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Planning the size of your family is a big decision for you and your partner, if you have one. While birth control and contraceptives are common ways to prevent pregnancy, natural family planning can be used to either avoid getting pregnant or in some cases, help you get pregnant. Here’s the low down on everything you need to know about natural family planning to help you decide if it’s the right practice for you.

What is natural family planning?

Natural family planning can be used as birth control and also as a way to help you conceive a baby. The practice of natural family planning is based on a woman’s cycle. This means that a woman is tracking her monthly cycle or ovulation to hinder or aid pregnancy. If you’re not trying to get pregnant, you should avoid intercourse during your ovulation window. If you are trying to conceive a baby, you’ll want to increase sexual activity during your most fertile window.

This practice is also known as a method of fertile awareness. According to the American Pregnancy Association, a man’s sperm can survive in the uterus or fallopian tubes for five to seven days. An egg released by a woman can survive for up to 24-hours. Because of this, a woman is most fertile the week leading up to ovulation and the day after ovulation has occurred. If you’re trying to get pregnant and you think you’re ovulating on Friday, for example, focus your efforts on trying to conceive between Tuesday and Saturday of that week. If you’re not trying to conceive and you’re not using any contraceptives, you should avoid sexual activity for that week entirely to be on the safe side.

Know your body

Natural family planning is most successful when you understand your body. Knowing your body well and understanding the signs of ovulation will help your chances of either conceiving a baby or not. Natural family planning allows you to be in charge of your own fertility. You’re not relying on pharmaceuticals or a male partner to use contraceptives. This type of family planning puts all the power in your court. Learning your body, however, is the key to success here. You’ll be looking for signs of fertility which include changes in cervical mucus, you basal body temperature, cramping, and your period. Throughout your cycle, your cervical mucus changes in its consistency. As you near ovulation, for example, your music changes to an egg-white consistency. This allows your body to protect the sperm on its journey to fertilizing an egg. Once you know the difference in mucus, you’ll be able to use it to either avoid sexual activity or increase your efforts.

Track your cycle

Tracking your cycle is another important component of natural family planning. In terms of natural family planning, you will always want to track your period as well as your ovulation cycle to make it more successful. This will help you know when your fertile window is. If you’re not trying to make a baby, you won’t want to have sex during this time. If you are trying to get pregnant, you and your partner will want to have sex more frequently during these days. Ovulation sticks can be particularly helpful in knowing when you’re ovulating. About a week after your period ends, you can start using these strips to track your most fertile days. These work by either dipping into a cup of urine or by urinating on the stick itself. As you near ovulation, the line on the stick gets darker and darker. You can also use an app on your phone to track these days. There are several free apps out there that can help you track your cycle. They will even alert you when you should or shouldn’t be having sex based on your preferences. This can also help you know your cycle length and any irregularities you may have. If you’re having trouble conceiving, knowing this information can be especially helpful for your doctor so they can be better equipped to help you conceive.

Natural family planning alternatives

If natural family planning isn’t for you, there are countless other forms of birth control and contraceptives out there that can be used as natural family planning alternatives. The same goes for if you’ve been trying to conceive naturally but haven’t been able to. There are medical ways to help a woman conceive and even ovulate if this is something you and your doctor determine is best. In terms of avoiding pregnancy, the most popular methods are birth control or male condoms. While there is always a chance you may still get pregnant, the percentages are very low if they are used correctly. You may feel better still using condoms when you are in your fertile window, for example. This can help ease your mind and take some of the pressure off if you’ve lost track of dates or if your cycle is irregular. This can also be helpful after the birth of a child. If you’re nursing, for example, you are less likely to get pregnant, especially if you are exclusively nursing and your period hasn’t resumed. Note that breastfeeding isn’t 100% effective in preventing pregnancy so you’ll always still want to practice natural family planning or use a contraceptive alongside breastfeeding as your baby gets older. Whichever route you go, trust your body and speak with your doctor about what form of birth control, contraceptives, or family planning methods are right for you.