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When you're trying to conceive, pinpointing ovulation helps you time sex to get pregnant (hopefully!) ASAP. But ovulation doesn't happen like clockwork. It may occur on a different day from one cycle to the next, making it feel frustratingly elusive (1).
Even so, ovulation needn't seem like a mystery — if you know the signs to look for. Here we answer your 5 most pressing ovulation questions, including how to know you've ovulated without a doubt.
The gold standard for ovulation confirmation is an ultrasound. Ultrasounds, however, are not only time consuming and expensive, they can’t be performed in the cozy comfort of your own home (2).
An easier way to confirm ovulation is by measuring your basal body temperature (BBT) to identify a slight uptick in temperature. This tiny temp change is caused by a rise in progesterone when an egg is released. While tracking your BBT is an accurate way to confirm ovulation, it requires taking your resting temperature (meaning first thing in the morning before you get out of bed) at the same time each morning (3,4).
If you find tracking BBT is a chore, or you’re seeking an even more effective method, continuous core body temperature (CCBT) is a highly accurate method for ovulation confirmation. Since CCBT measures continuous temperature rather than your early A.M. temperature, it can track hormonal patterns that cause changes in temperature and also predict ovulation.
A surge of LH, which is made by the pituitary gland, typically stimulates the release of the egg about 36-48 hours before ovulation. The big caveat here is you may have a surge and NOT ovulate, or your OPK may miss your surge even if you did ovulate (5,6).
For the best shot at catching your LH surge, begin testing for the surge several days prior to when you think you'll ovulate. The more you test, the greater the likelihood of detecting the surge of LH (5).
Stats gathered by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) show an 80% chance of identifying the LH surge with 5 days of testing and a 95% chance with 10 days of testing. Because LH is released in quick bursts, ASRM suggests testing more than once a day to catch the surge (5).
As helpful as OPKs are in detecting ovulation, they're not perfect. For example, if your surge is brief, there's a chance an OPK may miss your LH surge. Or, if you're nearing menopause or have PCOS, you may get a false positive. That's why you may wish to trust your bodily signs to identify ovulation (5).
For starters, be on the lookout for light bleeding. Around 10-30% of women may experience light bleeding or spotting on a more-or-less regular basis around ovulation. Doctors say this spotting may occur 10-16 days after the start of menstruation and last 12-72 hours. The bleeding/spotting is due to a rapid surge of the hormone estrogen followed by a swift drop that slightly destabilizes the uterine lining (7).
Also, watch for other ovulation symptoms, such as (3):
In addition, it's wise to track your BBT, along with cervical mucus (CM) and cervical position. All three are natural clues that help you to understand your body's fertility and help to identify or confirm ovulation without a test (3).
Cervical mucus (CM) is fluid released by glands in your cervix and serves a variety of purposes, including protecting your vagina and helping sperm reach the egg. CM changes over your cycle, generally becoming more wet and slippery as ovulation nears, then dry and sticky (or virtually nonexistent) after ovulation. Checking your CM daily takes a bit of time to learn, but with a little patience, you can get the hang of it (3,4).
Your cervix, which sits at the base of your uterus, also changes before and after ovulation. However, checking the position of your cervix is a controversial method to detect fertility since its position may change due to factors other than fertility alone, such as timing of bowel movements and estrogen (8).
That said, cervix position still may be of use as a cross-check if the other methods are confusing or unclear. If you’d like to check your cervix throughout your cycle, you may notice as ovulation approaches, the cervix softens, rises higher in your vagina, and the doughnut-like opening in the middle (the os) opens. After ovulation, the cervix sits lower in your vagina, feels more firm, and the os is shut (3,4,9).
Fertile discharge — what's also known as "estrogenic cervical mucus" or fertile CM — appears before ovulation, not after, except in some circumstances. The timing of fertile CM is due to natural bodily processes that aid in conception. Here's what we mean... (10)
In the days before ovulation, the level of the hormone estrogen rises. In response, cervical mucus changes from thick and impenetrable to watery. As the water content rises, CM becomes clear and slippery or thin and milky — kind of like egg whites or skim milk. This fertile CM counteracts the vagina's natural acidity, furnishing a friendly alkaline environment for sperm (which are also alkaline) to reach the egg (10,11).
Fertile CM's crystalline structure also helps channel the millions of swimmers toward the egg, nourishing them along the way. Without fertile CM, sperm may die within minutes to hours. With it, they may live up to 5 days (3,4).
Years and years of scientific research confirm that nearly all pregnancies occur in a 6-day window: the 5 days before ovulation and ovulation day itself. This time is called the fertile window (1).
Science also suggests that having sex 2 days before ovulation may dramatically increase the chances of getting pregnant. To make sure you've got your timing right, start tracking your fertility cues (CM, BBT, and cervical position) that help home in on your fertile window. It may take you a few months to get super familiar with identifying these clues, so it's best to start early to get to know your unique body (1).
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One culprit may be timing. Try as much as possible to have sex during your fertile window, particularly the 2 days before ovulation (1).
Also bear in mind that your fertile window isn't a fixed block of time. It's as unique as you and your partner are, and it's influenced by factors like the lifespan of the egg and sperm and your cervical mucus. For example, the egg typically survives only 12-24 hours after ovulation, making for a fleeting window for conception (3,4).
It's worth noting that conception isn't a slam dunk in any given cycle for anyone. Even when sperm and the egg do meet, between 30-75% of fertilized eggs don't make it to the implantation stage. This reality may help to explain why just 1 in 4 healthy couples in their 20s and early 30s get that BFP (big fat positive) in any single menstrual cycle (12, 13).
If you're older, getting pregnant also may take a bit more patience. An analysis of more than 2,000 British women showed that those over the age of 35 needed around twice as much time to get pregnant as women under the age of 25 (14).
(How hard is it to get pregnant in your 30s?)
Multitudes of factors affect female and male fertility. Some are inside your control, such as maintaining a healthy weight, eating a diet rich in fertility foods, minimizing stress, and saying no to nicotine. With other issues — such as ovulatory disorders in women and poor sperm health in men — you and your partner might wish to enlist the help of a trusted professional.
When you're trying to get pregnant, ovulation is a fundamental ingredient in your babymaking recipe. With time and practice, you'll recognize the natural bodily signs that occur around ovulation, giving you the inside track to both predict ovulation and confirm that this essential event has happened.
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