When it comes to getting pregnant, what's ovulation got to do with it? A whole lot, actually. 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 (menses) begins to when it ends (menopause). It’s defined by an event, on approximately day 14 to 16 of the average menstrual cycle, during which of your ovary follicles ruptures and releases an oocyte. The oocyte then travels to the fallopian tube and becomes an ovum or egg.
Once the oocyte becomes an egg, it’s fair game to be fertilized by a single sperm. At this point, timing is of the essence. After ovulation, you have about 12-24 hours for fertilization to occur. If the egg isn’t fertilized during this time, it begins to slowly disintegrate and will eventually shed along with the uterine lining during menstruation, approximately 11-16 days later.
No Egg, No Baby
Ovulation may not happen for a variety of reasons—some natural and some not. It might depend on what stage you’re at in your menstrual cycle or there could be an underlying medical issue like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), uterine fibroids or polyps, or perimenopause.
If you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for over a year, 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 37, a woman's odds of becoming pregnant decreases rapidly.
Smoking: Smoking damages your cervix and fallopian tubes.
Weight: An unhealthy BMI (body mass index) can decrease the frequency of ovulation.
Sexual history: Sexually transmitted diseases can damage the fallopian tubes making future pregnancies more difficult.
How Do You Know When You’re Ovulating?
Ovulation and your “fertile window” is a single phase in your menstrual cycle, so understanding the phases and length of your cycle is key.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days but most women will have slightly longer or shorter cycles. There are four phases that your body 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: More popularly referred to as your period, menstruation (or menses) marks the first day of your cycle. During menstruation, your uterus sheds its lining from the previous month’s menstrual cycle if the egg has not been fertilized.
- Follicular Phase: The follicular phase of your cycle overlaps with menstruation. It starts on the first day of your period (day 1 of your cycle) and ends with ovulation (approximately day 14 of a cycle of 28 days).
- Ovulation: This phase occurs after the Follicular Phase ends around day 14-16 of your cycle, on average. The day of ovulation is distinctly defined by the act of the oocyte bursting from the ovum, traveling down the fallopian, and becoming an egg that is available for fertilization by a 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). 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
- The cervix softens and opens up
- Subtle cramping can sometimes occur when the follicle releases the egg
- Light spotting can result when the follicle ruptures to release the egg
- Increased libido (sex drive). This is nature’s way of saying “it’s baby-making time!”
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 totally 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 preventing ovulation and you should consult a medical professional.
- Longer than normal menstrual cycle (i.e. 35 days or more)
- Shorter than normal menstrual cycle (i.e. 25 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
- Pain or a burning sensation when peeing
- Unusual vaginal discharge and/or redness and itchiness
- Inability to get pregnant, especially if you’ve been trying for 6 months to a year
The Best (and Worst) Times To Become Pregnant
Whether you’re trying to get pregnant or trying not to become 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 the right times. Having said that, if you want to take the stress factor out of it completely, nothing beats protection like a condom or IUD to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
Getting Pregnant During Your Period Is Highly Unlikely
Abdominal cramps, constipation, and bloating are some of the most common symptoms women feel during thee (approximately) five days of their period and are caused by the shedding of the uterine lining (a.k.a. the endometrium).
Can you get pregnant on your period? Yes, but it's not very likely. This is also the time most women understandably “aren’t in the mood” to have sex. It also happens to be the time women are least fertile.
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. five days of your period, you shed your uterine lining through your vagina and the unfertilized egg is released along with it.
Getting Pregnant Right After Your Period Is Likely
On average, menstruation lasts 5 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, you could still get pregnant if an egg is released within 3-5 days.
Getting Pregnant During Ovulation Is Highly Likely
Your “fertile window" is the best time to get pregnant. The fertile days occur during the 3 days leading up to and including ovulation. Having sex during this time is your best shot at conceiving and ensuring a sperm is able to fertilize an egg.
It’s important to note here that ovulation is simply half of the equation—sperm health is the other. If you’re 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 as that could also affect your ability to conceive.
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 period, consider using a tool like an ovulation predictor kit or a fertility app to help predict your “fertile window.”
Ovulation Predictor Kits
Between 12-48 hours on average before ovulation, there is a brief surge in a hormone called Lutein (LH). An ovulation predictor kits (also sometimes called an OPK) is a test that detects the presence and concentration of luteinizing hormone (LH) in your urine. Ovulation predictor kits may be especially helpful for women who want to have the best chance of pregnancy.
When taken correctly, ovulation predictor kits are approximately 99% accurate in detecting the LH surge that precedes ovulation.
Want to predict ovulation day? There’s an app for that! 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 transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum.
The corpus luteum releases a hormone called progesterone which prepares the body for menstruation or your next period. Progesterone causes a few changes in the body that make getting pregnant extra challenging (or near impossible) including:
- Thickening of the uterine lining in preparation for it to shed (your next period).
- The drying up of your cervical mucus, creating 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 average menstrual cycle lasts 28-day days and the likelihood of getting pregnant varies depending on the phase you’re in. It really depends on when and if your ovary releases an egg 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 working as intended, 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 greatly reduced.
There are a variety of reasons ovulation doesn’t occur when it’s supposed to. In this case, it’s highly recommended you visit your doctor Even if you don’t have any of the symptoms mentioned above, always visit the doctor if:
- You think you’re pregnant
- You bleed or spot after unprotected sex
- You experience post-menopausal vaginal bleeding