Cycle tracking apps are becoming more popular with women who want to use a smartphone to know more about their periods and fertility.
“There are many apps available nowadays to track your cycle,” says Shieva Ghofrany, MD, co-founder of women’s health site A Tribe Called V. Simple cycle tracking apps tell you when to expect your period. Others, also called fertility apps, family planning apps, or birth control apps, help you understand ovulation and when you’re most likely to get pregnant.
If you want to get pregnant, a family planning app can tell you when you’re most fertile. If you want to avoid pregnancy, you can use your app to know when to avoid unprotected sex.
How Do They Work?
Cycle tracking apps store and analyze information like your past periods, sleep patterns, heart rate, basal body temperature, and cervical fluid.
You enter the data into the app, which uses the information to make predictions about when you’ll have your period and when you’ll ovulate.
If you know when you’re ovulating, you can avoid unprotected sex on the days around ovulation.
Do They Work?
Unlike other types of birth control, family planning apps don’t involve hormones and have no side effects. They’re noninvasive and don’t require pills or procedures. They’re also easier to use than natural family planning methods that use paper calendars and calculations to predict ovulation.
But while they can help you track your cycle, they’re not as effective as other birth control methods to avoid getting pregnant. Research suggests some apps may be about 93% effective. To compare, the birth control pill is about 99.7% effective when used correctly.
How well an app works depends on the technology it uses and the data it collects. While some apps use a range of measurements like basal body temperature and cervical fluid to predict ovulation, others are more basic. The more data points, the better.
Your cycles may also be irregular, which limits how accurate the predictions may be. For example, your cycle may be different from the typical range of 26 to 32 days. Things like stress, breastfeeding, and PCOS may also change your cycle.
How reliable an app is also depends on you. You need to use it consistently to get accurate predictions. If taking a lot of measurements, like basal body temperature and cervical mucus, is too much for you to keep up with, it won’t be as effective.
“While I think these apps are great at improving women’s knowledge about their bodies and cycles,” Ghofrany says, “I wouldn’t encourage their use unless the woman is highly motivated to use all of the mechanisms.”
How Do You Know if an App Is Reliable?
To find a tracking app that you can count on:
Ask your OB-GYN for recommendations. They may know which apps are most reputable and which apps have worked for their patients.
Do your research. Find out who’s behind the app and what their credentials are. “Do they have a PhD? Is it an OB-GYN? Ideally, they specialize in reproductive health,” says Sophia Yen, MD, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medical School.
Check how many types of data it collects. The more, the better. If an app only looks at dates of your last periods, it won’t be as reliable as an app that also collects body temperature and amount of cervical mucus.
Look for an app that’s easy to use. If it’s easy to enter your info every month, you’re more likely to use it correctly and consistently.
What Apps Do Doctors Recommend?
You have many choices when picking an app to use as birth control. Some are free, others aren’t. Some require extra equipment, like a special thermometer to measure your basal body temperature.
Here are a few apps that some doctors recommend to their patients.
Natural Cycles. This fertility app, which uses a basal body thermometer to detect fertility, was recently approved as a contraceptive by the FDA. It was evaluated in a study of 22,000 users and found to be an effective form of birth control. “It claims 98% effectiveness with perfect use,” Ghofrany says. But that number falls to 93% for typical (not perfect) use.
Clue. This app tracks your period, PMS, and fertility window, while also tracking options like cramps, skin, hair, and sleep, to help you understand your body better. The creators work with scientists and universities to keep improving upon the science they use. “I trust the founders, the fact it is woman-owned, and that they have a relationship with Stanford OB/GYN professors,” Yen says.
Ovia. “I like this app because it’s the best of traditional paper charting of my basal body temperature and ovulation signs, and it offers tools to journal other health and wellness factors like mood, sleep, weight, and nutrition,” says Jen Mayo, a holistic health coach in Stevensville, MI.
Other apps include Flo, a popular period-tracking app, and Spot On, which offers period tracking and access to educational articles.
Talk to your doctor about which birth control method may be best for you.
As you get used to tracking your cycle through an app, use a nonhormonal backup method like condoms to avoid getting pregnant.
Remember, an app is only as effective as how well you use it. Get a special thermometer to take your basal body temperature. Enter your data regularly and consistently.
Shieva Ghofrany, MD, Coastal Obstetrics & Gynecology; co-founder, A Tribe Called V, Stamford, CT.
Cleveland Clinic: “Can I Use an App as Birth Control?”
UPMC HealthBeat: “Natural Family Planning? Now made easy with an app!”
Sophia Yen, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics, Stanford Medical School Sunnyvale, CA.
Jen Mayo, holistic health coach, Stevensville, MI.
Bedsider: “4 apps for tracking your fertility.”
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