What comes to your mind when you hear the words natural family planning? If you've never heard the phrase before, perhaps you picture condoms, or strange herbal concoctions brewed over some ancient wise woman's hearth. That's more natural than hormonal contraception, right? Or if you have heard of natural family planning (NFP), maybe the Rhythm Method comes to mind. But believe it or not, the Rhythm method of family planning has very little to do with modern, fertility awareness based methods of avoiding or achieving pregnancy. Curious yet? I think it's time to set the record straight.
The Rhythm Method
To start with, what is the Rhythm Method? For centuries, people have made observations about the fertility of women and speculated as to when they seem to be most likely to conceive. But until the 20th century, there was little if any formal research done into the matter. In the 1920's, two different doctors (Hermann Knaus of Austria and Kyusaku Ogino of Japan) independently discovered that a woman ovulates (releases an egg from her ovaries) about two weeks before her next period begins. This soon lead to the development of the Rhythm or Calendar Rhythm Method, which incorporated several important facts: A woman only ovulates once per cycle, and once she does, her period shows up in about two weeks like clockwork. Doctors also knew that a viable egg, only present around the time of ovulation, is vital to conception. If no egg is present, no pregnancy can occur, even if a woman has unprotected intercourse.
The Rhythm Method assumes that women ovulate on day 14 of their cycle, two weeks before their periods. Therefore to avoid pregnancy, a couple would avoid having intercourse for a number of days around day 14. This is a calendar based approach to family planning, relying on counting days of a woman's cycle. Sounds pretty simple, right?
The problem is, not all women have 28 day cycles, and they don't necessarily always ovulate on day 14. Not only can cycles vary greatly from woman to woman, but each particular woman can have great variety in the length of her cycles and the timing of ovulation. This would seem to make the Rhythm Method largely useless - if a woman was abstaining from intercourse on days 10-16 with the purpose of avoiding pregnancy, she'd be in for a surprise if one month she actually ovulated on day 17, thus allowing for the possibility of pregnancy.
Modern Natural Family Planning
Thankfully, the research didn't end there. By the 1950's strides were being made to develop symptom based family planning, which relies on the physical signs of a woman's body to determine when she is in her fertile phase, rather than dates on a calendar. These developments made the effectiveness rates of NFP skyrocket. No longer just guesswork, natural family planning is now based the observation and charting of a woman's physiological fertility signs. This chart can then be interpreted to determine if she is fertile on any given day. Some notable pioneers in the field were Drs. John and Evelyn Billings, whose research into a woman's cervical mucus lead to mucus only based methods, including the highly effective Billings Ovulation Method. Another was Dr. Josef Roetzer, whose work greatly influenced the development of sympto-thermal methods, which utilize mucus, body temperature and cervical position to indicate fertility.
Thanks to these modern developments, natural family planning is now over 99% effective when used correctly. And once a woman learns to observe her fertility signs and record them on a chart, that information can be used for much more than just avoiding pregnancy. It can be used by couples hoping to achieve pregnancy, and it can also help a woman to better understand her overall health. A fertility chart can reveal anything from endocrine disorders, hormone imbalances to nutritional deficiencies. A woman struggling with irregular or painful cycles can find clues to help her to heal her body.
If you are interested in learning more about natural family planning and how to incorporate it into your life, contact me here or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also attend a natural family planning class series and learn the method for yourself!
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