Three Ways to Track Your Menstrual Cycle Like a Pro
Some adult women chose to use cycle tracking as a method of birth control, however, we DO NOT recommend its use for teens - cycle tracking as a teen is helpful in understanding your own individual body and should be used for educational purposes ONLY.
Imagine a world in which your period and menstrual cycle were no longer a mystery: in this world you know the exact day your bleeding will begin, you are able to validate your PMS symptoms by understanding the changes your body goes through each cycle, and you know not only when something is “off,” but how to fix it, too. Believe it or not, this magical world can become a reality by learning a few simple techniques or downloading an app on your phone. Welcome to the world of menstrual cycle charting!
Before we begin, it’s good to know that if you’re on hormones (the pill, the patch, the shot, the ring, the hormonal IUD) your cycles will look a little different than if you’re not on hormones. That’s okay! You can still learn to chart your cycles and pay attention to what’s going on in your body.
So, where do you begin on this journey into your uterus? You’ll want to start by learning to understand the “language” your body speaks. Popularly know as *body literacy, this language has **three main components:
- Changes in your basal body temperature
- Cervical fluid patterns
- Cervical position
OK, so, let’s break these three components down a bit…
Basal Body Temperature
Basal body temperature (BBT) may sound pretty intense, but it’s just a fancy way of saying “your body’s lowest resting temperature.” To properly track your BBT, you take your temperature first thing in the morning (before you drink, speak, or even move) with a basal body thermometer. A basal thermometer measures your temperature to the 10th degree (i.e.: 98.25 vs. 98.2), they are more accurate than regular thermometers. For accuracy, you will want to try and take it around the same time every day.
The magical thing about basal body temperature-taking is watching for the jump: once you see your temperatures jump up and stay up, you can be pretty confident that ovulation has happened. This temperature jump happens because your body starts secreting a hormone called progesterone, and progesterone raises your body temperature a bit. You don’t notice it day to day in your body since it’s such a small change, but if you are tracking your temperatures you will see the jump on your chart! And it’s very exciting!
The next signal you can track is your cervical fluid. Cervical fluid is a magical substance that aids in pregnancy achievement. Cervical fluid helps keep sperm alive inside the vaginal canal and assists sperm easy passage into the uterus to meet an awaiting egg. Without cervical fluid sperm would die in only a few hours! With cervical fluid, sperm can survive inside the vagina and uterus for up to five days.
Cervical fluid is produced either right around the end of menstruation and up to a week later. Everyone has a different cervical fluid pattern, but most of the time it will start off a little sticky or tacky, transition into something more creamy and wet, and eventually look a little clear, slippery, shiny, and stretchy. Have you ever noticed a little wet spot in your underwear around mid-cycle? That’s your cervical fluid!
Whenever you are in the bathroom, you can check for cervical fluid using a clean piece of toilet paper (always wiping front to back!) or by using a clean finger (just move your finger between the labia and see if anything is there). If you have trouble finding it, don’t worry! Cervical fluid can be tricky to pin down at first, just keep trying and be patient.
Some people can feel when they have cervical fluid at the vaginal opening because it feels wet or humid and some people find their cervical fluid after bowel movements. As long as the fluid you see is white, yellowish, or clear and doesn’t have an icky smell, it’s perfectly normal and healthy. If you ever see fluid that has a greenish or grayish in color and smells strange or is accompanied by burning or itchiness, then you should talk with a health care provider you trust.
The last signal you can start keeping track of is the position of your cervix. The cervix is a two inch long tubular organ. Technically, it is the base of the uterus, and it is what connects the vaginal canal and uterus together. Like basal body temperature, this is best to check first thing in the morning, like when you are in the shower or getting dressed for the day. Sometimes finding your cervix is super easy, but sometimes it’s a little tricky. The easiest way is to squat down or put one leg up on the toilet or bathtub. Make sure you’re hands are clean, and insert one finger up into the vagina and bear down a little (this means to push down using the same muscles you use if you’re going to stop the flow of urine mid-stream). If you feel a firm little doughnut, that’s the cervix! It has a little opening called the os, and you’ll probably be able to feel that too.
When you are closer to ovulation, the cervix becomes a little softer to the touch and the os becomes a little bigger. When you are not close to ovulation, the cervix is a little firmer and the os is a little more closed. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a soft and a firm cervix because the change is super subtle, but just do your best. Interpreting the changes in your cervix takes a little time and practice.
If you want to go even deeper, check out the book Cycle Savvy by Toni Weschler or Cycling: A Guide to Menstruation by Laura Szumowski. The most important thing to remember is that really understanding your cycle takes time and practice and patience. You are learning a whole new language, remember?! Don’t expect to understand it all perfectly right away. The ultimate goal is to understand your own body and cycle and know what is “normal” for you; with a little help and practice, you’ll be the expert on your cycle in no time!
*The term “body literacy” was coined by Geraldine Matus and Laura Wershler in 2005 and is a super helpful idea when talking about our bodies and menstrual cycles. Just like you need to understand letters and words and sentences in order to receive anything from a book, you need to understand the language your body speaks in order to really connect with your menstrual cycle.
** There are lots of other important things you can track (like your moods, your energy levels, your libido, your cravings, your acne, your stress level, and the moon cycles) but this article will focus only on the “primary” fertility signals to get you started.
ASHLEY HARTMAN ANNIS - STAFF WRITER & EDUCATOR
Ashley Hartman Annis (she/her/hers) is a fertility awareness educator & abortion / birth / postpartum doula-in-the-making. She is the creator of many zines & workbooks about menstrual cycle charting, birth control, and reproductive health.