Psst: For a refresher on your cycles and how conception actually happens, check out this article. And for an in depth look at conception, read The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama: Redefining the Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum Journey.
But how do you know when your fertile days are? By charting your cycles and watching for signs of ovulation.
Download Motherly’s Fertility Chart here: Motherly Guide Fertility Chart.pdf
Even if getting pregnant isn’t an immediate goal, starting to chart your cycles now can be really helpful, because the longer you chart, the better you’ll get to know your body, and the easier it will be to figure out when you are ovulating. And it’s pretty empowering to learn about your body and its rhythms. Cycles can vary from month to month, so charting for several months in a row will give you a better idea of what’s normal for you.
How to chart ovulation
When charting, it’s best to keep track of several aspects of your cycle: The timing of your periods, and the signs of ovulation. Unfortunately, research has found that apps and charts that just track your period and determine your fertile days from that are not very accurate. This is because menstrual cycles can vary so much—from month to month, and woman to woman.
The best thing to do is to use these apps in conjunction with paying attention to signs of ovulation. You may also consider using ovulation prediction kits, which we’ll discuss in a bit.
By using a variety of methods to determine your fertile days, you’ll increase your odds of timing intercourse or insemination right, which means, that we will have LOTS more to talk about very soon.
What are the signs I’m ovulating? Here are eight signs of ovulation to look out for:
It is important to note that the first three are the most important.
This is a normal vaginal secretion that helps sperm travel up into your uterus. Your mucus will change from dry, to sticky to creamy, to wet, and finally to the consistency of egg whites; this is your most fertile cervical mucus. You can observe your cervical mucus just by seeing what it looks like on your underwear. Or, with clean hands, you can place a finger inside your vagina and see how the secretions feel.
Cervical mucus is probably the best indication of ovulation. And using an ovulation monitor along with checking your cervical mucus is even more accurate (more on that soon).
2. Basal body temperature
The average waking body temperatures (at the time you wake up) before ovulation is about 97-97.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and after ovulation it rises to about 97.6-98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It will remain on the higher side until you either get your period and it drops back down, or stays high because you are now a baby-cooking oven (18 days in a row of higher temperature is usually the indicative number)!
Use a basal thermometer. You can check your temperature in your mouth, your vagina or in your rectum, but stay consistent (once a rectal thermometer, ALWAYS a rectal thermometer). Check your temperature before you get out of bed in the morning, and after getting at least three hours of sleep. It works best if you take your temperature at the same time each day. Plot out your temperature each day on a chart like this.
But here’s the thing about basal body temperature. It gives us more information looking backwards than it does looking forward. You’ll only know you’ve ovulated after the fact so by the time you’ve seen a temperature rise, you’ve already ovulated. But by charting for several months in a row, you’ll begin to see your pattern—“Oh wow, my temp rises each month between day 15 and 17, so I must ovulate on day 14 to 16!” Another reason to starting to chart now.
3. Cervical position
Around the time of ovulation, your cervix will become higher, softer and more open (as opposed to low, firm and closed.) With clean hands, you can insert a finger into your vagina and feel for your cervix, and begin to chart your findings. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or midwife to teach you how to do this at your next visit.
Sometimes when the egg is release from the follicle that was holding it, a small amount of bleeding occurs, which you may notice as vaginal spotting. But its not common—one study found that only about 5% of women will have mid-cycle bleeding. Still, if you notice it, record it! It could be a sign that your fertile window has arrived.
5. Pain or cramping
About 35% of women will experience pain when they ovulate (a phenomenon known as mittelschmerz). You may feel generally crampy in your lower abdomen (much like when you get your period) or you may have sharp pain on one side. Do mention it to your provider—in rare cases the pain could be caused by an ovarian cyst that could need medical attention.
6. Breast tenderness
The rise of hormones associated with ovulation can sometimes cause your breasts to feel tender. Some women experience this as an early sign of pregnancy as well.
7. Nausea, fatigue and headaches
Yup, it can start this early. Those classic pregnancy symptoms are in partially triggered by hormones, and you may get a little dose of them when you ovulate.
8. Increased sex drive
Your body is smart, so if your body is “in the mood,” listen to her (if you want to, of course). Many women find that as they approach ovulation, they are more sexually fired up.
How often should I have sex or insemination when trying to conceive?
As I share in this article:
“If your partner or sperm donor has an average or high sperm count, you can have sex every day in your fertile window. If he has a low sperm count, have sex every other day in order boost the sperm concentration in the ejaculate.
“Sperm is healthiest when men ejaculate every two to three days, so encourage your partner or sperm donor not to wait too many days between orgasms.”
How to use an ovulation kit
Ovulation prediction kits come in a variety of forms. There are simple sticks that you pee on that display lines that darken as you approach ovulation, and machines that assess your urine for varying levels of fertility. Wearable devices that track your body temperature or pulse have also been found to be reliable, especially when used with the aforementioned techniques.
Providers do caution against using the kits and machines alone—they are not fool-proof, and something when we rely purely on technology, we may miss the our body’s signals, which could lead to missing our fertile window.
Once you’ve plotted all your findings on a fertility chart (or in an app like one of these), you’ll be able to see what your amazing body is up to. And with that knowledge, before you know it (and when you’re ready) you’ll be charting the poopy diapers and nap schedules of your darling little baby.
A version of this story was published August 10, 2021. It has been updated.