I teach cycle charting with the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) and it is pretty amazing stuff. This method of charting your menstrual cycles is all about learning to see the patterns of your cycles, and discovering what your unique fertility signature is. Within these patterns, you can decipher an incredible amount of information about your health, and get to know your cycles intimately.

Once you know how to chart, you can then apply the rules of FAM to your charting, either as a highly effective form of contraception, or a powerful tool for conscious conception. Charting is also an incredible diagnostic tool for hormonal and reproductive health – you can read more about this by clicking here.

If you are planning to use FAM to help you become pregnant, you can begin to use the information you gather from charting immediately to help you time love making optimally for conception.

However, talking about the rules of charting for natural contraception is more than I can explain in one article. It is both an art and a science, and I would be doing all of you a disservice by trying to squeeze that much information into a single article.

I generally recommend that women who want to use FAM as their primary form of contraception chart for at least 3 full months before relying exclusively on this method for contraception. So consider this article the beginning of your learning journey, and start charting today!

If you want to pursue learning the rules of contraception, I would be happy to work with you to teach you all about the Fertility Awareness method – click here to learn more about how you can work with me 1-on-1.

What do you need to chart your cycles?

Yes, I said grab a pencil!

It is of paramount importance that you chart by hand when first starting out. There are many nice charting apps out there, and I know they can seem awfully convenient. But every app I have tried has gotten things wrong at one point or another when trying to predict or pinpoint my ovulation. Most of these apps use algorithms that will try to predict when you will be fertile based on information from past cycles. That is called the rhythm method, it is NOT the same thing as Fertility Awareness.

Charting successfully with FAM, whether for conception or contraception, relies on you doing the hard work yourself, paying attention to your fertility signals on a daily basis, and taking the time to really get to know your body. The whole point of charting is to take your power back and learn to gauge your fertility yourself. Even if you have been charting with an app for a while and feel you have a decent grasp on your cycle, I highly recommend switching to pen and paper for a few cycles. Please download my chart, print a few copies, and write everything down by hand. I promise you that the effort you put in will be repaid to you tenfold, and you will learn so much more by trusting yourself to analyze your own charts.

Let’s get started with charting!

So what signs and symptoms will we be charting? Everything! Nah, I’m just kidding… well, sort of.. not really. Everything is interconnected, that’s the truth. Your hormonal cycles have a wide range of effects physically, emotionally, and even spiritually! I have been known to tell women to “chart everything”! But there are 3 primary fertility signs that will be the cornerstone of your charts. So let’s look at those.

Basal body temperature

What is it? It is your body temperature when you first wake up in the morning. The two primary female sexual hormones, estrogen and progesterone, affect our BBT (basal body temperature). Estrogen keeps our temperature lower, as the eggs require a lower body temperature to ripen in the ovaries. Once ovulation has occurred, the ovary begins to produce progesterone which raises the body temperature. So our BBT will be lower prior to ovulation, it will go up within a few days following ovulation, and it will remain high until the end of that cycle, when menstruation begins. BBT cannot predict when ovulation will occur, but it can confirm it after the fact.

How do I take it? Your temperature should be taken orally or vaginally, with an oral thermometer. Ear or forehead thermometers are not reliable for this purpose. It is ideal to use a digital basal body thermometer – most pharmacies carry them and you can find them on Amazon as well.  When ready to take your reading, I recommend holding the thermometer in your mouth, under your tongue, for about 30 seconds before turning it on, to ensure an accurate reading. If you are using a traditional glass mercury thermometer, shake it until the mercury line is below 98.6° F (37° C), then place it under your tongue for 3 minutes.

Your BBT must be taken when you first open your eyes, before sitting up or standing up. You should have had at least 3 hours of consecutive sleep prior to taking your temperature for it to be reliable. You also need to take your BBT at about the same time every day. This might mean setting an alarm on the weekends if you usually don’t wake up as early, for example. You can always set your alarm for your usual time, take your temperature, make a mental note of the reading, and go back to sleep. This is especially important when first starting out. Some women don’t see big fluctuations when waking up half an hour later, while others see big changes. The more precise you are with charting, the more reliable it will be.

How do I chart it? If your BBT was 97.0 circle the 97 on the chart, in the grey line. If your BBT was 97.5 then circle the 5 above the 97 grey line. Always write down the time at which you took your temperature. That way, if you took it earlier or later than usual and your temperature seems out of place, you might know why. Generally, waking up later than usual will give you a slightly higher BBT. I like to circle my temperature in a different color if it was taken later or earlier than usual.

Generally, temperatures will be in the 97 degrees Fahrenheit range before ovulation, and in the 98 degree range during the luteal phase (the second part of your cycle, between ovulation and menstruation). If you start charting and notice much lower temperatures, often in the 96s, please download this chart (http://www.springmoonfertility.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/SPRING-MOON-Chart-low.pdf)that is adjusted for lower temperatures.

What can affect my temperature? Things to keep in mind that could affect the accuracy of your body temperature: illness, fever, drinking alcohol the night before, sleeping with A/C in your room, sleeping with a heated blanket, etc. An erratic temperature that has an explanation can always be ignored in the bigger picture when analyzing your chart, but please record it anyway. Make note of anything like this in the section at the bottom of the chart.

Cervical Fluid

What is it? Cervical fluid (or cervical mucus) is produced inside the cervix. It is not the same thing as the lubricating fluids produced inside the vagina during arousal. Cervical fluid is the gatekeeper of the cervix and the uterus – different fluids are produced at different times of the cycle to either prevent or encourage conception. Just after bleeding has ended, as well as after ovulation has occurred, the cervix produces non-fertile fluid that prevents sperm from traveling up into the uterus. However, for several days leading up to and on the day of ovulation, the cervix produces fertile fluid that helps the sperm travel up into the uterus. This fluid also also nourishes the sperm and helps it stay alive.

How do I observe my cervical fluid? Start observing your fluid after the end of your bleeding time. The best way to see your cervical fluid is to look internally. Either sitting or squatting, insert one or two clean fingers just inside the opening of the vagina. Feel around a little bit, then remove your finger(s). First, rub two fingers together and feel the sensation – does the fluid feel sticky, dry, or is it slippery? Next, look at the fluid on your fingers. Notice if there is any coloration (healthy cervical fluid is generally mostly clear, white, or sometimes slightly yellow). Also notice whether or not the fluid stretches between your fingers as you move them apart, just like egg whites would.

How do I chart it? You want to observe your cervical fluid as often as possible throughout the day – two times minimum, in the morning, and again in the afternoon. It is often simplest to observe your cervical fluid when using the restroom (before using the toilet). Here is an explanation of the different kinds of cervical fluid you may encounter (not everyone experiences all of them, even in a healthy cycle). Below it is a handy chart with pictures of each type of fluid.

  • Dry: if your vagina and your fingers feel dry when observing your cervical fluid, if you do not see any fluid to speak of on your fingers, then this would be considered a dry day. Lack of cervical fluid indicates an infertile state.
  • Sticky: when looking at or feeling your fingers, there will only be a little bit of fluid and it will feel sticky between your fingers when you try to rub them together. Sticky fluid is generally clear, you might just barely notice some wetness on your fingers. This type of fluid is not fertile.
  • Creamy: generally white, with a texture similar to hand lotion. Creamy fluid can be plentiful, you might notice it in your underwear. When feeling it between your fingers, it will feel wet but will NOT feel slippery. It will feel tacky, and sometimes if you rub it between your fingers for a while it might become crumbly. This type of fluid often precedes or follows fertile fluid, but creamy fluid in of itself is not fertile.
  • Watery / slippery: either clear or tinged white, this fluid will feel slippery between your fingers, like a lubricant would. If you rub it between your fingers it will not become crumbly. Watery fluid can be plentiful as well. The slippery quality of this type of fluid indicates that it is a fertile fluid. The primary distinction between water and creamy fluid is the slipperiness. Experience is the best teacher, once you have observed both the difference will become obvious to you.
  • Eggwhite: this is considered the most fertile cervical fluid. It can often be very plentiful. It will be very slippery between your fingers, and will stretch out like egg whites would. This fluid can sometimes stretch for several inches between your fingers.

You will want to write on your chart the most fertile fluid you have observed throughout the day. For example, you may have noticed creamy fluid when you checked in the morning, but later in the afternoon when you checked again it was watery. You would write down watery fluid on your chart, and consider yourself potentially fertile that day.

What about bleeding? Any bleeding throughout the cycle will also be charted on the same line as the cervical fluid. You will want to mark how much you are bleeding, whether it is heavy, medium, light, or if you are spotting (this refers to just having little drops of blood, or only seeing blood when you wipe yourself after using the toilet). Recording bleeding somewhat subjective – my heaviest bleeding day might be lighter than your heaviest bleeding day. That’s okay. I would chart “heavy” when it is the heaviest I experience. The distinctions will become clearer to you within a few cycles. I should note that needing to change pads every hour or more is considered “flooding”, which is excessively heavy.

What can affect my fluid? Any bacterial or yeast infection will affect cervical fluid and your ability to get an accurate reading. Fluid that is malodorous, fishy smelling, or has a green or orange color, can all be signs of infections. Intense itching or pain during sexual activity can also be signs of infection. Do not chart your cervical fluid if you have any kind of active infection. Do not chart when aroused, or within several hours after making love if your partner ejaculated inside of you. It can be difficult to distinguish semen from cervical fluid.

Cervical changes

What is it? The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus, and it opens into the vagina (what is called the “external os”, meaning external opening). It is about 2-3cm long, and is roughly of cylindrical shape. The cervix is the passage through which sperm must travel to enter the uterus and fertilize the egg. We chart changes in the cervix because sex hormones affect the height, texture and opening of the cervical opening.

How do I observe my cervix? While sitting or squatting, insert one or two clean fingers inside your vagina. Reaching up you will feel a soft protrusion, that is your cervix!

How do I chart my cervical changes? The cervix might be the trickiest of the 3 primary fertility signs. I can explain these changes to you in detail, but a lot of it will not be obvious until you feel it for yourself and start to notice the variations. You want to check your cervix once a day, around the same time each day. This is because the cervix is higher inside your vagina when you first wake up, and will naturally lower as the day progresses. Always observe your cervix while in the same position (either always sitting, or squatting). I find it easiest to remember to check when using the restroom. There are 3 things you want to chart for your cervix.

  • Height: how far up is it inside your vagina. Is it easy to reach, near the opening of the vagina, or is it higher up and difficult to reach. The cervix moves higher into the vagina when you are fertile.
  • Texture: does it feel very firm like the tip of your nose, or very soft and squishy almost like your puckered lips? Maybe somewhere in between? The cervix softens when you are fertile.
  • Opening: does it feel like just a small dent on the cervix, or is the opening wide and very obvious (it might feel like a smile on the os). The cervical opening will become wider when you are fertile. Please note that women who have given birth will have a cervical opening that tends to be more open in general, although changes can still be observed throughout the cycle.

You might occasionally notice small bumps on your cervix, called “nabothian cysts”. These are normal and often come and go throughout a woman’s life. These are not cause for concern unless they become bigger or are painful.

What else am I charting?

Lets go over the secondary fertility signs, and all the other things you will want to be writing down on your chart.

    • Love making: if you make love, please circle the day. This includes using the pull-out method. If you make love using a barrier method, like a condom, write an X on that day.
    • Vulva Sensation: this is a secondary fertility sign. This refers to the sensation of wetness on your vulva, most commonly felt when wiping or just touching the area. You will notice that some days your vulva feels very dry, sometimes it may feel wet, and generally when you are fertile it will feel very slippery.
    • Mood: I include this in my charts because most of us experience mood changes throughout our cycles. For example, you might feel really good in the week leading up to ovulation, feel very energized. You might feel more emotional or have mood swings just before bleeding. This will help you discover your unique emotional patterns and create a space for acceptance and compassion for these mood changes, which can be completely natural and healthy.
    • Cramps: write down any days where you experience cramps, whether it be while you are bleeding, or ovarian cramps near ovulation.
    • Secondary signs: you will notice that there are two extra lines on the chart. This is to add additional information that you feel is relevant to your menstrual cycle patterns. Examples of secondary fertility signs that can be helpful to chart: sex drive, headaches, breast tenderness, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, weight gain, and appetite. If there is anything that you notice every cycle around a certain time, it is probably worth charting. My number one rule is that writing down too much information is always better than writing down too little!
    • Prescriptions & supplements: If you take any medications, herbs or supplements, be sure to make not of it on your chart. Especially if you start something new, or stop using something.
    • Life changes:

These are very important to chart, because many things can affect your cycles and your overall well-being. I am referring to things like traveling, big life changes like new jobs or moving, parties, going to bed much later than usual, illness, high stress, etc.

When is day 1 of my cycle?

The first day of your cycle is the first day of real bleeding. If you experience spotting (little drops of red or brown blood, sometimes only when you wipe) for a day or or more before blood actually begins to flow, those days would still be considered part of your previous cycle. For it to be day 1 of a new cycle, you want to see red blood flow that requires a pad, even if it is light.

You can do this!

I know this may seem like a lot, but I promise you that within a few cycles this will become second nature and charting will become an intrinsic part of your lifestyle. I would love to work with you privately if you would like to learn all the ins and outs of charting.

Knowing your body is pretty important stuff. Consider this some of the most important homework you will ever do. Honor your cycles, make the time to chart, it’s only a few minutes per day. Sooner than you realize you will become an expert on your unique fertility patterns, you will see how your 3 primary fertility signs come together in a beautiful transformative dance throughout your cycle. This new knowledge will allow you to flow more gracefully through the changes of your cycles, and will allow you to use this method in any way you want. I highly recommend the following books to learn about Fertility Awareness:

Taking Charge of Your Fertility, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health, by Toni Weschler

The Garden of Fertility: A Guide to Charting Your Fertility Signals to Prevent or Achieve Pregnancy–Naturally–and to Gauge Your Reproductive Health, by Katie Singer

Honoring Our Cycles: A Natural Family Planning Workbook, by Katie Singer

If you are interested in using Fertility Awareness to help you conceive, or would like to use it as a natural form of contraception, I would be glad to work privately with you to help you apply this incredible knowledge in your life and allow you to take back your feminine power by being in charge of your fertility. Contact me for additional information.

An earlier version of this article was originally posted on WildWomanSpeaks.com.