In case you weren't aware, it's Natural Family Planning Awareness Week! It's a week set aside to promote natural methods of fertility awareness and the many many benefits they contain. While no one, of course, is required to use fertility awareness methods either within their marriage or for their own health tracking, there are lots of other advantages to its use besides the commonly known ones of achieving or avoiding pregnancy. I'd like to point out one of the truly remarkable, and often overlooked benefits of fertility awareness - one that happens after the baby is conceived. And perhaps, we could say it is even the most important.
For the already pregnant woman, an understanding of her fertility and the likely day of conception is an invaluable tool. I've talked before about how knowing NFP can substantially change your birth. It can be the difference between an induction or natural onset of labor, a vaginal or cesarean birth. But there's more. Knowing your fertility and conception time can also save your baby's life. Crazy claim? Let's see.
Identifying Progesterone Deficiencies
When a woman is pregnant her body makes the hormone progesterone to help keep the baby alive and sustained in her womb. A woman who is not making enough progesterone may miscarry causing the death of the baby. We know that a healthy woman's luteal phase (the phase after she ovulates and before her menstrual cycle starts again) on average is 14 days. A shorter luteal phase may indicate that the woman's body is not making enough progesterone to sustain a new pregnancy. So, a baby may be conceived but there is not enough progesterone being made by the mother to keep the pregnancy. This is why having a knowledge of ovulation is so critical. A woman who has been charting her cycles and knows she is prone to short luteal phases and lower progesterone levels can upon believing she may be pregnant or getting the positive pregnancy test, have her progesterone levels tested and if necessary, supplement the low progesterone. Those supplements can literally prevent a miscarriage and save the baby's life.
This progesterone supplementation can also be used when a mother is absolutely sure that she conceived on or around a certain date but the old fashioned (and still common) way of dating her pregnancy (by using the start of the last menstrual period) shows a different day. Since not every woman has the same length of cycle, her ovulation date is much more accurate in determining a correct gestational age and due date for her baby. The woman can use her conception date to get a more accurate assessment of what her progesterone levels should be for how far along she truly is and make a better decision on whether they are at healthy levels or not. Using more accurate dating makes for more trustworthy readings and puts the baby at a greater advantage.
Providing More Accurate Dating
This optimal and more accurate pregnancy dating can also be used when a woman early in her pregnancy is bleeding and a miscarriage is threatening. Twice now I have heard from women who KNEW when they had conceived but the doctor wanted to give the baby a different gestational age either using the old form of dating or by using ultrasound dating. Both times they were told that the baby had no heartbeat and the doctor recommended a D&C to remove the remains. Both times, the dating was wrong and had they listened to their doctor, they would have unintentionally aborted their babies. Both women decided to wait, trust their dates, and their babies were, in fact, alive. They were just younger and without an observable heartbeat yet. The bleeding may have been from the loss of a twin (called a "vanishing twin") or a simple and very common subchorionic bleed that resolved itself. In any case, the knowledge provided when a woman can identify the different times of her cycle and know the timing of ovulation and potential conception can be invaluable to her and her baby - it can be the difference between life and death.
It is a horrible evil shame that we have easy access to this information and these treatments (sometimes the treatment simply being don't do anything and let the baby prove that it's alive!) and yet they are not used. I must assume this is because these tiny lives have been so devalued and deemed so disposable by our medical community. I mean, what's another miscarriage, right? It happens all the time.
If we are a community, a Church, that values every single human life no matter how small, then this needs to be important to us. If we say that each human person has dignity from the moment of conception then we need to stand by and support mothers with scientifically based information on biology and fertility awareness. If we claim to support women, we need to always be using and offering the best in terms of evidence based care and support before conception and after. We need to be willing to question common protocol from providers and demand scientifically-based care for ourselves and our babies.
I certainly am not a medical expert and want to make that clear. But it seems we live in an age where women who understand their own fertility and cycles and how they were designed to work are actually more educated in the matter than much of the medical community. It is an age where women need to advocate, sometimes fiercely, for themselves and their babies to receive care based on scientific evidence and basic human biology. I also don't intend obviously for this to be a comprehensive look at the subject at hand or to give false hope to someone who may truly be suffering a miscarriage that is not preventable. But I trust that the reader can discern that and the potential for this information to possibly save a life is worth a little bit of 'false' hope. Perhaps, it may even help the mother who truly is losing her baby to exhaust every possibility and in the end know that it wasn't something that she could have prevented.
While the knowledge may not be widespread, I am still profoundly grateful to live in a time that it is possible to understand our cycles so well and make decisions for our family based off of that information. I'm also very grateful for the wonderful physicians and teachers we DO have that know and spread and use this information well. I've said it before but it bears repeating: Natural Family Planning or just plain 'ole fertility awareness is information. That's it. It is powerful God-designed information available to be used for our good and the good of our families. And how we use that information can have long term (eternal!) consequences. We are wonderfully, intricately designed by a loving and perfectly wise God Who then allows us to participate in that mystery.
Have you had an experience where knowing your cycle helped protect your baby? I'd be very grateful if you could share your story in the comments below and possibly help others who may be facing something similar.
If you're interested in learning more about natural fertility awareness methods check out:
http://www.tcoyf.com/ (this is a great resource site but be aware that some of their recommendations and protocol may not always be in line with Catholic teaching)
For a list of physicians who respect and use fertility awareness in their practices:
or ask your local Catholic moms