Ready to ditch the pill, but really not wanting to get preggo RN? You’ve probably heard of natural birth control as an option and (no judgement), you probably dismissed it.
But, when done correctly, using a natural form of birth control can allow you to understand your body and know when it’s time to press pause on getting freaky. But if done incorrectly (or you choose a not-so-effective method), it can leave you with a new womb-mate for the next 9 months.
Here’s everything you need to know about natural contraception and if it’s a good option for you.
Essentially natural birth control is using no hormonal medications or physical birth control methods like IUDs, patches, or rings.
But, don’t get it twisted. Natural contraception done right doesn’t mean not protecting yourself from pregnancy and crossing your fingers that you’re not pregnant every month.
It’s all about knowing your cycle so well that you can pinpoint what days you’re most fertile (around ovulation). Then you’ll need to either avoid sex completely on those days or use some sort of barrier method (like good ol’ condoms).
Generally, you’re most fertile:
- 5 days before ovulation (because sperm can hang out in your body this long)
- the day of ovulation
- 12 to 24 hours after ovulation
And, before you get started: It can take a few months (sometimes up to 6) to really track your symptoms for most natural birth control methods to be effective.
Where does natural birth control stack?
In a contest for most effective birth control method, natural birth control is the underdog for sure. This isn’t because it simply doesn’t work, there’s just a lot more room for error.
The most effective birth control methods in order, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, include:
- Less than 1 percent chance: male and female sterilization, implants, and IUDs
- 6 to 12 percent chance: injections, birth control pill, patch, ring, and diaphragm
- 12 to 24 percent chance: condom, female condom, withdrawal method, sponge
- 24 to 28 percent chance: natural birth control methods and spermicide
Note: These percentages are based on how many woman out of 100 experience an unwanted pregnancy in the first year of using said method.
This method isn’t totally ineffective, but you still risk pregnancy. Also known as the pull-out method, this natural form of birth control involves just that, pulling the penis out of the vagina before ejaculation.
The issue with this method is that precum, the fluid that comes out as a lubricant prior to ejaculation can contain some sperm. And it only takes one teeny sperm to get you pregnant. You also risk, not pulling out soon enough, or somehow getting sperm into your vagina from close P to V contact.
Bottom line on withdrawal method
If you just pull out as a form of natural BC, the risk of pregnancy is 22 out of 100.
Breastfeeding as BC gets a lot of flak as an old wives’ tale, but there’s actually some science to it. Basically if you breastfeed consistently enough, your body won’t ovulate, and if you don’t ovulate, you can’t get preggo.
According to the peeps at Planned Parenthood, lactational amenorrhea method (LAM) can be as effective as the birth control pill if (and only if!) you do it perfectly.
To use LAM effectively you have to be exclusively breastfeeding, which means you must do the following to keep your body from ovulating.
- Breastfeed 4 hours during the day.
- Nurse every 6 hours at night.
- Feed your babe only the boob juice (no formula or solid food).
Bottom line on breastfeeding as BC
The risk of pregnancy from breastfeeding as a form of BC is 1 in 50 for women who have:
- given birth less than 6 months ago
- are exclusively breastfeeding their bébés
- haven’t had a period since giving birth
And, since ovulation starts back up when the baby gets formula or solids (instead of breast milk), you really only get about 6 months max of birth control from breastfeeding (if that).
Fertility awareness methods
Basal body temperature method
If you like spreadsheets and numbers, this one’s for you.
Your body temp drops about 1°F around 12 to 24 hours before your ovary releases an egg during ovulation. By tracking your basal temperatures, you can pinpoint ovulation and figure out your fertile window where you need to avoid sex or use a barrier method.
You have to take your temperature at the same exact time every day without getting up to pee or move for this to work.
And this is important, don’t use a normal thermometer, it has to be a basal thermometer. You can then track your results in a fertility charting app or print out your own chart and mark your temp each day.
Note: If you had a late night of drinking or are sick, your results can get skewed.
Cervical fluid method
Cervical fluid or cervical mucus is your natural discharge you see in your undies. Your cervical fluid changes throughout your cycle and when it’s considered “fertile,” it actually helps sperm swim over to your egg.
This method involves checking your cervical fluid daily to see how it changes to see when you’re most fertile. You can do this by either just peeping at your undies every day or going full explorer mode and inserting a (clean) finger in there to observe your discovery.
Here’s a peep at what to expect to nail down what’s going on:
- Bloody or brown = not fertile: You’re currently on your period, or at the tail beginning or end.
- Dry = not fertile: Usually right after your period, you have no discharge and you’re most likely not fertile.
- White/cloudy and sticky = not fertile: Your body hasn’t quite gotten ready for ovulation. Discharge feels tacky and a bit stretchy, often forming little globs of discharge.
- White/cloudy and creamy = semi-fertile: Your body is starting to prep for ovulation so you’re semi-fertile. Feels and looks creamy and thick (but not yeasty thick).
- Clear and stretchy = fertile: Your fertile AF right now and the discharge feels slippery and looks clear and stretchy like an egg white.
- Dry or cloudy = not fertile: Ovulation has happened and progesterone is drying up your mucus.
Note: Everybody’s cycle is different and it’s still possible for you ovulate right before or after your period if you have an irregular cycle. That means even if you don’t have fertile fluid, you could be in that 5-day window in which sperm survives right up to ovulation.
Chances are you’ve already been tracking your cycle to make sure you don’t bleed through your white jeans. Similarly, the calendar method uses a calendar to track your cycle to figure out when you’re more likely to be fertile.
To get started you need to track the first day of your period (the start of a cycle) and the day before you next period (end of your cycle). This will tell you how long your cycle is. To get the most accurate prediction of potential fertile days, you need to do this for at least 6 cycles.
Once you know how long your cycles have been, you can calculate the days you’re more likely to be fertile. To estimate your window of fertile days:
- Calculate the first day of your fertile window:
- Subtract 18 from the total days of your shortest cycle.
- On the calendar count this number from day 1 (including day 1) of your current cycle and mark that day on the calendar. This is your first fertile day.
- Calculate the last day of your fertile window:
- Subtract 11 from the total days of your longest cycle.
- On the calendar count this number from day 1 (including day 1) of your current cycle and mark that day on the calendar. This is your last fertile day.
Note: If you have an irregular cycle, it can also be difficult to track this way. And, you can’t use it if you have short cycles less than 27 days or long cycles more than 32 days. So if your cycle is irregular, you have a lot of room for error.
Bottom line on FAM
According to Planned Parenthood, when done correctly, fertility awareness methods are actually 76 to 88 percent effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy (about 12 to 24 out of 100 get pregnant).
If you use FAM perfectly, ACOG notes your risk goes down, with 1 to 5 out of 100 getting pregnant.
The symptothermal method combines the three methods of FAM:
- cervical fluid method
- basal body temperature methods
- calendar method
This method also typically notes ovulation sign and symptoms (like cramping or changes to the cervix).
The easiest way to use this method is to track your cervical fluid and basal body temperature changes in a fertility tracking app that charts your changes on a chart and a calendar to pinpoint ovulation and your fertile window.
There are a bunch of popular fertility tracking apps out there, but Natural Cycles is the only FDA approved birth control app.
Bottom line on symptothermal method
The symptothermal method is the most effective form of natural birth control because it combines all three FAM practices, lowering your chance for error.
You can expect it to be at least 76 to 88 percent effective, but also potentially more effective because you’re combining methods.
Natural remedy peeps may suggest certain herbs to help prevent pregnancy, including:
The catch? There’s not enough research to prove these work, and they’re not an approved birth control method by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This means they haven’t been tested for safety or ya know, actually working.
Also, some herbs could potentially induce a miscarriage, so it’s best to talk with your OB/GYN before using any herbs for birth control.
Using natural birth control can be an effective way to prevent pregnancy if you consistently track and combine methods. But, an unwanted pregnancy is possible if you put a P in a V (especially if you don’t know your cycle yet).
Natural birth control might be a good option if you:
- can avoid sex or use a barrier method during your fertile window
- don’t have any medical risks if you become pregnant
- have a fairly regular cycle ranging 28 to 32 days
- don’t have heavy bleeding between periods
- don’t need to prevent STIs
Natural birth control methods might NOT good if you:
- can’t avoid sex or use a barrier method during your fertile window
- have a medical risks if you become pregnant
- bleed heavily between your periods (makes it difficult to track cervical mucus and period dates)
- need to prevent STIs
What if I’m irregular?
Even if you have an irregular cycle, you can use certain natural birth control methods. It’s even more beneficial if you combine a few methods. But, it will be more difficult to pinpoint your fertile days, leaving you more susceptive to error.
Natural birth control doesn’t offer the same security blanket of birth control pills or an IUD, but it can work pretty good if you do it right.
Natural contraception options that might work for you include:
- withdrawal method
- breastfeeding (lactational amenorrhea method)
- fertility awareness methods: basal body temperature, cervical fluid, and calendar
- symptothermal method (combining all three FAM methods)
Just remember that some methods require you to abstain from sex or use a barrier method on fertile days, and consistent tracking is key!