Getting pregnant can be a complicated process, but it begins with something relatively simple: ovulation. Each month, a woman’s ovary releases a mature egg into the Fallopian tube, where it will live for 12 to 24 hours. To ensure that sperm are ready and waiting for the egg during this narrow window, doctors recommend that couples have sex leading up to ovulation.
The trick, of course, is determining when the egg will be released. Since 1855, doctors have known that cervical mucus changes around ovulation, and eventually they started recommending that their patients track it to gauge this shift in their cycle.
Today, though, as the science of fertility has advanced, this method has fallen out of favour with some OB/GYNs. What are the pros and cons of tracking cervical mucus? How do you know if the process is right for you?
We’ve outlined some must-know advice below.
What exactly is cervical mucus? “Cervical mucus is produced by glands in the cervix, which is the opening to the womb,” says Alfonso Del Valle, an OB/GYN at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto and medical director for ReproMed, The Toronto Institute for Reproductive Medicine. “Because of hormones, it changes over the course of the cycle.”
Its sole purpose is to help nourish and support the sperm on their journey to an awaiting egg. An added bonus is that it acts as a lubricant that helps make sex more pleasurable.
How does it change over the course of your cycle? Before ovulation, many women will notice that their secretions are thick and creamy—this is infertile mucus. Around mid-cycle and coinciding with the follicular phase’s rise in estrogen, the fluid will become cloudy and then clear and watery, with an egg-white consistency—this fluid is considered “fertile” because it’s rich in elements that nourish sperm. On a microscopic level, it also contains small channels that help the sperm swim toward the Fallopian tubes. Post-ovulation secretions resemble those during the pre-ovulatory phase, and once you get your period, the cycle starts anew.
By identifying this egg-white consistency, many believe that they can pinpoint ovulation accurately.
The pros Because you can keep an eye on this discharge on your own and regularly, it’s a low-tech, easy way to track your cycle and fertility. You only need to use a clean finger to wipe the inside of your vagina and inspect the fluid you see.
The cons According to Del Valle, it can be difficult for women to identify the true consistency of their cervical mucus. The secretions found in the vagina, which most women notice, are actually cervical fluids mixed with a variety of elements—vaginal fluids, bacteria, minerals—not the kind of pure mucus that is indicative of a woman’s most fertile time.
There are also some women who won’t experience noticeable shifts in their secretions, even though they’re fertile. “Unless you really become an expert on your own cervical mucus, it’s a challenge,” he says. “It becomes tedious and stressful for many women to test.” Stress and negativity, he notes, can also hamper fertility.
What’s a better way to pinpoint ovulation? Del Valle says that if a woman has a regular cycle (28 days, give or take two to four days each month), she is likely ovulating, so there’s no real need to inspect cervical mucus.
Instead, he suggests that couples try a low-tech approach. “If a woman has a 28-day cycle and she starts having sex every other day from Day 10 for six days, that will cover her fertile period 98 percent of the time,” says Del Valle. If she hasn’t conceived after six months, she should see her doctor. You can use this ovulation calculator to pinpoint your most fertile days.