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How to track ovulation to get pregnant (or avoid pregnancy)

Tracking ovulation isn’t the same as tracking your period, but it can be just as helpful.

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Tracking your ovulation cycle can help with a number of things, including knowing when your period will arrive and getting (or not getting) pregnant.

THINX

Tracking your period can be super helpful for avoiding mishaps: If you know it's coming, you'll know to keep tampons and other period essentials on hand. 

But there's something else you should track if you're trying to get pregnant, trying not to get pregnant, or have any unexplained symptoms like acne or mood swings. Ovulation is the name of the game, and it turns out that this very short -- albeit crucial -- part of your cycle is super insightful. 

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What is ovulation?

According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), ovulation occurs "when a mature egg is released from the ovary, pushed down the fallopian tube, and is made available to be fertilized."

For anyone with a menstrual cycle, ovulation is the most fertile window of their cycle. The length of a normal menstrual cycle lasts approximately 28 to 32 days, and most people ovulate between day 11 and day 21 of their cycle. Ovulation itself only lasts 12 to 48 hours, but you can potentially be fertile for up to seven days after the egg is released.

During ovulation, changes occur in your body to support pregnancy: Your body temperature rises, the lining of the uterus thickens, and cervical fluid changes. 

How do I know if I'm ovulating?

Many people don't notice any signs of ovulation unless they're specifically looking out for them. If you are looking out for signs of ovulation, you might notice: 

  • Light spotting (not all people experience this)
  • Slight pain on one side of your abdomen
  • Bloating
  • Changes in discharge
  • Breast tenderness
  • Increased libido 
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Tracking your period isn't the same as tracking your ovulation, but tracking one can help you track the other. And they both provide helpful insights. Photo: Screenshots from the Clue period-tracking app.

Clue

Should you track ovulation?

The short answer: It depends on what you want and need. 

"The most obvious reason someone would want to track their ovulation would be focused around the potential to become pregnant," Nicole Telfer, naturopathic doctor and science content producer at Clue told CNET. "A person can only become pregnant if they have unprotected sex five days before ovulation, plus up to 24 hours after ovulation has occurred. It's actually a relatively short time frame."

And even then, a mature egg only lives 12 to 24 hours after release from the ovaries, so try to have sex within that window if conception is the goal. 

Another problem is, Telfer says, ovulation does not happen at exactly the same time and can change from cycle to cycle. People who want to get pregnant often track their cycles and ovulation to help them determine when would be the ideal time to plan sex so that their chances of conception increase. 

Other than pregnancy, here are a few reasons you may want to track ovulation:

Tracking ovulation may help you avoid pregnancy. On the flip side, if you're not trying to get pregnant at the moment, tracking your ovulation can assist with contraception efforts. 

"For those who are not ready for a baby, tracking ovulation is a great way to know when you should be extra careful," Janell Sanford, Pharm.D. and Pill Club pharmacist-in-charge told CNET, "and perhaps double up on hormonal and non-hormonal contraception to avoid getting pregnant."

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If you don't want to get pregnant, tracking ovulation is a good way to stay safe. Experts recommend using hormonal birth control (like the pill) and non-hormonal (like a condom) if you have sex during ovulation but don't want to conceive.

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Irregular cycles may indicate reproductive health problems. Tracking your ovulation may alert you that something is off. Irregular cycles can indicate conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and endometriosis. Irregular cycles may also signal a hormone imbalance, specifically with estrogen or progesterone.

Tracking ovulation can help uncover the cause behind unexplained symptoms. Symptoms such as acne breakouts, mood swings, sleeplessness, weight fluctuation and extreme fatigue -- especially if they seem sudden and random -- can all stem from your cycle. 

"More than just our ovaries and uterus react to these hormonal changes [during the cycle]," Telfer says. "Some people notice changes in their hair, skin, poop, breasts, chronic disease symptoms, mental health, migraine headaches, or the way they experience sex at different points in the menstrual cycle." 

For example, Telfer says, some people notice that their hair and skin are less greasy around the time of ovulation, and become more oily closer to their period. Other people may experience premenstrual mood changes which can negatively impact them during the second half of their cycle. 

It can just make things easier all around. If you struggle with irregular cycles, tracking ovulation can just be a helpful tool for understanding your monthly patterns -- it can even help you know when to expect your period. 

"It's helpful to know when to expect Aunt Flo," Sanford says. "It can help you to be prepared and stocked with tampons or pads in the bathroom, backpack or purse, and great to keep extras in the car. It's also great to know if your period is coming on a weekend planned to spend in your swimsuit, on a camping trip, or on a first date."

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Tracking your ovulation cycle could be as easy as wearing a bracelet at night.

Ava

How to track ovulation

Depending on how regular your cycles are and how accurate you need your tracking technique to be, you can track ovulation in a number of ways. Here are four options to try out:

1. Use a calendar. The calendar method is super easy, but typically only works if you have a very regular cycle. Ironically, you'll actually track your period, not ovulation, but if you know when your period happens, you can do the math and determine when you're likely to be ovulating. 

There are a lot of great period tracking apps out there, including Flo Period Tracker, Clue (which has an Irregular Cycles feature to recognize symptoms of reproductive disorders), and the new Cycle Tracking app for Watch OS 6 and in the iPhone's Health app

2. Chart your basal body temperature. Your basal body temperature is the temperature of your body before you start moving -- think of it as your "resting" body temperature, just like your basal metabolic rate is essentially the same as your resting metabolic rate. 

To chart your body basal temperature, take your temperature in the morning before you get out of bed. Yes, that means keeping a thermometer by your bedside. Write down your temperature every day, and you'll notice an increase in temperature when you begin to ovulate. 

3. Use an ovulation predictor kit. Ovulation predictor kits are similar to home pregnancy tests. They analyze urine for luteinizing hormone (LH), which indicates ovulation. A surge in LH is a good sign that you'll ovulate in the next 12 to 36 hours, so it's a good idea to have sex in the next couple of days if you're trying to conceive. 

These tests come in kits because you'll need to take one several days in a row for the most accurate prediction. Mira is a more advanced version of these kits that uses a small device and a connected app to provide more insights. 

4. Wear a fertility monitor. Wearable fertility trackers are relatively new to the health wearable market, but there's already a surprisingly large swath of options. 

The Ava bracelet works by tracking your skin temperature, resting pulse, breathing rate and other metrics while you sleep. It claims to recognize more fertile days of the month than a traditional ovulation predictor can.

Tempdrop records your skin temperatures throughout the night and uses an algorithm to calculate your basal body temperature. This makes it a good replacement for traditional body basal temperature charting. 

The Ovusense tracker is a little more invasive, but potentially more accurate. You insert it vaginally before bed and remove it in the morning. While you're sleeping, the device reads your body's core temperature every five minutes.


The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.