Thinking about getting pregnant? Then it’s time to get acquainted with the big O: ovulation. Just as menstrual cycles are different for every woman, so is ovulation. By learning to recognize the signs of ovulation, you’ll be able to time sex with your partner accordingly to boost the odds of getting pregnant. But even if you’re not trying to conceive right at this moment, having a better understanding of ovulation signs can give you a clearer picture of your menstrual cycle and help you spot any abnormal ovulation symptoms down the line. Read on for all the need-to-know info about ovulation, from how to chart your menstrual cycle to how to spot the signs of impending ovulation.
What Is Ovulation?
You probably learned way back in health class that ovulation is the phase in your menstrual cycle when a mature egg is released from the ovary, setting the stage for fertilization. Each woman is born with millions of immature eggs that wait to be released, normally one at a time, every month. During ovulation the egg travels down the fallopian tube, where it may meet up with a sperm and become fertilized. For most healthy women, ovulation generally happens once a month, a few weeks after menstruation begins.
When Do You Ovulate?
You may have heard that ovulation typically happens on day 15 of your menstrual cycle, but it’s not the same for everyone. If you’re like most women of childbearing age, your menstrual cycle lasts between 28 and 32 days, and ovulation usually hits between days 10 and 19 of that cycle—about 12 to 16 days before your next period. “In healthy women, ovulation occurs 14 days before the onset of your period,” says Donnica L. Moore, MD, president of Sapphire Women's Health Group in Chester, New Jersey. So if your cycle is 35 days, ovulation will happen on day 21 of that cycle. If your cycle is 21 days, ovulation will happen on day seven. The timing of ovulation can vary from cycle to cycle and from woman to woman, adds Shannon M. Clark, MD, associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Galveston, Texas, which is why it’s a good idea to get familiar with your body’s menstrual calendar for at least three months or so, to help you better estimate your own ovulation cycle.
For some women ovulation doesn’t always take place or it can be irregular. In general, if you are pregnant, have gone through menopause, or you take birth control pills consistently and on time, you won’t ovulate. Certain diseases or disorders (such as polycystic ovary syndrome or premature ovarian failure, among other conditions) and certain medications (including some antidepressants, anti-nausea medications and chemotherapy) may cause a woman to stop ovulating for periods of time. Also, other lifestyle factors— stress or being significantly underweight or overweight (measured by body fat percentage)—may affect menstruation and ovulation. If you’re dealing with irregular menstrual cycles or ones that are short (fewer than 21 days) or long (more than 35 days), Clark recommends you get evaluated by a physician to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing those irregular cycles. It’s true tracking ovulation with irregular cycles can be more difficult, but keep in mind that ovulation occurs 14 days before the onset of menstruation, so even with irregular periods, you could still conceive at some point in your cycle.
If you’re planning to breastfeed exclusively (meaning baby won’t get any other source of nutrition), be aware that you likely won’t ovulate during that time. But there are always exceptions, so you can’t depend on breastfeeding as a means of birth control. And once baby is introduced to other foods or the occasional bottle, ovulation is likely to resume. Plan your birth control accordingly, unless you want to give baby a possible surprise—a new brother or sister!
When are you most fertile?
While some believe you can conceive on any day of the month, and others say the opposite—that you have to have sex on the exact day of ovulation—both are actually false, Moore says. In reality, there’s a six-day “fertile window” in your cycle—the five days leading up to ovulation, through the day of ovulation. And of those six days, the optimal time frame to conceive is during the two to three days prior to ovulation and the day of ovulation itself, when you’re most fertile. Once your egg has been released, it’s viable for about 12 to 24 hours. After that, you typically can’t get pregnant until your next menstrual cycle (but if you’re not trying to conceive, you should still use birth control at all times as a precaution).
How to Predict Ovulation
Whether you’re trying to conceive or merely want to get to know your body’s signs of ovulation, these indicators, including at-home and OTC tests, can help you predict when you’re going to ovulate.
1. Basal body temperature monitoring
Sometimes referred to as BBT, your basal body temperature is the temperature of your body at rest. At the beginning of your cycle, basal body temperature remains fairly consistent and averages between 97.2 and 97.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As you get closer to ovulation, there’s a slight dip in basal body temperature followed by a sharp increase, typically of about 0.4 to 1.0 degrees, just after ovulation. One of the ways to determine when and if ovulation happened is to track your basal body temperature over a series of months. Take your temperature with a digital thermometer designed for basal body (you can get one online or at the drugstore) as soon as you wake up, even before you get out of bed, and jot down the reading every morning. Keep in mind that from day to day, your BBT can fluctuate by half a degree or more, so don't be fooled by a little blip—look for a sustained rise to confirm that you've ovulated. After several months the info will give you a good sense of when you usually ovulate so you can plan babymaking accordingly.
2. Menstrual charting
Another simple and inexpensive way to track ovulation is to record the days your period begins and ends for several months. If you have normal menstrual cycles—between 25 and 35 days—you’re likely to be ovulating regularly, with ovulation occurring about 14 days before menstruation. Make sure to write down whenever you experience potential signs of ovulation— typical ovulation symptoms and signs could include cramps, an increase in cervical mucus, breast tenderness, fluid retention, and appetite or mood changes.
3. Ovulation kit
OTC ovulation predictor kits measure your levels of luteinizing hormone (LH), which can be detected in your urine. These kits work because ovulation typically hits about 10 to 12 hours after LH peaks—on day 14 to 15 of the menstrual cycle if your cycle is 28 days long. Your LH concentration should stay elevated for 14 to 27 hours to allow for full maturation of the egg.
How it works: Pee on the stick and wait for a line to appear. If the color of the line matches the shade shown on the instructions, ovulation is imminent—within 24 to 48 hours. If it’s too close to call, retest within the next 12 hours. Most kits come with a five-day supply of sticks, to be used in as many days, but check their expiration date: Most of them have a shelf life of only two years. While the majority of ovulation predictor tests can be used any time of day, many of them suggest testing first thing in the morning. For best results, test around the same time each day, and cut back your liquid intake for four hours beforehand, so your pee will be more concentrated and your LH easier to detect.
The real trick to finding success with an ovulation predictor kit is knowing when to start using it. If your cycle is regular, the charting you’ve been doing can help you identify that optimum window. If your cycles are irregular, your best bet is to pay attention to ovulation symptoms. Even if you’ve confirmed that ovulation is happening (through tests or other signs), try to wait to have sex until you notice an increase in cervical mucus, which will heighten the chances of conceiving.
4. Fertility monitor
While an ovulation predictor kit can identify when ovulation is expected to occur (giving you 24 hours for possible conception), a fertility monitor can identify your five most fertile days. The monitor measures LH and estrogen levels to identify your two peak fertile days, plus the one to five fertile days leading up to them. Some versions of the monitor store information from your previous six cycles to customize your fertility reading. Be aware though that because monitors give you more advanced information they are pricier than ovulation kits.
What Are the Symptoms and Signs of Ovulation?
Before and during ovulation, hormonal shifts can affect the entire body. You may experience various symptoms of ovulation—including breast tenderness, moodiness or headaches, but if you don’t notice any ovulation symptoms, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean you’re not ovulating. “Most women have no clue,” Moore says. If you can learn to recognize the common signs of ovulation listed below, it could help you predict when ovulation is likely to occur.
1. Cervical mucus changes
As you near ovulation, your body produces more estrogen, causing cervical mucus to become stretchy and clear, like egg white, which helps sperm swim to the egg that’s released during ovulation. Cervical mucus changes happen in most women, Moore says, but you have to know what you’re looking for. The amount of cervical mucus and what it looks and feels like varies from woman to woman. To test it for ovulation, insert a clean finger into your vagina, remove some of the mucus and then stretch out the secretion between your thumb and finger. If it’s sticky and stretchy or very wet and slippery, that’s a good sign that you’re in a fertile phase.
2. Heightened sense of smell
For some women, a more sensitive sense of smell in the latter half of a normal menstruation cycle can be a sign of ovulation. In this fertile phase, your body is primed to be more attracted to the male pheromone androstenone.
3. Breast soreness or tenderness
Breast and nipple sensitivity, tenderness or soreness can be another sign of ovulation, thanks to the rush of hormones entering your body right before and after ovulation.
4. Mild pelvic or lower abdominal pain
Some women can actually feel ovulation—typically as a mild ache or pain in the lower abdomen, usually on one side or the other (not the same side each time). The sensation, called Mittelschmerz, can last anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours. You might also experience light vaginal bleeding, discharge or nausea along with the ache or pain, which is usually mild and short lived.
There’s no need to worry about ovulation pain that goes away with an OTC, anti-inflammatory medication (such as Motrin), Moore says. But if ovulation pain is persistent or severe, see a doctor to rule out conditions such as endometriosis or an ovarian cyst. Moore suggests monitoring and recording your ovulation symptoms every month to get a sense of what is normal for your body, so you can more easily spot any abnormal ovulation signs and symptoms. “When in doubt, check it out,” she adds.
5. Light spotting or discharge
Brown discharge or spotting during ovulation is normal if not that common. This ovulation symptom can occur when the follicle that surrounds and protects the developing oocyte, or egg, matures, grows and then ruptures, resulting in a small amount of bleeding. As blood gets older, it turns brown, which is why the vaginal discharge may range from red to dark brown. It’s not a cause for concern unless the spotting persists, in which case you should see a physician to check for signs of infection and the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy if you’ve been sexually active.
6. Libido changes
Some women notice that their sex drive increases during ovulation, which might be Mother Nature’s way of ensuring we keep the species alive and well! But, as Moore says, “sex drive can be influenced by just about anything, including whether you had a glass of wine or are just in the mood.”
7. Changes in the cervix
During ovulation, your cervix may become higher, softer and more open. You can check your cervix, along with your mucus, for ovulation symptoms, but it can take time to learn the differences you’re feeling for and is often more difficult than watching for the other symptoms mentioned above. If you’d like to try and get more comfortable checking for cervical changes as a sign of ovulation, Moore recommends standing in whatever position you use to insert a tampon (for example, next to the toilet with one foot up on the closed seat) and using your finger to feel inside. In many women with a regular cycle, right before ovulation the cervix will be softer, like touching your lips, but after ovulation it will feel harder, more like touching the tip of your nose. An OB can also check for cervical changes using a speculum and help give you more guidance on how to do it at home.