Ovulation tests and fertility tracking 101

With the rising awareness around fertility and infertility, more women are turning to the various available ovulation tests and other methods. Online forums and TTC (trying to conceive) communities on various social networking sites abound with information and sharing of experiences with one test or another. If you are newly ready to begin a family or have recently become interested in tracking your fertility it can quickly become overwhelming and even confusing.

Before you dive into the world of details and options at your disposal it may be helpful to first look at the very basics and gauge where you may like to start. Below we discuss three different ways to track your ovulation dates and why each may or may not work well depending on where you are with your TTC journey.

Why use an ovulation test

If you are new to the lingo and options you might take a quick look at the enormous amount of information out there and quickly ask yourself why ovulation testing is necessary at all. While it is not something all women decide to do, especially early in the trying to conceive journey, there are a few reasons women find it useful and reasons you may start to consider it.

You have been trying for a few months without success.

A woman may get curious about tracking her fertile window and trying to conceive during her most fertile days.

While this is an option, it is important to remember that many perfectly healthy and fertile couples take a year to become pregnant. There are multiple factors that determine whether or not a woman will get pregnant other than attempting conception during her fertile window.

You are using sperm donation for your conception. 

Women and couples utilizing sperm donation for conception will require a fairly exact knowledge of the intended mother’s fertile window for the best chances of conception. Tracking menstrual cycles for several months in conjunction with one of the tests discussed below will maximize your chances of conception via sperm donation. Discuss options with your doctor.

You want to increase your chances of getting pregnant. 

Simply put, when you try to conceive during your fertile window you will increase your chances of conceiving. As each woman and couple is so different from the next, it is a personal decision to test from the start or not.

What is a fertile window? 

A woman’s fertile window is roughly five days before she ovulates. While the egg is not released until ovulation, sperm can live inside in a woman’s reproductive system for up to five days before successfully mixing with the egg. Furthermore, when the egg is released it starts to deteriorate rather quickly if not met by the sperm. Hence the window for conception is in the days leading up to its release.

While the fertile window may technically be considered five or six days, most experts suggest that conception be attempted the day before ovulation.

What does ovulation feel like? 

If you have been having periods regularly, you have also been ovulating regularly, but can you physically tell? Maybe or maybe not. While there are some symptoms, some women don’t notice them, and for others those symptoms have become second nature. Here are a few physical signs that your body is getting ready to conceive:

Vaginal discharge

The most commonly discussed symptom of ovulation is the change in vaginal discharge. You may not notice it all during the month, but as you are about to ovulate you may notice that it becomes thicker and stickier, and you might simply notice that you notice it. This substance will help the sperm connect with the egg when the time comes.

Sexual desire 

Due to increased estrogen levels, some women experience a spike in libido during ovulation, though this is not as common of a symptom as it is often said to be. So, if you don’t notice your desire for sex fluctuating, do not be alarmed.

PMS symptoms 

Ovulation happens immediately before the beginning of a woman’s menstrual cycle, some begin to experience PMS symptoms during this time. Light cramping, spotting, and bloating are all reported, though it is sometimes hard to pinpoint if the symptoms are occurring because of ovulation or surges in hormones more closely associated with the start of a period. Because these symptoms, in particular, are signs that ovulation is stopping and a period beginning, you should not wait for them to try to conceive.

Signs can be easy to miss, especially if you have been on birth control for a long time or don’t have highly regular cycles. Therefore, it can be helpful to use an ovulation test. We will briefly discuss the three most common methods women today consider.

“Natural” methods of fertility tracking 

There are three ways to track your cycle and predict your fertile days that are practically free and may be a good starting point. These are: monitoring your basal temperature, paying attention to your cervical mucus, and simply charting your cycle.

Monitoring your basal temperature

Your basal temperature is your temperature when your body is at rest. This temperature should stay in place until right before you ovulate when it will suddenly increase about half a degree. It will also remain spiked if you become pregnant, so it can be a fun thing for some women to track.

To track your basal temperature, keep a thermometer next to your bed and take your temperature each morning before getting up (this is the time your body is most at rest). When this is done for a couple of weeks you should see a very steady pattern emerge. Then, you will be able to see when the temperature spikes.

Remember: to successfully track your basal temperature, it must be done at the exact same time each morning. If you forget or oversleep and therefore dash out of bed one morning, it is best to simply skip the day and begin again the next morning.

Cervical mucus

As mentioned above, a change in vaginal discharge is the most common physical sign of ovulation. It is also something that some women track during the TTC period.

According to Mayo Clinic, a “normal” cycle of vaginal discharge follows this pattern:

  • No noticeable cervical secretions for three to four days after your period ends
  • Scanty, cloudy and sticky secretions for the next three to five days
  • Abundant, clear and wet secretions for the next three to four days — the period before and during ovulation
  • No noticeable cervical secretions for 11 to 14 days until your next period begins

Mayo Clinic also suggests that to track your cervical mucus for the purposes of birth control or tracking your fertile window that you should begin taking note of any noticeable discharge (and the lack thereof) for several cycles, beginning on the day after period bleeding stops.

Tracking these two physical symptoms in tandem is what constitutes fertility charting. While you can do it with a simple pen and paper, there are also apps and online programs you can use. Find what works best for you and try to have some fun with it.

Charting your menstrual cycle

The most basic way to begin to get an idea for your fertile days is by keeping track of your period. If you are not doing this already and plan to add to your family at any point, it is good to begin now.

Whether it’s on your Google calendar, a day planner, or iPhone app, to track your period all you have to do it mark the first day you bleed with an X, and each day after until you stop bleeding. If you have “normal” cycles you should be able to see a pattern after three months of tracking.

If you have irregular periods and are planning to add to your family, have a discussion with your doctor or OBGYN about the reasons behind this and how it may impact your fertile window.

Ovulation test strips 

Another common tool that women employ to catch their fertile window is ovulation strips. Similar to a pregnancy test, they may be good for you if daily charting proves too much to keep track of, or if you are looking for something more precise after a few months of “trying.”

How they work

Roughly two days before you ovulate your body releases the LH hormone and ovulation test strips test for this surge. Many recommend that tests begin once fertile-quality cervical mucus is apparent.

Many women prefer this sort of ovulation testing simply because they don’t enjoy having to remember to take their temperature first thing in the morning or keeping track of their discharge. It is a simple, effective way to prepare for ovulation and trying to conceive.

Things to keep in mind: 

While all testing and charting will help you in trying to conceive, each method is only so accurate. For instance, ovulation test strips will notify you that you are about to ovulate, but won’t indicate the exact time when the egg is released. Each test is meant to be a guide and shouldn’t be seen as an exact science. If you don’t get pregnant when using them you should not interpret that as an immediate sign of something wrong.

All women are different, and so are their LH hormone fluctuations. Some will see a gradual increase before ovulation and then a gradual drop, while some women see their levels spike and recede quickly. It is only useful to track what is normal for you and not base expectations on anyone else’s experience.