How it works
The basics are, that at ovulation, an egg pops out of your ovaries (or multiple eggs in the case of multiple birth), travels down the fallopian tubes and heads for your uterus. You may experience some symptoms at the time of ovulation, such as slight pain on one side or extra hunger or mood swings, however for most people the whole process of ovulation happens with very little, if any obvious signs. In reality, there is a complex chain of events occurring within your body which as necessary for the whole ovulation process to run smoothly.
There appears to be no rhyme or reason as to which ovary releases the egg at ovulation each month and this doesn’t appear to have any influence over your ability to fall pregnant. However, the health of the egg that is released has significant bearing on your ability to conceive and carry a healthy pregnancy.
Although most women ovulate each month, it’s during the critical 90 days prior to each ovulation that you can positively or negatively influence the health of your eggs. During this critical window, up to 100 follicles are beginning their journey to becoming a mature egg. This process will gradually reduce the number of developing follicles until one ‘dominant’ follicle will break through to become a mature egg ready to be released at ovulation.
Ovulation usually occurs between day 10 and day 19 of your menstrual cycle, with the classic ‘average’ at of ovulation being day 14. For some women, ovulation may occur like clockwork each month on day 14, however your unique ovulation timing can vary greatly, you may not even ovulate each month. Getting to know your unique ovulation pattern and timing, greatly improves your chances of falling pregnant.
You are most fertile in the 3 – 4 days leading up to ovulation and on the day of ovulation. This is because sperm can survive within your reproductive system for 2 – 5 days, ready and waiting for that egg to pop out. However, your egg only survives 12 – 24 hours after being released at ovulation. Healthy, active sperm must be present during these 12 – 24 hours for conception to occur.
How to know when/if you’re ovulating
For some women, it’s easy to tell when they’re ovulating from the regular signs and symptoms they experience each month, however for many women that’s not the case. Ovulation timing varies greatly between individuals. It can also vary between cycles. Menstruation can even occur without ovulation occurring at all and in some rarer cases, ovulation may occur without the presence of menstrual flow.
So we know it’s important to know when or even if we’re ovulating in order to be able to conceive, but how do you know?
There are a number of techniques you can use to find out when you’re ovulating and pin point your most fertile days. The main thing is that you get to know your body, tune in with your unique signs. Knowing your body and your cycle really well will help you understand your unique ovulatory pattern and enable you to better track and predict your most fertile days.
Charting your temperature
The hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle influence our Basal Body Temperature (BBT). By charting your temperature each morning you will begin to establish a pattern that reflects your individual changes. These changes indicate when and if ovulation is occurring. Temperature does not predict when ovulation will happen, because temperature changes occur after ovulation has occurred, however charting your temperature each month will help to establish your unique pattern enabling you to better predict when you are likely to ovulate and when your likely fertile days are each month.
Using a digital or mercury oral thermometer, you need to take your temperature via mouth (or vaginally, however whichever method you use, you must stick with this method as vaginal temperature is slightly higher than oral temperature) at the same time each morning before you get out of bed. For the reading to be most accurate you must not eat, drink or smoke (hopefully you’re not smoking!) and have had at least 3 hours sleep before you take your temperature. The exact temperature is less important than the change in temperature.
Anywhere between 35.5 – 36.5 degrees Celsius (96 – 98 degrees Fahrenheit) is normal before ovulation and anywhere between 36.2 – 37.2 degrees Celsius (97 – 99 degrees Fahrenheit) is normal after ovulation.
When you ovulate your temperature will rise and remain higher for at least 10 days before dropping back to the starting temperature ready for the next menstrual cycle to commence. If your temperature spikes but remains high for less than 10 days, this can indicate that ovulation has occurred however your luteal phase is too short to establish a pregnancy.
Your most fertile days fall 2-3 days before temperature reaches its peak and for about 1 day after. You should also notice a slight drop in temperature before the rise. This drop can help you predict that ovulation is about to occur, indicating that you are commencing your fertile period.
When charting your temperature it’s important to be mindful that other external factors, aside from hormones, can influence basal temperature. These include
- Being unwell
- High stress levels
- Shift work
- Interrupted sleep
These factors can interfere with the accuracy of your charting.
Another technique you can use to help predict your fertile days is to monitor your cervical mucus. The natural mucus we secrete changes colour and consistency during your cycle. These changes are influenced by the hormonal changes occurring during your cycle and play a role in either hindering or supporting the progression of sperm to the uterus. Some women secrete more mucus than others and some women secrete very little at all. The amount is less important than the colour, consistency and feel.
As your estrogen levels rise towards ovulation, you will notice that your mucus becomes a thinner, clearer consistency. It also becomes quite slippery and stretchy, much like the consistency and colour of egg white. This is your fertile mucus, acting like a slippery dip, to speed the sperms journey through the cervix and uterus and into the fallopian tube where it can finally reach its destination, your egg.
The best way to identify your fertile mucus is by the ‘moist’ sensation you have on those days by comparison to other days during your cycle. For some women the mucus may be noticeable on underwear or toilet paper. For others it may simply be that moist feeling.
Studies show that the last day of your ‘slippery’ mucus, is your peak day of fertility as ovulation generally occurs within a day following. Your peak fertile day may also be associated with physical symptoms such as a feeling of fullness, softness or gentle swelling in the vaginal area.
To optimise your chances of conception it’s ideal to be having sex in the days leading up to the peak as well as on the peak day and potentially the day after your peak. Most women will start to recognise the peak firstly by the definite change in mucus secretions the next day, from slippery to more dry and sticky, possibly damp feeling.
As with your cervical mucus, the position of your cervix naturally changes throughout your cycle to either encourage or help block sperm entering the fallopian tubes to reach the egg. You will also notice changes in the feel and texture of your uterus as you progress through the different stages of your cycle.
Performing a self-examination can take some practice and should be done with caution. It’s best done after a shower or even during a bath. Find a position that is comfortable for you and use this same position each time so you’re drawing the same comparisons each time. Gently insert one or two fingers into the entrance of your vagina and feel for the cervix, which is located towards the upper front. You will start to notice the unique changes corresponding to the timing in your cycle. This method should be used with caution and only in sterile conditions.
The menstrual bleeding phase
The cervix will be positioned quite low during the bleeding phase of your cycle. You should be able to reach it easily and will notice that it may feel open, kind of like your ear or nose. This position allows blood to easily flow out. It will also feel quite firm during this phase
When bleeding stops
When you come to the end of your period your cervix will still be positioned low down and feel firm but it will now be closed.
Leading up to ovulation
As your body prepares for the egg to be released at ovulation, your cervix will move higher up. You will also notice that it becomes softer and moister.
At the height of your ovulation phase, just as your egg is being released, your cervix is in the optimum position for conception. It will feel very soft, moist and open, more like your mouth and lips than your ear or nose during this phase. It will now be positioned quite high, you may not even be able to feel it because it’s either out of reach or the softness may blend in with the vagina walls. This is the ideal position to support the journey of sperm to the egg. Now is the time to be having sex!
Once ovulation occurs, the cervix will begin to lower down and become firmer again. The cervix will now close tightly. This may happen immediately after ovulation or may take up to a few days.
If pregnancy occurs
If an egg is fertilised and implanted into the uterus, the cervix will rise back up and become soft again. However this time it will remain tightly closed.
If pregnancy doesn’t occur
The uterus will remain closed and firm until the next menstrual period is due to begin
Ovulation test kits
Ovulation test kits are another way to help pin point your fertile window. These come in the form of
- Urine based test kits
- Salivary based test kits
Urine based test kits
These kits work by measuring the level of luteinising hormone (LH) in urine. There is always a small amount of LH present in blood and urine, however the volume of LH increases 2 to 5-fold 1 to 2 days prior to ovulation to stimulate release of the egg. Measuring when this surge is occurring provides an indication that ovulation is about to occur.
The 3 days immediately after the commencement of the LH surge is the window during which you are most likely to conceive.
When using urine-based kits it is best to follow the directions outlined on the packet as these can vary slightly between brands. In general it’s best, although not essential, to test your urine at around the same time each day and ideally not first thing in the morning as this may miss the first day of your LH surge. Around 2 – 2:30pm appears to be ideal timing. Also avoid drinking too much liquid prior to the test as this may dilute urine. Read the results within 10 minutes of performing the test. Positive tests won’t disappear however a false positive may register after 10 minutes. Therefore once the results have been read, the test should be thrown out.
Urine based ovulation kits are around 99% accurate, making them one of the most reliable measures of ovulation, however they are not fool proof. It is possible for LH to surge without ovulation occurring. You may also experience false LH surges prior to the actual surge. However their strong reliability still makes them one of the best methods for predicting ovulation at home.
Salivary-based test kits
Using a tiny microscope, these kits enable you to visualise the changes in saliva patterns, stimulated by a change in hormone levels. Estrogen increases the salt content of your saliva. When this salt dries, if forms a fern-like pattern which can be seen through the microscope. This fern-like pattern indicates the presence of a high level of estrogen, which is most likely to occur in the few days leading up to ovulation. So when you see this pattern, the 3 – 4 days following this will be your most fertile.
Saliva based test kits aren’t quite as accurate as urine based test kits. This is due to the fact that the fern-like patter may be present at other times during your cycle depending on your hormone levels. For some people, it may also be hard to accurately identify the fern-like pattern through the microscope. However, this type of kit can be a more popular option due to the convenience of testing as well as the ability to use the same test over and over for around 2 years.
Fertility medications can impact the accuracy of both kits, so best to speak with your specialist if you are taking any prescribed hormonal medication.