What Is Family Planning?
Family planning, also known as the "rhythm method" or "safe period," is the oldest method of birth control. It involves abstaining from intercourse during a woman's fertile period each month, usually beginning around the third day after menstruation ends and lasting for about 12 consecutive days.
There are several ways to determine when a woman is ovulating -- where she is in her cycle, body temperature, and vaginal secretions. Using these elements as a guide to determine when a woman is fertile, a couple can prevent pregnancy. Similarly, when the couple decides it's time to have another child, it provides them with the information about when is the best time to get pregnant.
The benefits: Family planning through abstinence is a drug-free, device-free method of birth control. It is especially attractive to couples who, for whatever reason, don't want to interfere with reproduction in an artificial way. For a breastfeeding new mom, it also has no effect on breast milk.
The drawbacks: Using family planning by periodic abstinence as a method of contraception (to prevent pregnancy) means a couple can't have intercourse during a certain period every month. Some couples find that this lessens the spontaneity of sex. Also, this is generally not as effective a method as others, such as barrier methods, intrauterine devices, or oral contraceptives.
If you decide to use the family planning method of birth control, two things are essential:
- Training by a qualified counselor or a medical professional
- Consistent use of the method
Periodic abstinence as a method of birth control can only work when it is followed diligently. Unless you are confident that you can recognize the signs of impending ovulation and abstain from intercourse during the fertile period, this is probably not the right choice for you.
How to Detect Ovulation
It is highly recommended that you take a class with a professional before trying this method of birth control. Here are the basic methods that you will be taught about detecting ovulation:
The basal body temperature method
Women experience a slight -- but detectable -- rise in their body temperature during their fertile period. To use this method, a woman would take her temperature by mouth, using a basal body thermometer, every morning before getting out of bed and write it down. This way, she will notice the rise in body temperature that signals ovulation has occurred. To use this form of detection, a couple must abstain from sexual intercourse from the end of the woman's period until three days after the rise in temperature is recorded. However, a few drawbacks to this method are:
- There's a large chunk of each month during which the couple needs to abstain.
- A woman must take her temperature every day with a glass (not digital) basal body thermometer.
- Temperature readings may be affected by fever, lack of sleep, or stress.
The ovulation method
This method involves detecting changes in how much mucus is produced by the cervix (the mouth of the uterus) and how it feels. The texture of the mucus changes around ovulation, and a woman using this method of detection must check regularly for mucus at the opening of the vagina and assesses it for such changes.
For most women, the vagina is dry for a time just after menstruation. Then somewhat sticky mucus appears. Just before ovulation, the mucus becomes increasingly wet, slippery, and stretchy, like raw egg whites. The day when the mucus seems the wettest, called the "peak" day, indicates ovulation. Just after the "peak" day, the mucus may become thick again -- or even disappear -- and the feeling of dryness returns. Women using this method should be aware that the texture of the mucus can be affected by a vaginal infection, sexual excitement, or the use of lubricants. Checking mucus is best done in conjunction with checking temperature with a basal body thermometer.
Using this method, the "safe" days (those days on which intercourse is okay for couples trying to avoid pregnancy) are the 10 or 11 days at the end of the menstrual cycle and the dry days, if any, that occur just after menstruation. The "fertile" period (during which the couple should abstain), starts with the first signs of mucus and continues until four days after the "peak" day.
The symptothermal method
This method combines the temperature and ovulation methods. It involves taking your temperature every day, checking your mucus, and looking for other signs of ovulation including:
- Breast tenderness
- Abdominal cramps
- Vaginal spotting
- A change in the position and firmness of the cervix
Using this method involves abstaining from sexual intercourse from the day you first notice feelings of vaginal wetness until the third day after the rise in temperature or the fourth day after the "peak" day of mucus production.
By combining these methods of fertility detection (and looking for other signs), this is actually the most effective way to determine the "safe" period and the "fertile" period each month.
Source: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Reviewed 11/02 by Elizabeth Stein, CNM
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.