Can You Get Pregnant When Not Ovulating?
When it comes to getting pregnant, what's ovulation got to do with it? A whole lot. Whether or not you're ovulating determines how easy (or difficult) it is to conceive. In short, if there isn't an egg to fertilize, conception will not occur.
Ovulation occurs during your reproductive years—basically from when your period (menarche) begins to when it ends (menopause). It’s defined by an event, on approximately day 13 to 15 of a 28-day menstrual cycle, during which your ovary releases an oocyte from a follicle. The oocyte then travels to the fallopian tube and awaits fertilization with sperm.
Once ovulation occurs, the oocyte can be fertilized by sperm. At this point, timing is of the essence. After ovulation, you have about 12-24 hours for fertilization to occur. However, it’s worth noting that sperm can live inside a female body for up to 5 days so the window for intercourse to result in pregnancy is longer than just a couple of days.
If the egg isn’t fertilized within 12-24 hours of its release, it begins to slowly disintegrate and will eventually shed along with the uterine lining during menstruation (your period), approximately 11-16 days later.
What Interrupts Ovulation?
Ovulation may not happen for a variety of reasons—some natural and some not. It might depend on what phase you’re at in your menstrual cycle or there could be an underlying medical issue like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), other endocrinopathies like thyroid disease, or elevated prolactin levels, nutritional deficiencies, or perimenopause.
If you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for over a year (under the age of 35yo or over 6 months over the age of 35yo) you could potentially be dealing with infertility issues. If this is the case, you are not alone and there are a variety of treatments available to help. According to the Mayo Clinic, an estimated 10-18% of couples have trouble getting pregnant or having a successful delivery.
Other major factors that affect ovulation include:
- Age: After age 35, a woman's odds of becoming pregnant decreases rapidly.
- Smoking: Smoking accelerates ovarian follicle (where the eggs are) depletion, encourages loss of reproductive function. Menopause occurs 1-4yrs earlier in smokers compared to non-smokers
- Weight: Obesity (as per guidelines in which abdominal fat and waist circumference are the main contributors to excess) is associated with dysfunctional ovulation
- STIs: Sexually transmitted diseases can damage the fallopian tubes making future pregnancies more difficult because the sperm is unable to get to the released egg (oocyte)
How Do You Know When You’re Ovulating?
Ovulation and your “fertile window” is a single phase in the ovarian part of your menstrual cycle, so understanding the phases and length of your cycle is key.
The most commonly referenced menstrual cycle length is 28 days (even though it is not the average menstrual cycle length), as most women will have slightly longer or shorter cycles. There are three phases that your ovary goes through to prepare for the possibility of fertilization and pregnancy, ovulation being one of them. (Again, please keep in mind the time frames below are averages and most women will experience time frames longer or shorter than average).
- Menstruation (a phase of the uterus that occurs during the follicular phase of the ovary): More popularly referred to as your period, menstruation (or menses) marks the first day of your cycle. If an egg has not been fertilized, your uterus sheds its lining from the previous month’s cycle. This is your period.
- Follicular Phase: The follicular phase of your cycle starts on the first day of your period (day 1 of your cycle) and ends with ovulation (approximately day 13-15 of a cycle of 28 days).
- Ovulation: This phase occurs after the Follicular Phase ends around day 13-15 of your cycle, in a 28-day cycle. The day of ovulation is distinctly defined by the act of the oocyte bursting through the ovarian capsule, out of the ovarian follicle, traveling through the fallopian, and becoming available for fertilization by sperm. The 3 days leading up to and including ovulation is when the baby-making magic happens.
- Luteal Phase: This phase lasts approximately two weeks after ovulation (day 17-28 in a 28-day cycle). During this phase, the egg begins to break down and disintegrate. If an egg isn’t fertilized before it starts to breaks down, it will shed with the next menses, and the cycle begins again.
Signs of Ovulation
It can be difficult for some women to tell whether or not they are ovulating as the signs and symptoms tend to be more subtle. However, for others, it’s more noticeable. Here are some things to look out for to know if you’re nearing the day of ovulation or in the ovulation phase of your cycle:
- Lower basal body temperature (this typically occurs just before ovulation begins)
- Higher basal body temperature (occurs approximately 24 hours after the egg is released and lasts for many days)
- Cervical mucus that is wet and stretchy with an egg white texture
- Subtle cramping or pain can sometimes occur when the follicle releases the egg (you may experience this on alternating sides of your abdomen each month. This cramping is also known as mittelschmerz.)
- Light spotting can result when the follicle ruptures to release the egg
- Increased libido (sex drive).
When Do You Ovulate? Signs of Ovulation
If you are not ovulating, it doesn’t mean there is necessarily something “wrong”. For example, if you are in the menstrual, follicular, or luteal phase of your menstrual cycle, not ovulating is normal and nothing to worry about.
However, if you notice any of the following signs or symptoms, it could mean there is an underlying medical or emotional issue that could potentially prevent ovulation and you should consult a medical professional.
- Longer than normal menstrual cycle (i.e. 35 days or more in adults and 45 days, or more in teens)
- Shorter than normal menstrual cycle (i.e. 21 days or less)
- Irregular or absent periods
- Heavy periods with large, quarter-sized clotting
- Irregular periods
- Spotting between periods along with abnormal abdominal pain or cramping
- Inability to get pregnant, especially if you’ve been trying for 6 months to a year
The Best (and Worst) Times in Your Menstrual Cycle To Get Pregnant
Whether you’re trying to get pregnant (or trying not to get pregnant) knowing when you are most fertile is very important. If you and your partner are trying to have a baby, you can increase your chances of conceiving by having sex at the right time.
On the flip side, if you are trying not to get pregnant, understanding when your “fertile window” is can help avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex at those times. Having said that, if you want to take the stress factor out of it completely, nothing beats protection like a condom, IUD, or another form of birth control to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. We recommend you discuss birth control options with your healthcare provider.
Getting Pregnant During Your Period Is Highly Unlikely
Abdominal cramps, constipation, and bloating are some of the most common symptoms women feel during the (approximately) 5-7 days of their period and are caused by the shedding of the uterine lining (a.k.a. the endometrium).
Is it possible to get pregnant on your period? Yes, if you have unprotected sex, it is possible to get pregnant during your period. However, the likelihood is low compared to other parts of the menstrual cycle. This is also the time many women understandably “are not in the mood” to have sex.
Your period happens as long as the egg from the previous menstrual cycle hasn’t been fertilized. So getting your period is also a pretty reliable sign you are not pregnant. During the approx 5-7 days of your period, you shed your uterine lining through your vagina and the unfertilized, disintegrating egg is released along with it.
Getting Pregnant Right After Your Period Is Likely
On average, menstruation lasts 5-7 days. In the week or so after your period, the follicular phase continues and your ovaries prepare to release an egg. If you have sex during this window, it’s somewhat likely you could get pregnant.
The reason for this is that sperm can survive 3-5 days after sexual intercourse. This means that even though you’re not technically ovulating when you have sex, it is still possible to get pregnant if an egg is released within 3-5 days of intercourse.
Getting Pregnant During Ovulation Is Highly Likely
The chances of getting pregnant are highest during your “fertile window". The fertile days occur during the 3-5 days leading up to and including ovulation. Having unprotected sex during ovulation will increase the chances of sperm being able to fertilize an egg, and that you'll get pregnant.
It’s important to note here that ovulation is simply half of the equation—sperm health is the other. If you’re trying to conceive and are having trouble getting pregnant, it’s worth consulting a doctor to see what other factors may impact your fertility. Remember, your partner’s sperm health could also affect your ability to get pregnant.
Another important consideration is that ovulation can vary month to month depending on a variety of emotional factors, like stress, exhaustion, emotional events (like grief), and nutrition.
Unlike the acutely obvious signs of menstruation, the signs of ovulation are often more subtle. If you aren’t able to identify your ovulation phase, consider using a tool like an ovulation predictor kit or a fertility app to help predict your “fertile window.”
If you have trouble knowing when you’re ovulating, there are tools to help:
Ovulation Predictor Kits Can Help You Identify When You’re Ovulating
36-40 hours (on average) before ovulation, there is a brief surge in luteinizing hormone (LH). Ovulation predictor kits (also sometimes called an OPK) detects the presence and concentration of luteinizing hormone (LH) in your urine about 12-24 hours before ovulation takes place. Ovulation predictor kits may be especially helpful for women who are trying to conceive and want to improve their chances of getting pregnant.
When used correctly, ovulation predictor kits are approximately 80% accurate in detecting ovulation with 5 days of testing and 95% accurate with 10 days of testing. Typically testing should begin at least 2 days before the expected day of ovulation and continued until the LH surge or through day 20.
Fertility Apps Can Also Help Track Your Menstrual Cycle & Increase Chances of Getting Pregnant
Of course - there’s an app for that! Indeed, there are many fertility apps available to help you predict your most fertile days right from the palm of your hand. They all use a similar algorithm to collect data, track changes in your cycle, and predict ovulation periods.
Keep in mind that fertility apps are not an exact science and don’t replace regular check-ins with your doctor. They also typically work best for women who have regular periods.
Getting Pregnant After Ovulation Is Almost Impossible
If the egg doesn’t get fertilized in the 12 to 24 hours following ovulation, the likelihood you’ll get pregnant decreases dramatically. During the two weeks after ovulation (the Luteal Phase), the egg breaks down and the follicle in the ovary where the egg was released becomes the corpus luteum.
The corpus luteum releases a hormone called progesterone. Progesterone causes a few changes in the body that are designed to support a pregnancy if one has occurred:
- Thickening of the uterine lining in preparation for it to receive a fertilized egg (zygote)
- Thickening of your cervical mucus, which also creates a plug that blocks any sperm from entering the uterus.
- Sending a signal to the ovaries not to release any more eggs.
When to See a Doctor
The most commonly referenced menstrual cycle lasts 28-days and the likelihood of getting pregnant varies depending on the phase you’re in, when and if you ovulate, and when you're having sex. After all, it takes two to do the baby tango: An egg and a sperm.
When your cycle is ‘regular’, if you have sex in the few days leading up to and including ovulation, you’re most likely to conceive. During other times of your menstrual phase, your chances of conception are lower (but not zero!)
As we’ve seen, there are a variety of reasons ovulation doesn’t occur when it’s supposed to - some physical and others emotional, or stress-related. If you are concerned about irregularities in your cycle, missed periods, want to get pregnant or are trying to conceive, or want to explore birth control options, it’s always worth talking with your family doctor!
Medically reviewed by Dr. Chimsom T. Oleka, M.D, Written by Jane Flanagan — Updated on September 20, 2021.