Women Speak on NFP: One Girl’s Experience with the Sympto-Thermal Method

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This is a guest post by Deirdre of Like Mother, Like Daughter in the Women Speak on NFP series. In this series you will hear from women using various methods of NFP, some to avoid pregnancy, some trying to conceive, and their experiences.

Disclaimer: This series is not meant to be a substitute for any method of training in NFP! If you are interested in one of the methods introduced in this series, please contact a certified instructor for information about training in that method of NFP. 

What I have to share with you is a mere introduction to this practice, which is simply a way of understanding one’s fertility and knowing how to work with it. I learned the STM from The Art of Natural Family Planning: Student Guide, which is published by the Couple to Couple League. Understanding was my motivation for learning NFP in the first place. I think for some women, the cycle is very regular and the body is straightforward and easy to read. This has never been the case for me, so I liked the idea of learning some tracking techniques so that I would come to have a better grasp of what was going on with me, both physically and emotionally.

Based on my experience, I would say that, no matter what your situation — whether you’re hoping to conceive or whether you are currently seeking to avoid pregnancy for a time, or even if you’re single and pregnancy is not a potential part of your life — it could be a helpful exercise to do some charting on your cycle and learn some more about yourself in this area, especially if you are not already particularly regular or aware of your phases.

Have you ever been very tuned into nature, such that you can wake up in the morning and look at the sky and listen to the wildlife, and predict the day’s weather, based on the signs around you? There is a pleasant and satisfying feeling that goes with being in the know in this way. You learn a practical wisdom and sensitivity that can be very useful but is also enjoyable in itself — maybe it’s helpful to know that rain is coming, so that you can get the things out of the yard and into the shed; or maybe it’s nice to know just because it’s nice to be able to grasp and work with nature, rather than being taken by surprise or at nature’s mercy. Coming to know your fertility cycle is a similar experience.

All this being said, I am not an expert on the STM! But I can tell you a few things about it, and perhaps the introduction will be helpful.

Basics

The “thermal” part of Sympto-Thermal is the easy starting point of the method. The basic idea is that you track your fertility by taking your temperature with a high-quality thermometer at the same time every morning, right when you wake up. By doing this, you capture your Basal Body Temperature (BBT), which is an indicator of where you are in your cycle. Each day, you make a note of your BBT on a chart. Over the course of the month, you will be able to see trends in your BBT. From these, you should be able to identify your different cycle phases, and in particular your time of ovulation. From this alone, you can garner key information about what days of the month you can expect to be fertile.

The “sympto” part of STM is a little more complex. This part is about identifying the various qualities of your cervical fluid as it changes throughout your cycle, and learning how these changes are also clues of where you are in your cycle. This takes a bit more effort than a moment with the thermometer in the morning; you really have to be conscious of it it throughout the day and diligent about it throughout the month if you want to get an accurate read on yourself. The basic way to approach this kind of “research” is at each bathroom break. Sometimes it may mean simply taking a look at your used toilet paper before discarding it and sometimes it may mean doing a little self-inspection, testing your cervical fluid between your fingers in order to identify its consistency. I find that it’s easiest to gather this information during the day, making mental notes, and then do your formal notation on your chart at the end of the day.

If you get into this method and are doing a thorough job with it, you can also opt to keep track of your cervical opening on your chart, which would be another element of the “sympto” part. I personally have not done this part, and it’s not as important as the other two, but you can certainly find info on it in whatever official STM reading materials you pick up and it will increase the accuracy of your charting.

So that’s the basic picture for you of what activity the method entails: a morning notation of your BBT and an evening notation of your cervical fluid (and your cervix itself). Both are noted on the same chart so that, after a few weeks, you have a one-stop-shop visual of the various factors that indicate your fertility. If you are charting for the purposes of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, you will learn more about exactly how to use the information on your chart for reliable decision-making.

Experience and Challenges

Two major perceived deterrents with this method are 1) that morning thermometer routine part is probably obnoxious and 2) that cervical fluid part is probably disgusting. The good news is that neither fear is accurate.

It is not that much of a burden to take your temperature once you get in the habit of it. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be at the EXACT same time every morning; as long as you’re measuring your BBT within the same space of about a half-hour, you’ll get the proper read. That means that, if your normal waking time is 7am, you can plan to take your temp anywhere between, for example, 6:45am and 7:15am, and you’ll be able to track accurately enough. It would only be a problem if you were measure at 7am three days out of the week and then 10am on the other four days. Also, if you have a thermometer that stores your temperature for you, you don’t actually have to read it and write it down immediately. In my experience, it worked to take my temperature at 6am and then immediately shut off the thermometer for the day. Then, in the evening, when I was making my other notations, I would power the thermometer back up and read what it had recorded that morning, thus getting all my charting done in one go. On the weekends, when I wanted to sleep a little later, I would simply set my alarm for 6am, take my temperature, set the thermometer aside for later, and roll back to sleep! Not too bad.

Also, I never bought the high-accuracy thermometers that some sources talk about. I just used the one I already owned (for fever-detecting purposes) and it seemed to serve me just fine.

As for the cervical fluid, it can be a bit off-putting to read about it at first, but I believe that’s something to get over once the initial surprise factor is behind you. After all, this is a natural and healthy process of your body and there’s no reason to be afraid of or repulsed by the proper functions of your systems – even more intimate ones. Actually, for me the challenge was not any ‘yuck’ factor, but simply the fact that the cervical fluid can be hard to read. I’ve talked about it with friends as well and we have agreed that it is not always as straightforward as the literature presents it. The expectation is that you’ll have a certain kind of fluid for each phase of your cycle and that differentiating among them will be simple, as long as you know what you’re looking for. This may well be true for you! In my experience, however, it can be a frustrating process when this doesn’t quite happen. How do I make note if it’s not quite one type or the other, but somewhere in between? What if it changes back and forth every day? In the end, I found that it could be helpful to keep a note of what I saw, but that I depended more on my BBT to get a chart that made some sense. The cervical fluid part was more like occasional corroborating evidence than a guide unto itself.

The Chart

The chart itself is probably the most daunting part when you first see a STM kit in front of you. I remember when I first saw my friend’s chart and I thought it was impossibly complicated. Fear not! Once you get a very basic tutorial on what notation goes where, you’ll find that it’s actually extremely simple. I never actually bought a kit for myself, so at first I was simply borrowing some chart sheets from someone else. When I ran out, I went ahead and just drew up my own charts, which I enjoyed doing because I could tailor them for my exact purposes and needs (and eliminate the one small expense of this method). Of course, if you enroll in a program, like the Couple to Couple League — through which you can actually send a copy of your chart to a consulting, expert couple so that they can give you feedback — you will probably want to stick with the standard-issue charts, which include a carbon copy.

General Thoughts

As I said before, I think it is a good thing to learn how to learn about yourself and your body in this particular way. Sometimes it can be extremely clarifying and even comforting to have a visual resource (your completed or semi-completed chart) to refer to and to give you insights into the crazy world that is your hormonal shifts. Charting can also be a great way to uncover any anomalies or problems existing in your reproductive system, so it’s worth trying for a while if you have concerns in that area.

I would be sorry, however, to provide all this information if it ended up being an aid in anyone’s pursuit to avoid having children who could otherwise be happily welcomed into the world. One of the best things about my (short, thus far) experience with the STM is that I was informed enough to know pretty much the moment I had conceived, and to begin to enjoy my pregnancy right from the start. While the STM is easy to learn and the basics can be put into practice quite simply, at the end of the day, it would still be a challenge to use it for purposes of avoiding pregnancy – and in a way that is natural, because of course the joy of frequently and freely giving yourself to your spouse and the accompanying promise of life can’t be easily set aside. As we know from the Psalmist:

Children are a heritage from the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them

Deirdre Folley is a young Catholic wife living in the DC area who is passionate about advocating for Life and all other beautiful things. She and her husband John are expecting their first child this summer. You can visit her at Like Mother, Like Daughter where she blogs, along with her mother and sisters, about Catholic domesticity and maintaining the collective memory.

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Comments

  1. says

    I completely agree that any woman, regardless of where she is in her life, could benefit from learning about her body in this way. You never know when it could become useful (at some point, you will probably want to avoid or achieve pregnancy), and it’s also wonderful having this extra layer of understanding about yourself. Any problems with your cycle could indicate a healthy issue, which could be improved through diet or supplements (or medical attention, depending on the severity). As for me, charting helped me to see that I tend to be low in progesterone (resulting in a short post-ovulatory phase), so a B-vitamin is beneficial for regulating that.

    I’ve been charting with the sympto-thermo method for the last few years (minus the 9 months of pregnancy and year or so of lactational amenorrhea), and it just feels so grounding to know exactly where I am in my cycle. Eventually, I would be interested in paying attention to how my cycle makes me feel — for example, am I more nurturing or creative when I’m ovulating? More irritable? That would be helpful to know!

    I also loved that I knew the minute I was pregnant, without having to take a test. It just feels good to be so in tune with yourself.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying this series. More women need to know this stuff!

  2. says

    Great post! We use the STM and took the classes through CCL too! I think what I liked the most is just what you mentioned – learning more about my body. I had noticed the cervical fluid for years, but thought that it wasn’t normal, that it was just some weird thing that my body does. I like that I will be able to teach my daughters (Lord willing!) just about some basic facts of how their reproductive system works when the day comes.

    I do the same thing for taking my temperature and I love having a sign that is much more concrete. I think I would be really stressed if I had to try to figure things out just based on the cervical fluid. Thanks for sharing your experience. :)

  3. says

    I loved this explanation. Well done Deirdre. My husband and I have been STM teaching couple for Coupe to Couple League for three years now. I just wish we had known about it earlier in our marriage.

  4. says

    We use STM (thought through the Marquette program) and really like it. I have irregular cycles with a continue mucus pattern (so much fun haha) so the temperature gives us the confidence we need to know I’ve officially ovulated. And I couldn’t agree more with what others have said about the benefits of just knowing how your body works. I’ve ‘converted’ so many of my birth control using friends by appealing to their desire to really know what’s going on rather than ignore or mask symptoms. I think women feel so empowered when they do NFP in a way that they can’t when they use BC. Thanks for doing this series!!

  5. Hetty says

    Up until now I’ve sort of been a lurker on your blog. I know, comforting to be told you have “lurkers” right? I’m not Catholic but I would like to say thank you for this informative series. Since becoming engaged I have struggled with a slew of problems brought on by the pill (I have a very non-religious family, so any and all leanings towards faith I have had to come to terms with alone. I set the standard of waiting until I was engaged to have sex myself a long time ago). I’m embarrassed to admit that I am one of those people who bought into the narrative that an unwanted pregnancy is the worst thing that could happen to a younger woman nowadays. The reaction of others to a pre-marital pregnancy was literally the biggest factor in my decision to go on the pill. How ridiculous is that? Putting yourself first is something modern ladies have engrained in us from the very beginning (unless you’ve had the good fortune of being born Catholic apparently!) We’re told to wait until the time is right to think about children, as though a baby is yet another accessory to our lives, much like a new car or a nicer home. And heaven forbid you should slip up and be handed the responsibility before you’ve planned for it! I am trying so hard to come to terms with what is best for my own mental and physical wellbeing. On the pill I have not only lost most of my desire for the very thing I made myself wait for, but also have developed a great deal of emotional instability. The one month my pharmacy changed brands on me without warning I thought I was going to hurt myself, I was so irrational. These are all things I was not told to watch out for when I went on the “miracle pregnancy cure”. You are told how fantastic it will be not to worry about pregnancy, how your skin will clear up, your periods will be light and painless. You are not told how it will make you depressed, angry, weepy, lethargic, how your skin and chest may look good but your sex drive will not rise to meet your newfound attractiveness. It has been an awful experience to undergo in the first few months of being engaged. If anything positive has come of it, it has proven that I picked a good man who is willing to stick by me despite the ton of crazy I dropped on his head within a month of becoming medicated for the first time. Anyway, this is getting long and rambly so in closing, THANK YOU for explaining our less-sung options. I am grateful to find women willing to talk honestly about their experience with NFP. I am learning so much and will likely make the switch one of these days. Having experienced the alternative I can honestly say that you have the right idea here about embracing the consequences of your fertility. Denying your body its natural functions is bound to have consequences of its own.

    • says

      I’m sorry to hear about your awful experiences on the pill, Hetty. I’ve read similar complaints from many other women and it does truly bother me how no one ever seems to be warned about those things. Based on what I’ve heard from other women who made the switch, the more you learn about NFP, the more you will be headed towards a happier, healthier, more enriched world!

    • Haley says

      During my 18 months on the Pill when we were first married and before we converted, I felt TERRIBLE. I was emotional, queasy, struggled with headaches every day and felt exhausted. I feel your pain, sister! Glad you’re enjoying the series! I’m learning a lot!

  6. says

    The book “Taking Charge of your Fertility” was recommended to me when I was engaged. Its a nerd book, but very accessible. I learned about temps, cervical fluid, cervix position. We did use hormonal birth control the first year of marriage and I charted to confirm that I wasn’t ovulating. After that, I used charting for pregnancy achievement (which didn’t happen on its own!). Thanks to charting, I’ve been able to talk to a Doc and say “here are charts from the past three years.”

    I just wish NFP and charting was more understood in the medical community. I think it could help A LOT in infertility diagnosis.

    Thanks for sharing Deirdre! I love “like mother, like daughter”, so its fun to see another side of you.

    • Haley says

      I so wish it was more understood in the medical community! I keep meaning to switch over to the local NFP only Dr. I actually read Taking Charge of Your Fertility after my first child was born but due to nursing and post-partum it was a difficult time to start charting and I couldn’t find any sort of pattern. I need a class!

  7. Rosie says

    “I would be sorry, however, to provide all this information if it ended up being an aid in anyone’s pursuit to avoid having children who could otherwise be happily welcomed into the world.”

    Just to clarify, I hope you are not saying that NFP shouldn’t be used to avoid pregnancy. I think it’s important to be perfectly clear on this, because a lot of people, especially young, enthusiastic newlyweds, seem to be burdened with a disproportionate fear of using NFP for sinful reasons, or even of using it at all. Honestly, from where I stand at this point in my life, it’s just frustrating to hear something that sounds like “babies are so wonderful, why aren’t you more open to life?”

    • says

      Hi Rosie! If we’re talking about Catholic guidelines here, then yes of course NFP can be used to avoid pregnancy! It’s good to know that, for couples who need to avoid, there is a moral way to go about that and it involves the great goods of husband/wife communication, prayerful discernment, etc.

      I understand that there can be factors that would make “happily welcoming” a baby impossible… like sickness or financial duress or when a baby would put significant stress on a family or marriage. Standing here at the start of my marriage and childbearing, it’s simple enough for me to say “babies are so wonderful!” and I am conscious of that! At the same time, my husband and I are both from big families so we know the ups and downs and we know what is possible (when the world is telling us it’s impossible) and even wonderful when it comes to having kids.

      It was my attempt to have a phrase that finds a balance… Not trying to play any guilt moves! But also trying not to promote some kind of “Catholic birth control.” I think what is great about NFP in a Catholic context is that children are always seen as a gift and blessing, even when a couple needs to spend time using NFP to avoid.

  8. says

    Deirdre, I follow you and your family over at LMLD which is how I ended up over here at this lovely blog. Loved your post. My favorite part was when you said, “On the weekends, when I wanted to sleep a little later, I would simply set my alarm for 6am, take my temperature, set the thermometer aside for later, and roll back to sleep! Not too bad.”
    Girl, there has got to be a better way. When you have two or three babies and your infant has kept you up half the night, and you get your fertility back even though you are breastfeeding like a milk machine, you are crabby and the second you get woken up you have to pee and couldn’t possibly just roll back over and fall asleep, and just NEED that extra hour of sleep… That 6am alarm is gonna be the first thing to go! Good luck. Can’t wait to hear how the rest of your pregnancy goes, over at LMLD. Congrats.

    • Haley says

      The thermal part of the sympto-thermal I half-heartedly tried after my first baby was born was a huge challenge for me and was why I felt unequipped to learn NFP without some kind of class. I NEVER got a full night sleep and the baby woke up for the day anytime between 4am and 5:30am and every minute of sleep was precious! I couldn’t ever figure out a pattern. I’m sure it would have been a breeze to learn before getting married which is what I wish I had done! I’m learning so much about the different methods from the wonderful guest bloggers and I’m excited to start thinking about what method would fit our family best for future reference :)

    • salixbabylonica says

      With co-sleeping, breastfeeding at any time of the night, and my own postpartum insomnia, I simply could not force myself to get up at any set time since it could have been anywhere from 10PM to 2AM when I actually fell asleep for the first time. But I’ve still been able to use the “thermo” part of sympto-thermal to successfully postpone pregnancy for close to 2 years. Maybe something like this would work for some of you: what’s worked for us after our first child was born is that my husband started taking my temperatures in the mornings. He has to get up at the same time every day (pretty early) for work, so he just pops the thermometer in my semi-conscious mouth. On weekends, he just does the temp and rolls right over and falls asleep again. His alarm used to always wake me up enough to remember it vaguely, but nowadays, I’m not even conscious enough to remember (thought apparently I sometimes talk to him!) and I can go right on sleeping. Once my cycles fully normalized after the pregnancy, we’ve found it unnecessary to even temp every day. We just do the temps for a chunk around the middle of my cycle until we get confirmation of the temperature shift. This way, whenever I had an awful night, I didn’t have to worry about anything and could just sleep.

      When I first learned NFP, I had the vague expectation that all these stories about husbands keeping the charts were rather pie-in-the-sky romanticism and that really, NFP would be my job. Nothing could be further from how it’s turned out. Really, the amount I’ve relied on and trusted my husband is one of the best parts of using NFP. We truly are both making the decisions and doing the work.

  9. says

    The founders of ^ ccl ^ , John and Sheila Kippley, are still doing NFP work at NFPInternational. Their new 2009 book, “NFP: The Complete Approach,” is available for symptothermal instruction, as is an online course at http://www.nfpandmore.org They are no longer associated with ccl, due to the changes there. We used symptothermal for over 20 years and were very pleased { in between nursing times and pregnancies}

      • Haley says

        Love that book, Deirdre! It really helped me get a new perspective on breastfeeding in preparation for Baby Lucy after I such a bad experience nursing Benjamin.

  10. says

    I am not Catholic, but I have just plain never agreed with the idea of birth control and closing my body off to the possibility of pregnancy. It always seemed like I was taking control away from God, and that is something I have no intention of doing! So when I started doing more research, the sympto-thermal method stuck out to me as something I felt I could do to work with my body during each season in our life. Little did I know this method would point out some relatively important issues I was previously unaware of. I feel so much more in tune with my own body, and having a deeper understanding makes me feel more empowered in my own skin. I would like to add, instead of manually charting, I use http://www.fertilityflower.com There is a fee, but you can use a free version to solely track temperatures. It helps you keep track of symptoms, temperature, cervical mucus, all of it, and can even continue to help track symptoms during and after pregnancy. I love it!

    • Haley says

      I’d like to put together a post of resources and links at the end of the series, Lauren, and I’ll have to include fertility flower. Thanks!

  11. ann says

    hello. I’ve been reading this series with interest. I’m not Catholic. But when I found out about NFP I was super excited. I read “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” and started charting. We actually used the methods taught in the book to conceive a girl since we already had three sons. Not sure how Catholics would feel about that. But I just gave birth to our daughter a few weeks ago.

    Anyway, I love that God gives us as women a natural way to avoid or achieve pregnancy that is kind to our bodies, free, and simple to understand.

    • Haley says

      Ann, I’m not sure what the Church’s stance is on trying for a certain gender by natural means (I’ve read the TCoYF book and was intrigued by the gender methods). But a guest blogger is writing on her experience doing just that!

  12. Cara says

    I’ve noticed that charting cycles to achieve/prevent pregnancy is supported by many feminist and women’s rights groups with the message of “don’t put toxic pills into your body to diminish your own health and fertility, instead learn about yourself to be empowered and healthy.” It’s basically the exact same thing the Catholic church has been saying for years. The rhetoric is a little diffrerent but the message is exactly the same — we should all be healthy, informed women!

    I think that I am generally a very progressive person. Some people I know are surprised when I speak out against pill — meanwhile I’m surprised that people who buy organic milk and toxic-free cleaning products will turn around and put synthetic hormones into their bodies… how does that make sense?!?!

    I hope that one day our society will look back on the pill the same way that we now think about lead paint and smoking on airplanes — toxic, dangerous, and a thing of the past!

    To me this is not just a Catholic issue and NFP shouldn’t just be for conservative Christians. This is about ALL women of ALL faiths and ALL walks of life being healthy and informed.

  13. says

    I have been really enjoying this series on NFP. My husband and I started using the STM back in August after discovering the truth about the method of birth control we had been using at the time. I agree that identifying the cervical fluid has been difficult at times and I have felt like a weirdo sitting in the bathroom staring down the used TP. However, it has been a great tool for us in our marriage.

    I would like to add that there is actually a website (more than one, I’m sure, but one in particular with which I am familiar) that can help with charting. It is called fertilityfriend.com. You can put in your BBT, cervical fluid, and a huge variety of other symtoms to help you learn your body and your cycle. They sell a VIP membership which allows you access to some extra tools, but none of them are necessary. The basic membership (which is free) will help you interpret your signs, predict your fertile days, and provides a handy list of your cycles for you to take with you to doctor’s appointments.

    For those of us who prefer a digital format, the website is really helpful.

    • Haley says

      Thanks for the info on fertilityfriend, Bekkah! I want to include a post about resources and links at the end of the series so I’ll have to add fertility friend for those who are interested.

  14. Lissy says

    This is all so great! Thanks for your two cents, Deirdre!

    Regarding little tidbits about difficulties in some of the comments, one of the best things about NFP is that there are several reputable methods (as this series points out), so if one doesn’t work well with your body’s signs, another almost surely will. We were not aware of the variety at first, and are so glad to know now. Maybe there will be a post in this series about the Marquette Method, particularly the version that uses a fertility monitor…it is a great solution for women whose mucus and temperatures are both unreliable as well as — perhaps especially for — breastfeeding women (for whom the signs are often all wacky because of the fluctuation in hormones based on a baby’s erratic nursing needs).

  15. mary e says

    My fiance and I took the CCL course a couple of months ago so I’m still getting the hang of charting, but after just completing my first full chart but after a quick can by my teacher, we noticed that my luteal phase could possibly be a little short. I was worried that I might eventually miscarry if we got pregnant so I did some research and started taking some vitamins and my cycle was already a several days longer by the next chart! I’ve had my chart evaluated by another teacher and she said I probably would have been fine before, but it doesn’t hurt to have the extra infertile days at the end of the cycle! It really is amazing.

    • says

      Irita, you don’t necessarily have to wake up *early* in order to use this method of fertility awareness. But you must wake up (at least long enough to take your temperature) at consistently the same time each day. So if your waking time is 8am, make sure to take your temp every day around 8 am! But if your waking time is 9:30am, that works just as well – as long as you take your temp every day around 9:30am.
      What you’re measuring is your basal body temperature. Your BBT will be affected, however, if you don’t have a regular sleeping routine. So if you go to bed at 10pm most nights but then stay up until 5am another night, your BBT may be impacted on the morning after your late night. The idea is to have a generally consistent sleep schedule so that your BBT is identifiable.

      The CCL book has information on how to work with irregular schedules and still get a good reading on your temperature, so I would refer you to that!

      Since I don’t know your situation, I can’t say much… Maybe you just need to invest in a good alarm clock and set a better bedtime! :) Or maybe you have more complicating factors at play. In any case, the CCL has further information if you need to learn more about tricky schedules (for instance, if your job requires you to work night shifts, etc.).

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