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Natural birth control methods

by Dr. Tessa Commers
Julie Medical Advisor
Before SexGeneral Sex

7 Natural Birth Control Methods: What to know

While very effective, hormonal birth control is not the best option for everyone. You may not have access to a provider, or you may not want (or be able) to take hormonal medications. Fortunately, there are other ways to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Natural birth control, also known as fertility awareness methods, relies on understanding your menstrual cycle and fertility signs to prevent pregnancy without the use of hormonal birth control. And sure, avoiding side effects or having freedom from remembering to take a pill every day sounds great, but there’s more to natural birth control than just tracking your cycle. Plus, it’s not as effective as other birth control methods, with efficacy rates between 77 - 98%. Here, we’ll dive into the seven most popular natural birth control options and what you should know about each one.

1. The Rhythm Method (Calendar Method)

The rhythm method, also known as the calendar method, relies on predicting ovulation based on previous menstrual cycle data. Before you can use the calendar method effectively, you need to keep track of the length of your menstrual cycles for at least 6 periods.

Once you’ve done that, here’s how you can predict the first fertile day of your cycle:

  1. Out of the periods you’ve tracked, identify your shortest cycle.
  2. Subtract 18 days from the total number of days in that cycle.
  3. Use this number to count from the start – including day 1 – of the current cycle and mark that day. This is the start of your fertile window.
  4. Next, out of the periods you’ve tracked, identify your longest cycle.
  5. Subtract 11 days from the number of days in that cycle.
  6. Use this number to count from the start of the current cycle and mark that day. This is the last day of your fertile window.
  7. Avoid having sex on and between your first and last fertile days to prevent pregnancy.

For example, let’s say you tracked 6 cycles. The shortest was 27 days and the longest was 31 days. From 27 days, subtract 18. This determines that the first day of your fertile window is on day 9 of your cycle. Next, from 31 days, subtract 11. This determines that the last day of your fertile window is on day 20 of your cycle. This method would suggest that you have the highest chance of pregnancy between days 9 and 20 of your cycle.

As you can see from the example, the calendar method is a good prediction tool but isn’t very precise. (The fertile window is generally around 7 days.) Consider coupling this approach with another method, especially if your cycle fluctuates between different lengths and/or doesn’t always come when you expect it to.

2. Standard Days Method

Similar to the rhythm method, the standard days method simplifies the fertile window by setting the same days (usually days 8 through 19) as the generally fertile time for everyone. This approach is pretty straightforward, but if your cycle is consistently irregular, it’s best to try a different method.

Tracking Ovulation

Understanding when you ovulate during your menstrual cycle is vital for using natural birth control. Several methods can help track ovulation, including monitoring changes in cervical mucus, using ovulation prediction kits, and tracking physical symptoms like breast tenderness or abdominal discomfort.

3. Basal Body Temperature (BBT) Tracking

Basal body temperature tracking, or BBT, is one of the most common types of natural birth control. BBT refers to the body's lowest resting temperature, typically measured in the morning before any physical activity (you measure it before you even get out of bed). The idea behind BBT tracking is that the body temperature of people with a uterus rises slightly after ovulation due to increased progesterone levels, indicating the fertile window has arrived (or just passed).

But BBT tracking requires consistency. Smoking, alcohol consumption, jet lag, stress, and illness can affect your BBT readings. It could also take a few months to understand your BBT.

To use this method effectively, you have to closely track your temperature and identify the pattern of temperature changes across your menstrual cycles.

Do apps that help you track this, like Natural Cycles, really work? Dr. Cordelia Nwankwo explains.

4. Cervical Mucus Method

Cervical mucus is a clear fluid produced and released by your cervix before ovulation. The cervical mucus method involves observing changes in the consistency and appearance of cervical mucus throughout the menstrual cycle. As you approach ovulation, cervical mucus becomes clear, slippery, and stretchy, resembling egg whites.

5. Ovulation Prediction Kit

Ovulation prediction kits are readily available over-the-counter and can help identify the average day in your cycle that you ovulate. Because you are fertile before ovulation, you’ll still have to track a few cycles so that you can plan ahead. The fertile window begins about 5 days before ovulation starts.

6. Tech Products

While technology doesn’t track your ovulation outright, it can help you track your body’s tell-tale signs during ovulation and menstruation. The two most popular tech methods are:

  • The Oura Ring
  • The Apple Watch (offers ovulation and period predictions)

These wearable devices can monitor your health, including sleep patterns, activity levels, body temperature, and heart rate. While they don’t track ovulation specifically, they can provide valuable data that can complement other natural birth control methods—like the Natural Cycles App— and take some of the guesswork out of tracking your menstrual cycle.

7. Withdrawal Method (aka pulling out)

The withdrawal method, or "pulling out," involves the penis being withdrawn from the vagina before ejaculation to prevent sperm from entering the cervix. While this method seems easy, it requires a very high level of self-control in the moment, and it doesn’t protect against the possibility of sperm release in precum.

Learn all you ever wanted to know about “pulling out” here.

Natural vs. Hormonal Birth Control

The choice between natural and hormonal birth control methods ultimately depends on individual preferences, lifestyle, and health considerations.

Natural birth control methods are great if you want a hormone-free alternative without the need for a prescription or a procedure. However, other birth control methods, such as birth control pills, patches, the implant, the shot, and IUDs, offer higher effectiveness rates. If you’re looking for more reliable, non-hormonal methods, consider the copper IUD or a barrier method (like a condom).

Here’s how the natural and hormonal birth control stack up against each other:

Use Julie as a backup to natural birth control

While natural birth control methods are effective at preventing pregnancy, precision and accuracy are crucial to their effectiveness. There’s a high chance for human error and incorrect analysis due to other factors you can’t always control for, like stress, diet, and travel. If you think your tracking method might be off or you’re just unsure, take Julie, an OTC  morning-after pill, as soon as you can within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Julie can help prevent pregnancy by delaying the release of the egg. However, Julie won’t work if you’ve already ovulated. Learn more about Julie’s effectiveness here.