So you’re trying to conceive, and you’re not sure where to start. You might have heard of fertility tracking and the supposed “fertile window”, or you’ve been scared about needing to have sex around the clock to conceive. But what does it all mean?
If you’re looking to better understand your menstrual cycle to improve your chances of getting pregnant, you’re in the right place. We’re going to break it down, from ovulation and menstruation basics, to timing sex in your fertile window, to tracking your ovulation, to when to seek medical help.
By the end of this blog post, you should feel confident about understanding where you are in your menstrual cycle, and how you can leverage this knowledge to maximize your chances of conceiving.
Understanding your menstrual cycle
The timing of your menstrual cycle dictates when you’re most fertile, and thus when you can get pregnant. So if you’re trying to conceive, your best bet is to get acquainted with this cycle so you can work it to your advantage.
How does the menstrual cycle work? Let’s break it down.
The menstrual cycle starts on the first day of your period – we call this day 1. The time from this day until your next period marks one full cycle.
There are two key events happening during your menstrual cycle – ovulation and menstruation.
Ovulation is when one of your ovaries releases an egg into the fallopian tubes in preparation to be fertilized by a male’s sperm, thus creating an embryo, which grows into a fetus. Ovulation typically happens 12-14 days before your next period.
During the second half of your cycle, after ovulation, your uterus lining thickens in preparation to host the fetus. When a sperm does not successfully fertilize the egg in your fallopian tubes, your uterus sheds this lining. This is day 1 of your period, which marks the beginning of the new cycle.
Timing sex for your fertile window
Once we understand the menstrual cycle, we can also understand at which point in it you’re most fertile. This is how you’ll know when to have sex around ovulation.
We don’t know what you’ve heard, but let’s bust some myths right away. Do you need to be having sex with your partner constantly to conceive? No. Does getting the right timing make a big difference? Yes.
The facts are: A female’s egg will only live for 1-2 days after you ovulate, but sperm can survive up to 5 days in a woman’s body. This means you’re most fertile during this 6 day window. If you’re trying to get pregnant, we suggest having sex every day or every other day during this timeframe – 5 days before you ovulate, until one day after.
It’s important to mention that you do not have to force sex outside of these times (nor do you ever have to force it). The “fertile window” is meant to be your guide, but it may take some cycles to get it right, and you won’t be able to catch every fertile moment. So don’t feel bad if you miss a few opportunities, or sometimes it just doesn’t feel right. Conceiving a child is a miraculous process, and the less it’s corrupted by schedules and pressures, the better.
How to know when you ovulate
If you’re wondering how to know when your 6 magic fertile days happen, there are a number of methods you can use to track your ovulation.
The cheapest and easiest way to track the length of your cycle is to use a calendar. When your period starts, mark day 1 in your calendar. Your cycle is the number of days between the first day of each of your periods. Repeating this tracking for 6 months will give you the most accurate number of days in your cycle. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days, but anything between 21 and 35 days is considered normal.
To understand exactly when you’re ovulating, it’s important to understand the symptoms that appear during ovulation, based on hormonal changes throughout your menstrual cycle.
In the first half of the menstrual cycle, your ovaries generate the hormone estrogen until the levels are high enough that your ovary releases an egg. After this, your body starts to generate the hormone progesterone. These hormonal changes affect your cervical mucus texture as well as your body’s temperature, so you can use either or both of these indicators to estimate when you ovulate.
Perhaps the most reliable method of self-tracking ovulation is monitoring your cervical mucus, the sticky fluid that comes from your cervix and out of your vagina in the form of vaginal discharge. The mucus varies at each point in your menstrual cycle. Leading up to ovulation, you will see more cervical mucus, and it will feel more stretchy and slippery, with the consistency of raw egg whites. This consistency makes it easier for sperm to swim inside your body, and it means you are in your most fertile window. We recommend tracking your vaginal mucus for at least one cycle.
Basal body temperature
Some people track their basal body temperature using a basal body thermometer each morning. When you ovulate, your basal temperature will slightly drop and then rise, and your fertility will be at its peak 2-3 days before the temperature goes up again. If you track your temperature each day leading up to ovulation, after ovulating your temperature will be higher for a sustained period of time. You’ll need to track this for at least 3 months before you use the method to try to conceive. Just remember that, while this is a good method to monitor your ovulation pattern, it will not tell you when to start having sex to conceive, because you will only see the rise in temperature after you’ve ovulated.
There are a multitude of tools and gadgets on the market to help you self-track your ovulation and fertility window. But many of them can create a lot of stress, they don’t work for everyone, and their results are not 100% accurate. Specifically if your periods are very irregular, it may be a waste of time and money to try to self-predict your ovulation. With that said, we suggest you consider with your doctor the best way to support you as you try to conceive.
When to seek help
If you’ve had sex during your fertile days and are still not pregnant, you might be wondering why. This leads us to the question of when to seek help.
If you’re below 35 and have been trying for a year without getting pregnant, you should talk to your ob-gyn. For those between 35 and 39, let 6 months of trying be your marker. If you’re over 39, it’s recommended to seek help even earlier. It’s also a good idea to seek help early if you have a health condition that compromises your fertility, like a history of endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or previous pelvic surgery.
If your periods are irregular, aka outside of the 21–35-day window, or if your cycle length varies by more than 7 days per month, talk to your ob-gyn or fertility specialist. There could be a hormone imbalance causing your irregularity, making it more difficult to conceive naturally. It could also signal that you’re not ovulating and may require medication to help you ovulate.
Beyond tracking your ovulation and timing sex during your fertile window, we recommend talking to your doctor for preconception counseling. There are multiple tests and lifestyle changes that can improve your likelihood of having a successful pregnancy.
Want to talk more about your menstrual cycle and fertility window with an ob-gyn? Ask Dr. Tanya about it at your next appointment.