Everything you need to know about ovulation
Most of us do it once a month, but there’s a lot we don’t understand about ovulation. Our guide takes the guesswork out of figuring out when you’re ovulating and when you’re most fertile.
If someone asked you whether you know how babies are made, you’d probably scoff at the question. But researchers at Yale University who surveyed 1000 women between the ages of 18 and 40 found that many women are unclear on the finer points of baby-making.
Two-thirds believed that having sex in the two days after ovulation would increase their chances of conceiving (false – the best time to have sex is the day before and the day of ovulation). Half thought that having sex several times a day would boost their chance of falling pregnant (wrong – it decreases sperm count). And 40 percent believed that certain sexual positions and raising your hips after sex can help you conceive (nope – there’s no scientific proof of any of that).
Ovulation is a complex process, so it’s not surprising that some bits of information get misconstrued along the way. But if you want to maximize your chances of getting pregnant, you need to know the facts.
What is ovulation
Every month, one of your ovaries releases a mature egg, which then travels down the fallopian tube. If it meets sperm, it becomes fertilized and travels to your uterus, where it implants itself in the uterine lining which has thickened for this purpose. If the egg isn’t fertilized, the uterine lining and the egg are shed, causing you to get your period.
When am I most fertile?
The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days with ovulation occurring on day 14, but “normal” cycles can vary between 21 and 45 days with ovulation usually happening 12 to 16 days before the next period is due.
You’re most fertile in the five days leading up to ovulation and on the day of ovulation itself (with the two peak days of fertility being the day before and the day of ovulation). But after ovulation, your chances of conceiving are very low.
Because sperm can stick around for up to five days, the best way to conceive is to have regular sex (every day or every second day) between days 11 and 16 of your cycle (with day 1 being the first day of your last period). But don’t be tempted to have sex twice in a day as this can decrease sperm count and reduce your chances of getting pregnant. If your cycle is irregular, you may want to use the ovulation tracking methods described below.
How can I tell when I’m ovulating?
There are several signs that can indicate when ovulation is approaching. In some women these symptoms are very obvious, while others don’t notice them at all. Start to have regular sex as soon as you spot them to increase your chances of conceiving.
Other signs can let you know when ovulation has occurred. While it will be too late to fall pregnant when you notice them, recording them (as well as the length of your cycle) in a journal or a fertility app such as Clue can help you figure out your most fertile days within your cycle. You’ll have to keep track of all your signs for a few months before you can gain a clear picture.
Changes in cervical mucus: As you approach ovulation, your cervical mucus (a secretion made by your cervix) increases and becomes clear and stretchy like egg whites (it’s stickier when you’re not fertile). This makes sex easier and helps the sperm swim up to meet the egg, so start having sex when you notice it changing.
Increased sexual desire: Listen to your body. If it’s telling you to get it on, do it! Not only does a woman’s desire increase in the days leading up to ovulation, but small physical changes (a more seductive walk, a change in facial bone structure, and so on) also make her more attractive to her partner.
Ovulation pain: Approximately one in five women experiences a sharp pain on one side of her lower abdomen around the time of ovulation. Because it can happen before, during or after ovulation, it may be too late to conceive when you feel it, but it doesn’t hurt to try. It can also provide an extra clue to include in your fertility tracking app.
Changes in saliva: A ‘ferning’ pattern in your saliva – which looks like frost on a windowpane and is caused by a rise in estrogen – may indicate that you’re ovulating. You can buy a specialized microscope to detect it, but it’s an unreliable method that might not be worth the trouble.
A rise in basal body temperature: Your basal (resting) body temperature rises by 0.4 to 1.0˚F after ovulation due to an increase in progesterone, so tracking your temperature every morning is a reliable way to help you determine when you ovulate. You’ll have to record it every day for a few months before you start to see a pattern. Make sure to take your temperature before you get out of bed every morning using a regular thermometer or a basal thermometer (which is more accurate).
An LH surge: As ovulation approaches, estrogen levels rise and cause the release of another hormone known as luteinising hormone (LH). This surge in LH causes an ovary to release a mature egg and that’s when ovulation occurs. Because the LH surge occurs 24 to 48 hours before ovulation, it’s one of the most accurate indicators of your most fertile days.
Ovulation kits can help you detect this LH surge. You simply pee on a test strip (like a pregnancy test) and when the test line is darker than the control line, your LH is high and it’s time to try to make babies. While this method is very effective, it can become expensive if you try to conceive for a long time and some women find it too stressful because it puts undue pressure on them.
What if I’m struggling to get pregnant?
Just because you get your period doesn’t mean you’re ovulating and just because you’re ovulating doesn’t mean you can get pregnant. If you’ve been trying to conceive for a year – or six months if you’re over 35 – see your doctor to make sure everything is in working order. Thankfully, there are several options available to you if you or your partner have any fertility issues. Talk to your doctor about fertility treatment options, or you may want to explore surrogacy. Find out more in our article on Fertility Treatments 101.