Whether you’re just taking your first few steps on your fertility journey or you’ve been trying for a baby for a while, ovulation and menstrual cycles have probably been at the top of your mind. It’s pretty easy to tell when your cycle begins — just look for the first day of your period. However, figuring out when you ovulate might be a tad trickier.
Fortunately, your body does give you signs when you’re approaching ovulation. You just have to know what you’re looking for. In this post, we’ll talk about why you may want to learn more about your ovulation and menstrual cycles, how to figure out when (or if) you’re ovulating, and what to do if you think you aren’t.
Why should I learn about my menstrual cycle?
One of the main reasons to learn about your ovulation patterns is to identify when you’re fertile. There are only about 6 days each month that you’re actually able to get pregnant — the 5 days before you ovulate and the day of ovulation — though the actual length varies depending on a few factors. This is called your fertile window. Figuring out when it is (and having sex regularly during it) may significantly improve your chances of getting pregnant (1).
To explain your fertile window, we need to talk about cervical mucus (CM), a fluid that’s naturally produced by glands in your cervix. It has many jobs, but one of them is to keep sperm alive inside your body and help them reach the egg. As you get closer to ovulation, your CM gets more watery and slippery. In this “fertile” CM, sperm can stay alive for up to 5 days, meaning that unprotected sex within 5 days of ovulation may lead to pregnancy (1, 2). After you ovulate, your egg is typically only viable for about 12 to 24 hours (1). That’s the end of your fertile window.
Ovulation typically occurs around the middle of your cycle, but the exact day differs from person to person. It can even vary from one cycle to the next (3). Tracking your fertility signs may give you a better idea of when you ovulate each month, which is a huge help when you're trying to conceive.
Also, because your ovulation can be affected by a variety of factors (more on this in a bit), it’s good to be familiar with your menstrual cycle so you know when it’s not your normal cycle. This may help alert you and your doctor to any underlying health issues that may need to be addressed (4, 5). Plus, if you’re not ovulating, you can’t get pregnant.
Charting your fertility signs to pinpoint ovulation
The best time to have sex if you’re trying to conceive is in the days immediately before you ovulate. Once you recognize your body’s changes as you approach ovulation, you can plan to have sex when you’re most likely to conceive. The main fertility signs to track are your cervical mucus, basal body temperature, and cervical position (2).
You can use an app like Kindara to help you chart your fertility signs. After you enter your observations, you’ll see your fertility data in easy-to-read charts that help you visualize the changes that your body goes through each cycle. Plus, if you end up seeing a fertility doctor down the line, this information will be a valuable resource to help them figure out the best plan to help you conceive.
Ovulation predictor kits
In addition to charting fertility signs, many also use ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) to help determine their fertile window. These tests work by detecting the surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) that happens before ovulation. Typically, ovulation takes place around 12 to 24 hours after a positive OPK result (6).
We should note here that OPKs don’t confirm that you actually ovulated, just that ovulation is likely to occur (7). OPKs can also show false negatives, meaning that you may conceive after getting a negative ovulation test result. These tests can be helpful, but they’re best used as one of many tools in your ovulation-charting toolbox.
How can I tell if I‘m ovulating regularly?
Without paying careful attention to your fertility signs, it can be hard to tell if you’re ovulating regularly or not. Many don’t even realize they have problems with ovulation until they go to the doctor to figure out why they’re having trouble getting pregnant.
Regular periods accompanied by menstrual cramps typically indicate that you’re ovulating (6). By definition, you won’t have menstrual bleeding when you don’t ovulate. However, it’s possible to experience anovulatory bleeding that may be mistaken for your period (8). It’s unlikely to have anovulatory bleeding that follows a regular cycle pattern unless you’re on certain types of hormonal birth control (9, 10).
One of the main signs of ovulation disorders is irregular menstrual cycles. If your cycles are irregular, shorter than 21 days, or longer than 36 days, you may want to talk to your doctor about your ovulation. A lack of ovulation doesn’t directly harm your health, but it may indicate the presence of hormonal problems or other health conditions, such as thyroid problems or diabetes (5, 11).
Possible causes of irregular ovulation
A wide range of factors may cause irregular ovulation, but one of the common ones is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS often experience hormonal imbalances, insulin sensitivity, and weight gain, all of which can affect ovulation (12).
Other factors that may lead to irregular or absent ovulation include being overweight or underweight, extreme exercise, stress, aging (especially after your mid-30s), and thyroid problems (4, 13).
You may want to consult with your doctor if you think you’re not ovulating. They can help you figure out if you’re ovulating by administering hormone tests, looking over your fertility charting data, or performing an ultrasound to check the follicles in your ovaries for signs of ovulation (6).
If it turns out that you’re not ovulating regularly, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to help regulate your menstrual cycles. These can include exercising, eating healthier, and getting more sleep. They may also suggest medications, such as clomiphene, letrozole, or human gonadotropin injections to induce ovulation (5).
If you think you’re ovulating regularly, but you still haven’t gotten pregnant after a year of trying (6 months if you’re 35 or older), you should visit a fertility doctor to figure out why you’re not conceiving (4).
Tracking your ovulation cycles is one of the most important things you can do to increase your chances of getting pregnant. By getting to know your body and its processes, you can determine when you’re most likely to conceive and plan to have sex during your fertile window. Plus, when you’re familiar with your body’s natural cycles, it’s easier to spot when something is off. The more you learn about your body, the better you’re able to take an active role in managing your health and wellbeing.
Want a better way to identify your most fertile days to maximize your chances of getting pregnant? The Priya Personal Fertility System can help.
Catherine Poslusny is a writer and content marketing strategist based out of Norman, Oklahoma. She's written for healthcare companies since 2016, and she's most passionate about her work in women’s health, fertility, and reproductive rights. You can find her at catherinerosewrites.com.