovulation, or they may have it a few different times in a cycle. Or the abdominal pain might be due to something else entirely.
There are many options for ovulation tests, also known as Ovulation Predictor Kits (OPKs). Some of them are simple dipstick tests that measure the LH surge (luteinizing hormone surge) that happens at ovulation. Others are more complex systems that give you fertility signals, using a blinking smiley face to indicate that you’re in your fertile zone and a solid smiley face when the test thinks that your hormone levels indicate ovulation within 12-48 hours.
You can use ovulation tests, but you don’t have to do so if you’re fertility charting. Some women use them to confirm what their chart is telling them. Others use them instead of charting. It’s important to know that ovulation tests can sometimes show a few surges in a cycle, so getting a positive ovulation test does not mean that you have ovulated, only that your hormones surged. In women who are over 35, there may easily be multiple surges before ovulation happens. You can also have a positive ovulation test and not actually ovulate in a cycle.
Fertility charting can alleviate this confusion and give you more definitive proof that you have ovulated when your temp has done the thermal shift and stayed high for three days.
Once you have charted and figured out the ovulation thing, and you’ve timed your intercourse appropriately, the next big question is: did you get pregnant? Most women want to know how early they can test and get an accurate answer.
Depending on the type of pregnancy test you buy, you can test nearly a week before a missed period and get an answer. But whether or not this works for you depends on a few factors.
First, the basics of pregnancy tests are that they check your urine for the hCG hormone. You need to have enough hCG in your urine to be detected by the test. Most tests will tell you the lowest amount they can detect. The average pregnancy test checks for levels of 20 or 25 mIU/mL or higher. This is because anything less than 24 mIU/mL is considered a gray area and is not considered to be clinically pregnant. However, most women won’t get a positive result at this level until maybe a day or so before their period is due, and some won’t until their period is late.
If you want to test early, you need to get an early result test that can detect hCG levels at 6 mIU/mL or higher.
The advantage of using an early result pregnancy test is the ability to test early—up to six days before your period is due. The disadvantage is that you may get a positive test result and then later get a negative one. This is sometimes referred to as a biochemical pregnancy. Sometimes an embryo can fertilize but has trouble implanting. You may still get a surge of hCG big enough to produce a faintly positive test, but it does not mean that you had a viable pregnancy.
Most healthcare providers recommend the standard medical advice of waiting until close to when your period is due to test to avoid confusion and stress. Others will even suggest skipping urine tests altogether and going straight to blood tests.
If you do want to take a pregnancy test at home, make sure that you use your first-morning urine, ideally after holding it for at least eight hours so that it’s concentrated.
If you are very hydrated or drink a lot of fluids before bed, your first-morning urine might still be weak, and you may have trouble getting an early positive test.
Trying to get pregnant can feel confusing and complicated. It can be made far easier when you understand what your body is telling you about your fertility. While that doesn’t mean it is always faster to conceive, it can certainly shed light on the process and empower you with information about your body and health. There are many ways to chart, and finding a method that works for you is the best way to stick with it.