I’m excited to introduce you to a friend and fellow Lilla Rose consultant, Anjanette Barr who writes over at Raising the Barrs. She and her family just welcomed their third child, adorable little Alex, who was born on the 4th of July!
Today Anjanette is bringing us a timely post on the topic of natural family planning. After our sixth baby, Travis and I considered many options – and we’ve been very happy with the method of NFP we use. I encourage you to read Anjanette’s post and learn about the pros and cons of natural family planning as well as some information about contraceptives that may surprise you.
“You know what using Natural Family Planning gets you?? Pregnant!”
Have you heard any similar sayings? Thought them yourself? Said them? At the beginning of our journey to Natural Family Planning, my husband and I were terrified a bit nervous that the nay-sayers would be right. I learned early into my research process that NFP is the only method of “family planning” endorsed by the Catholic church. All of the Catholic families we knew had lots of children, and were a little afraid that wasn’t by choice.
We wanted to wait about a year to get pregnant after getting married, but we quickly became uncomfortable with the birth control method (oral contraceptives) we were using. Our impression of NFP was that you avoided intercourse in the middle of the month and hoped for the best. I didn’t have much of a concept of my own fertile times, but I’d heard enough chatter to not trust that method to be very effective.
Not your grandma’s rhythm method
Photo by Vetilden
Contrary to the impression I (and I’d guess many of you) had, Natural Family Planning (or Fertility Awareness, more on that in a minute) actually requires a good deal more understanding of what causes pregnancy than your average “contraceptive.” When applied correctly, it’s a far cry from crossing your fingers and closing your eyes to the chance of becoming pregnant when you’d rather not.
In simple terms, Natural Family Planning is a method of observing and recording the recognizable signs of fertility and then using that information to avoid or achieve pregnancy. Fertility Awareness (FAM) is the same thing with the added caveat that, unlike the Catholic-led NFP initiative, it is not fundamentally religious in it’s ideals and doesn’t make a statement one way or the other about other methods of birth control. Families who do not use any kind of contraceptive – including barriers like condoms – practice NFP regardless of whether or not they are Catholic or religious at all.
Families that use the fertility awareness aspect of NFP but also use another method or methods to compliment, are using FAM. To keep it simple, I’ll be using the term NFP to refer to both, but be aware that there’s a difference.
So how does it work exactly?
Every cycle, as a woman gears up to ovulate, changes occur in her cervical mucous and position. Many women also experience other symptoms of ovulation like increased labido and/or emotional sensitivity, pain from the ovary releasing the egg, and more. After ovulation women can often record a jump in basal body temperature (temperature after resting – like in the morning) as well as change in the symptoms listed above.
By charting (recording) these symptoms and changes, a clear pattern arises that lets the woman know she has ovulated and will be past her time to conceive for that month soon. Not every women ovulates in the middle of the month – or even at the same time every month. This is why a one-size-fits-all method like the “rhythm method” has such a high failure rate.
Classes are available that teach the basics of NFP (see resources below), and there have been many books written with detailed instructions that will help even the most irregular women learn more about her cycles. The most popular book (at least the most popular secular book) on the subject is Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It’s an excellent place to begin.
Another often-overlooked component of NFP for many women is breastfeeding. Exclusive (without the supplementation of formula) breastfeeding generally causes a delay in ovulation that results in child spacing even without abstinence. Ecological Breastfeeding goes a step further in even limiting scheduled feedings, bottles, pacifiers, and more.
The average woman practicing EB will get her cycle back at 14-15 months post partum. Either type of breastfeeding can be pared with watching for signs of fertility to make NFP even more effective (assuming you are trying to avoid pregnancy). A good book on this subject is Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing.
NFP May Be Right For Your Family If:
Couples choose Natural Family Planning for many reasons – often a combination of multiple personal convictions. Personally, my husband and I choose NFP for *all* of the reasons I’ve listed below. NFP may be right for you too if these are true of you:
You Are Concerned About the Potential Health Impact of Your Current Birth Control Method
Image by iusenfp.com
The first step toward NFP for us came from my desire to avoid the side effects I was experiencing from hormonal birth control. The more I researched them, the less comfortable I felt. There are potential health implications for us and our environment when we use hormones in pill form to avoid conception (or terminate a pregnancy).
Women who want to avoid hormones may choose another method of preventing ovulation or implantation such as an IUD, barrier methods, spermicides, or even sterilization. The materials used with these methods, and the trauma involved in sterilization can have lasting health implications as well.
You Have Ethical Concerns About “Contraceptives”
You may have noticed that I’ve sometimes used quotation marks around the term contraceptive as I’ve written. I’ve done this because the term is used in misleading ways in our culture. The verb, “contracept,” means to prevent conception. Unfortunately, many commonly used forms of birth control do just that – control birth rather than conception.
Methods of birth control that interfere with the lining of the uterus but do not prevent ovulation are not contraception. An egg can be fertilized (read – conception occurs) and then expelled because it can’t implant. Rather than preventing pregnancy, this is a form of pregnancy termination (abortion).
Some forms of birth control are designed to prevent ovulation and alter the lining of the uterus (combination birth control pills, for example). This means that in the event break-through ovulation occurs (though unlikely for most women), fertilization will also most likely be hindered, and the baby will be lost.
There is a lot of controversy over whether or not we should ethically avoid birth control that carries a chance of being abortifacient. The Catholic church has taken a strong stance on the issue, but not many protestant churches have an official position on the issue.
Another ethical concern for some couples is whether or not we have the right to choose for ourselves the ultimate size of our families. The teachings of the Catholic church, for instance, state that contraceptives (this includes barrier methods like condoms) are an attempt to shut God out of the procreative process. Using NFP, on the other hand, allows for God to step in and change things if He so wills, even if we are trying to avoid pregnancy at that time.
I am protestant, and this idea was very foreign to me for the longest time. I took the time to research the issue from the Catholic perspective (see resources below), and am very glad I did. I still don’t know where exactly I stand on the morality of things like condoms and sterilization, though.
You Want to Learn More About Your Body and Fertility
Many (most) couples have only the most rudimentary understanding of their fertility and all that has to fall into place for conception to occur. Perhaps you’ve never taken the time to ask how the method of birth control you use works, and you found yourself wondering whether or not you’ve been “contracepting” or “controlling birth” while you were reading that last section.
While reading my introduction to NFP (a book called Natural Birth Control Made Simple), I was surprised to discover how clueless I really was. You may know more than I did starting out if you have experienced infertility or pregnancy loss and done research. Otherwise, I bet you have a lot to learn just like I did.
You may be thinking that you aren’t the sort of person to get excited about things going on “down there” just because they are “neat,” but I guarantee you that you will benefit from more understanding. Things you may discover include: whether or not you ovulate regularly and at the same time every month, if other ailments you experience are possibly related to your cycle or your birth control method, and how to potentially correct problems you’ve been having. Which leads us to the next reason you may want to try NFP:
You’ve Been Trying Unsuccessfully to Conceive
A couple who has been just “letting things happen as they may” for a while without conceiving might become anxious that they have a problem, when in reality they may just be missing the woman’s fertile period.
Couples experiencing infertility can also use charting with NFP to determine if the woman is ovulating regularly and producing the correct hormones for conception and implantation. This will help them know if they are looking at a problem on the male or female side (or both).
Ok, but be honest…
Photo by On the White Line
Does it WORK?
Can you actually avoid conception without using anything artificial? The answer, frankly, is YES! Maybe! And sometimes… no.
That’s clear as mud, isn’t it?
First, the statistics: when used “properly,” Natural Family Planning/Fertility Awareness is just as effective, if not moreso, than any artificial method of birth control.
Now, the reality: Part of the point of NFP for many of its supporters, is that there’s no safety net.
If you decide to have intercourse despite the fact that your chart says you are fertile, there’s nothing to keep you from getting pregnant.
If you stop charting out of laziness, there’s nothing (but abstinence) to keep you from getting pregnant.
And if you get pregnant, there’s nothing to keep the baby from implanting and thriving inside of you.
So while NFP is effective, it requires faith, communication, and a strong understanding of and commitment to your motives.
Some people, even Catholics, want to re-brand NFP to make it sound like an easy alternative to other birth control methods. There is partial truth in that depending on your situation, and of course my opening statement about NFP being different than the rhythm method betrays my desire to give NFP a facelift as well, but I wouldn’t call it easy.
NFP is relatively easy to learn and understand, and there are many tools available to help along the way, but it requires more of the couple than most other methods of family planning. We’ve personally chosen this method without reservation and plan to continue using it for the foreseeable future. The benefits are well worth the extra work for us.
If you are interested in finding out more about NFP/FAM, please use these resources and feel free to post questions in the comments!