Trying to conceive? Does ovulation tracking speed things up?

If you’re trying to conceive, chances are you started out quite relaxed about the whole thing, assuming it would happen pretty quickly, and without too much effort or thought. “I’m not taking contraception, so I’ll get pregnant” you think, logically. However good your intentions are to remain relaxed, if you’ve been trying for a few months, the impatience monkey inevitably comes to sit on your shoulder. “That’s weird, I’m still not pregnant”, you think, your calm demeanour slowly giving way to frustration. A few months later and it’s all you can think about, turning you into an obsessive, anxious wreck. We’re taught at school to be ultra careful and to ALWAYS use a condom, as if any unprotected sexual relations we have will knock us up before we can say “sex education”. However, in reality, it’s actually quite a different story.

Conception is not a chance occurrence; there is actually a precise set of conditions that have to be met in order to conceive, whatever your age and however long or ir/regular your cycle. Providing that your eggs and your partners sperm are viable, the most important factor in conceiving successfully is when you ovulate. According to the NHS, an egg lives in your body for about 12-24 hours after you ovulate and your partner’s sperm can live for up to five days inside your body, and these life spans combined give you your all-important “fertile window”. If you’re reading this thinking you have beaten the window and managed to conceive outside it, you’re most likely mistaken; what’s actually happened is that your window moved, due to you ovulating on a different day than you expected.

Human eggs live for about 12-24 hours after ovulation, and human sperm live for up to 5 days inside the female body, so the ‘fertile window’ is very much a real thing. Picture: Alexey Kotelnikov / Alamy

For women who have monthly cycles (i.e who ovulate once per month) this basically means that you have approximately six days per month —the five days before and the 24 hours after ovulation— where having unprotected sex can lead to conception. This applies whether you have regular periods or not, and whether you’re 20 or 40; every time you ovulate, you have about six days to get your partner’s sperm on a hot date with your egg. If you happen to ovulate more than once a month then you have another six days where it’s possible, but either way, your eggs always come with a time limit, and so do your partner’s sperm, so whether you have one window or more, timing is everything if you want to conceive sooner rather than later.

If you’re ‘going with the flow’ and having unprotected sex when you feel like it, and without tracking your ovulation, it might result in conception, and if it does: lucky you! This method is great if you and your partner are consistently having loads of sex throughout the month, at least every couple of days. But many of us just aren’t able to maintain this; work, travel, responsibilities and other children to look after can all mean that sex gets pushed down the list of priorities, and the crucial window gets missed month after month. Plus, some theories suggest that a lot of sex on a consistent basis can actually reduce your chances of conceiving, because the quality and/or quantity of your partner’s sperm is reduced if he ejaculates too often.

For lots of couples, maintaining regular sex at least every couple of days throughout the month, every month, is impossible. So knowing where your fertile window lies enables you to prioritise.

Once Rob and I had decided to try for our first baby, I wanted to make it happen yesterday! Call me impatient, but once the decision has been made, I just wanted it done, so I was keen to find something that would help us maximise our chances. After doing a bit of research, it seemed the consensus was that tracking your Core Temperature (CT) or Basal Body Temperature (BBT) was the most accurate way of knowing when you have ovulated. According to Ovusense, your Core Temperature is “the low, minimum temperature your body cools to during a period of rest or deep sleep, when your heart rate is slower. If you measure this temperature every day throughout your menstrual cycle, you’ll notice that it doesn’t remain constant: it varies from day to day. If you measure it for multiple cycles, you’ll see how a specific pattern of changes coincides with when you ovulate.”

Apparently before ovulation, a woman’s Core Temperature averages between 97°F (36.1°C) and 97.5°F (36.4°C). After ovulation, it rises to 97.6°F (36.4°C) to 98.6°F (37°C). It’s a tiny change, caused by rising levels in progesterone, but it’s enough for a sensitive fertility app to detect that ovulation has occurred, and after a few cycles of getting to know your monthly pattern, predict when your fertile window is likely to be.

For my first two pregnancies, I used Natural Cycles, which involved me taking my temperature first thing in the morning with an oral BBT thermometer supplied in their kit. It worked; with my first pregnancy I conceived within two cycles and with the second, in one. The first pregnancy ended with a miscarriage, but the second pregnancy resulted in our gorgeous son, Odhrán, now eighteen months old. There were lots of things I liked about Natural Cycles, but having to take my own temperature manually as soon as I woke up, and having to make sure that I had been asleep for a certain amount of time, and that I was taking it before getting out of bed, all made it a bit stressful and was disrupting my sleep, which ultimately made me decide to switch to a wearable that would take my core temperature automatically during the night, without me having to worry about it.

I switched to Ovusense so that I could sleep stress-free without having to worry about taking my own temperature in the morning.

When we decided to try for a sibling for Odhrán, the option I went for to conceive again was Ovusense, a small, tampon-sized, silicone bullet with a long tail that you insert into the vagina like a tampon and leave overnight. This sperm-looking device calculates your Core Temperature every five minutes throughout the night, taking lots of temperatures and coming out with an overall measurement. In the morning you open the app in your phone, wash the the sensor you’ve been wearing and place it on your phone, and the app picks up the results and plots them on a temperature graph. I had a few teething problems with it at first, namely a faulty sensor that would take numerous attempts —and about half an hour— to download to my phone, but once I contacted Ovusense about it, they sent me a replacement straight away which worked fine and would download immediately.

This is one of my non-pregnant charts by Ovusense. As you can see, about 9 days after ovulation, my temperature dropped right down, indicating that conception has not taken place. My period arrived the next day. You can also see that intercourse (indicated by blue dots) was sporadic around the ovulation day, hence no baby.

I started monitoring my ovulation just after I stopped nursing Odhrán, when he was about 10 months old. I wanted to get an idea of how my body was recovering after a year and a half or so of anovulatory cycles while I was pregnant and breastfeeding (it’s normal not to ovulate while you are nursing a baby, especially if the baby is exclusively breast-fed). Rob and I, being 40 and 39 respectively, didn’t want to hang around too long before having another baby, so I monitored my cycles casually for around 6 months before we tried ‘properly’ (for us that meant having sex almost every day in the fertile window; starting from four days before ovulation, including the day of ovulation and the day after….but it’s different for every couple). On this 7th cycle of using Ovusense we conceived the baby with which I am now 18 weeks pregnant; Odhrán’s brother or sister.

This is my pregnancy chart by Ovusense. See how the temperature doesn’t come down, even 20 days after ovulation? This indicates that progesterone has remained high, which increases the likelihood of a pregnancy having occurred. As you can see, intercourse (indicated by the blue dots) was much more consistent and regular around the ovulation day in this cycle.

My verdict? Using a device to detect my ovulation and ‘fertile window’ undoubtedly helped me conceive all three pregnancies in a much shorter time than if I hadn’t been using a tracker. What I liked about Ovusense over Natural Cycles was the fact that I could pop it in like a tampon at night, knowing it would take my temperatures for me. This freed me up from having to do it myself manually in the morning, and it greatly reduced the chance of human (i.e Freya) error.

With Ovusense you just pop the sperm-shaped bullet inside your vagina at night and go to sleep. It tracks your temperature for you.

The trouble I found with taking my own temperature, was that you have to have been asleep for a certain amount of consecutive hours before taking it, so getting up in the night to attend to a crying baby, or to go for a nighttime wee, might throw it off if you then wake shortly afterwards to actually start your day. You also need to make sure that taking your temperature is the first thing you do on waking, even before sitting up or getting out of bed. Even before I had any children to look after, I kept forgetting this, and repeatedly missed my opportunity to take my temperature, so once I had Odhrán and was trying for baby number two, it became impossible. What I liked about Ovusense is that I didn’t have to worry about that.

Trying for a baby can be a stressful time, so whichever method of cycle tracking you choose, or if you decide not to use one at all, I wish you the best of luck with your baby-making journey! Stay positive, and look after yourself and your relationship. Let me know what you think in the comments, or hit me up on Instagram at @the_amateur_mama

Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner, Rob. Visit them on Instagram at @the_amateur_mama and @the_amateurdad

Am I pregnant? How early can I take a pregnancy test?

If you think you might be pregnant, it can be excruciating waiting until the first day of your missed period to test and find out. But just how early can you test? I am currently 17 weeks pregnant, and while I was waiting to see if I’d conceived, I experimented with different tests to try and find out as quickly as possible. Because of the expense, and the plastic, I didn’t want to start testing too early and waste a branded shop-bought plastic stick, so instead, I purchased some simple One Step pregnancy test strips from Amazon for only £3.29 for 20, so that I could test daily without worrying about the expense, or the plastic waste!

These simple (and cheap!) strips do the same thing as the bulky plastic ones, but cost much less and waste far less plastic. Win win!

These little cardboard strips can be dipped in urine and will detect hCG if you’re pregnant, displaying two maroon/pink lines for a positive result. They are the same ones that your GP will use if you visit them for a pregnancy test (I can vouch for this as I have seen them do it!). They’re pretty easy to use if you read the instructions carefully.

I had been monitoring my ovulation with Ovusense and knew that I had ovulated on day 12 of my cycle. All the advice online seemed to agree that with sensitive tests, you can test from about 10 days after ovulation (10DPO or ’10 days post ovulation’). On day 23 of my cycle, 11 days after I’d ovulated, and 5 days before my expected period, I used one of the One Step hCG strips, and found that if I looked really, really carefully in the right light, I could see what I thought was a line; an almost completely invisible line, that is. Was it my imagination? I couldn’t be sure either way, because of the possible confusion with an ‘evaporation line’ (more on that below!), so I tested again the next day, and for a few days after that. Here were my results:

The Ovusense monitor, which I was using to track my ovulation.

-Cycle Day 23 (11DPO): Practically invisible test line, almost entirely undetectable to the naked eye.

-Cycle Day 24 (12DPO): Almost the same as Day 23, but a ghostly-faint, colourless, almost invisible test line which can be detected when photographed and turned into a negative (see here for how to do this!) is present.

-Cycle Day 25 (13DPO): Very little change, but the test line today is every so slightly more visible than Day 24, especially its top left hand corner.

-Cycle Day 26 (14DPO): The test line is now visible, especially at its top left, where the ink meets the edge of the strip. The left hand side of the line is defined and straight, but it’s still hard to make out any pink colour.

-Cycle Day 27 (15DPO): The left hand side of the test line is now obvious and its right hand side is more defined.

-Cycle Day 28 (16DOP): The test line is now unmistakable, especially on the left border, where some colour is visible. The positive result is confirmed with a First Response test.

On the strips above, the maroon line on the right is the ‘control’ line and the fainter lines on the left are the ‘test’ lines. The presence of a visible test line indicates a positive result.

So what is an evaporation line and why should you beware?! An evaporation line is a really faint line that can show up where the test line would be if you leave it sitting around for too long after you’ve weed on it. It’s NOT a positive result, but equally, it isn’t a confirmation that you’re not pregnant. You should discard the test, re-test on subsequent days and make sure you read the result in the time specified.

I used one of my First Response tests the previous month, a day or so before my period was due. When I didn’t see a test line appear at first, I put the stick aside, still (mistakenly) convinced that I might be pregnant. The next day I looked at it again (yep, obsessed!) and saw what I thought was an extremely faint positive result line showing up, which made me wonder if it was in fact positive after all. When I called First Response to ask them, they told me that you should never read a test after the time limit specified in the instructions, and that what I was seeing was most likely an evaporation line, which is where the urine evaporates off the test line and leaves a faint, colourless mark. Sure enough, my period arrived the next day on that occasion!

You can avoid the confusion by reading the test within the time window specified in the instructions, and also, by taking a photo of your test, and using an app to turn it into a negative. This method is quite useful also if your test line is really, really faint, as mine were on the first days I was testing. Read how to do this here.

So there you have it, my verdict on testing early! If you’re (impatient!) like me and you want to avoid the expense and planet-destruction of using loads of plastic branded pregnancy tests when you’re testing every day, then I highly recommend the One Step pregnancy test strips. Then, if you really want confirmation from a well-known brand, you could get one test stick just to make sure. I chose the First Response test.

Good luck!

Found this article helpful? You may also be interested in my related blog Pregnancy Tests: Is there a line or am I imagining things?! , where I explain how to read a really faint result on an early pregnancy test.

Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents. You can follow her on Instagram @the_amateur_mama . Rob can also be found there @the_amateurdad