Cycle tracking apps are increasingly popular with women who want to use a smartphone to learn more about their period and fertility.
“There are lots of apps available these days 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 you are expecting your period. Others, also called fertility apps, family planning apps, or birth control apps, help you understand ovulation and when you are most likely to get pregnant.
If you want to get pregnant, a family planning app can tell you when you are 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 such as your past period, 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 will have your period and when you will ovulate.
If you know when you are ovulating, you can avoid unprotected sex on the days around ovulation.
Are they working?
Unlike other types of birth control, family planning apps do not involve hormones and have no side effects. They are non-invasive and do not require pills or procedures. They are also easier to use than natural family planning methods that use paper calendars and calculations to predict ovulation.
But while they can help you keep track of your cycle, they’re not as effective as other birth control methods in preventing getting pregnant. Research suggests that some apps can be around 93% effective. For comparison, the birth control pill is about 99.7% effective when used correctly.
How an application 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 can also be irregular, which limits the accuracy of forecasts. For example, your cycle may be different from the typical range of 26 to 32 days. Things like stress, breastfeeding, and PCOS can also change your cycle.
The reliability of an application 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, are too much for you, it won’t be as effective.
“While I think these apps are great for improving women’s knowledge about their bodies and cycles,” says Ghofrany, “I wouldn’t encourage their use unless the woman is very motivated to use all the mechanisms.
How do you know if an application is reliable?
To find a tracking app you can count on:
- Ask your OB-GYN for recommendations. They can find out which apps are the most popular and which apps have worked for their patients.
- Do your research. Find out who is behind the app and what their credentials are. “Do they have a doctorate? Is it an OB-GYN? Ideally, they specialize in reproductive health, ”says Sophia Yen, MD, 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 the dates of your last period, it won’t be as reliable as an app that also collects body temperature and the amount of cervical mucus.
- Look for an easy to use app. If it’s easy to enter your information every month, you’re more likely to use it correctly and consistently.
What apps do doctors recommend?
You have several choices when choosing an app to use as birth control. Some are free, some are not. Some require additional equipment, such as a special thermometer to measure your basal body temperature.
Here are some apps that some doctors recommend for 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 has been evaluated in a study of 22,000 users and has been shown to be an effective form of birth control. “It claims 98% efficiency with perfect use,” says Ghofrany. But that number drops to 93% for typical (not perfect) use.
Index. This app tracks your period, PMS, and fertility window, while tracking options like cramps, skin, hair, and sleep to help you better understand your body. Creators work with scientists and universities to continue to improve the science they use. “I trust the founders, that they are owned by women, and that they have a relationship with Stanford OB / GYN professors,” Yen says.
Ovia. “I like this app because it’s the best of the traditional paper charts of my basal body temperature and signs of ovulation, and it offers tools for recording other health and wellness factors like mood, sleep, weight and nutrition, ”says Jen Mayo, a health coach in Stevensville, MI.
Other apps include Flo, a popular time-tracking app, and Spot On, which offers time-tracking and access to educational articles.
Talk to your doctor about which method of birth control is best for you.
When you get used to tracking your cycle through an app, use a non-hormonal back-up method like condoms to avoid getting pregnant.
Remember that an app is only as effective as the way you use it. Get a special thermometer to take your basal body temperature. Enter your data regularly and consistently.