'Natural' Birth Control: What to Know

Looking for a more natural birth control method? You’ll want to know what the options are, what’s involved, and the drawbacks that you should consider first -- including that they aren’t sure ways to avoid getting pregnant.

Keep in mind that your partner will need to be on board, too. These methods won’t work unless you’re both committed.

Fertility Awareness

These methods are based on your own body -- no devices, no meds. They’re free or low-cost, safe, and effective when you use them the right way. But that’s hard to do.

The basic idea is to predict which days of the month you’d be most likely to get pregnant. You’ll skip sex on those days.

It sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to pinpoint your fertile days. And if your period isn’t regular, you might be better off with a different strategy.

The odds of getting pregnant can be as high as 24% unless you use your fertility awareness method perfectly every time. For comparison, those same odds are:

  • 18% if you use only the male condom
  • 12% with a diaphragm
  • 9% if you take birth control pills or use a contraceptive patch or vaginal ring
  • Less than 1% if you get an implant or use an IUD

Examples include the rhythm method, the standard-days method, checking your cervical mucus, and using your basal body temperature. Get to know each one.

Rhythm Method

This strategy takes a lot of homework, and it’s not simple. Because it can be confusing, avoiding pregnancy isn’t a sure thing.

First, you’ll need to track your period for 6-12 months before you start. Then you can use that information and do some math to figure out when you’re fertile.

You’ll use this formula:

  • Subtract 18 from the number of days in your shortest cycle.
  • Count that many days after you start your period. That’s your first fertile day.
  • Subtract 11 from the number of days in your longest cycle.
  • Count that many days from the start of your period. That’s your last fertile day.
  • Don’t have sex on or between your first and last fertile days.

There are apps for this. But in order for this method to work, you have to be very good at tracking. That can be hard to do, because it’s common for cycles to vary slightly. Medical conditions like thyroid disease, eating disorders, excessive weight loss or gain, strenuous exercise, and illicit drug use may cause your cycles to become irregular.

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Standard Days Method (SDM)

This is like the rhythm method, but it’s simpler. It sets the same days (days 8 through 19) as the fertile time for everyone. That makes it easier to use.

You can use an app, a calendar, or a color-coded set of beads to track where you are in your cycle. It works best if your cycle is more than 26 days or less than 32.

Cervical Mucus Method

This plan also involves checking the mucus from your cervix at certain points in your cycle.

Just after your period, there’s very little. When you’re ovulating, there can be a lot. You can also notice changes in its texture or color throughout your cycle. All of these clues may help you know when you’re ovulating.

Cervical mucus on your fertile days can look clear, slippery, and stretchy, like egg whites. You can use a tissue or your fingers to check it several times a day. It’s best to keep a chart so you can see the patterns in your cervical mucus from one cycle to another -- and then know when you should skip sex.

Basal Body Temperature Method

Another way to tell when you’re fertile is to keep a daily chart of your temperature. You use a device called a basal body temperature thermometer at the same time every day.

When you ovulate, your temperature may go up almost 1 degree F. It’s also good to pay attention to other symptoms you might be having, like sore breasts, backaches, or bloating.

But still, you can’t know precisely when you ovulate by this method. Also, if you have an illness that causes fever, are stressed, drank alcoholic beverages the night before, have traveled to a different time zone (thus waking up at different times), or have slept in a warmer or colder room than usual -- all may affect your basal body temperature. That can also make this method harder to use.

Withdrawal Method

One way to avoid pregnancy is not to give sperm a chance to meet an egg. When you use this method -- also called “pulling out” -- the man pulls his penis out of his partner’s vagina before he ejaculates.

That takes a lot of self-control. Because that doesn’t always happen, there’s a 22% chance of getting pregnant if you use this tactic.

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Breastfeeding

This approach works only for the first 6 months after giving birth -- and only if you haven’t gotten your period yet and you exclusively breastfeed your baby; no formula and no bottles at all.

You’ll have to nurse at least every 4 hours during the day and every 6 hours at night. (Pumping doesn’t count!) This keeps your body from releasing an egg.

Because of all those details, it’s not a sure way to avoid getting pregnant.

Herbal Birth Control

Some herbs are touted as ways to avoid pregnancy. But there’s very little research to back up those claims. And the FDA hasn’t approved any of them.

You may have heard of:

  • Neem
  • Castor bean
  • Gossypol (for men)
  • Thunder God Vine (for men)
  • Evodia
  • Wild carrot (Queen Anne’s lace)

These herbs are said to either:

  • Keep your body from releasing an egg
  • Prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg
  • Block the fertilized egg from implanting in the womb

But there’s very little research to back up those claims or about how well they work. Some herbal methods are toxic. So you should talk to your doctor first about what’s safe.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH on September 21, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Fertility Awareness (Natural Family Planning): The Facts.”

Association of Reproductive Health Professionals: “Fertility Awareness Methods,” “Withdrawal,” “Lactational Amenorrhea Method.”

Mayo Clinic: “Rhythm Method for Natural Family Planning.”

Georgetown University Institute for Reproductive Health: “Standard Days Method.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Natural Family Planning.”

CDC: “Effectiveness of Family Planning Methods.”

National Medicines Comprehensive Database: “Neem,” “Castor bean,” “Thunder God Vine,” “Evodia.”

National Center for Biotechnology Information: “Gossypol.”

Bala, K. World Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, 2014.

FDA: “Birth Control: Medicines to Help You.”

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