How useful are home ovulation kits and fertility apps?

Written by Dr Jeffrey Persson
01 Feb

Most women who have been trying to conceive for over a year will have spent time (and money) on trying to understand more about their menstrual cycle and ovulation, in order to improve their chances of conceiving.

From temperature tracking and ovulation kits to fertility apps, there are a large number of products that offer to track ovulation and pinpoint your most fertile days. The question remains though, which ones are actually useful?

There are a few different methods these fertility apps and ovulation kits use. It’s important therefore to understand what these tests are actually measuring, when they might be useful and their potential limitations.

Fertility App

Charting your basal body temperature

Your basal body temperature rises just after ovulation. Charting your temperature is therefore only useful in telling you what happened last month. If your menstrual cycles are regular, charting your temperature over several cycles might help you plan when to have intercourse next month. However, this is no more accurate at determining the approximate day you will ovulate than by simply subtracting 14 days from the start date of your next period. There are plenty of free online ovulation calculator tools that can help you work out your cycle length in order to do this. If your cycles are irregular it is not going to be useful in predicting your fertile days in the coming month.

Cervical mucus changes

Your cervical mucus is one of the best signs before ovulation that you are at your most fertile. It increases in volume and the consistency becomes watery, similar to raw egg white. This indicates that the ‘sperm escalator’ has been switched on, and this will assist the sperm in swimming easily into the cervix. Unfortunately many women won’t notice this change, so it’s not useful as a predictor for everyone.

Saliva ovulation kits

Examining a sample of your saliva with a microscope is a complex and mostly inaccurate way of predicting your fertile window and ovulation. These kits involve looking for an increased level of salt in saliva which is a result of the increased estrogen levels before ovulation. The results can be difficult to interpret, which means it is not a very useful method and given the kits are relatively costly I would recommend avoiding these.

Urine ovulation kits

Urine ovulation kits that detect your Luteinising Hormone (LH) surge are very accurate at predicting ovulation. Your LH rises acutely one to two days before ovulation and is the trigger for your ovary to release the egg (ovulation). This can be helpful for timing intercourse if you have irregular periods but you will need to use them frequently which can be costly.

Fertility apps

There is now a huge selection of fertility apps available, some free, some not. Most of them encourage you to use a combination of all of the above methods and then record and chart your results using the app. Fertility apps do offer the additional benefit of providing reminders, fertility tips and connecting you with other people who are also trying to conceive. However, while apps might provide you with some peace of mind that you are timing intercourse correctly, or that you ovulated that month, if you are simply able to have intercourse every couple of days throughout your cycle, they aren’t going to be much more use than that.

What is the best way to determine ovulation and fertile days?

From my experience women tend to start using these products when they are having trouble conceiving because they think they’re timing intercourse wrong; when in fact they are probably getting it right. If you are trying to conceive for the first time it can be very interesting to understand more about your body and menstrual cycle, but there is no evidence that using them will help you get pregnant.

If you have a regular cycle, have sex every few days at least 10 – 14 days before your next period. All of the charts, microscopes and electronic alerts are no more sophisticated in helping you to time intercourse than that simple piece of information.

If you have irregular cycles it’s going to make it more difficult to pin point your fertile time, in which case you should be having regular intercourse throughout your entire cycle. I’d recommend making an appointment to see your GP, as it could be an indication of an underlying medical condition that may be affecting your fertility.

It is quite normal for a couple to take a number of months to conceive, so don’t be concerned if you don’t become pregnant straight away. If you have been trying to conceive for 12 months then the next best thing is to make an appointment to see your GP who may refer you onto a fertility specialist for further investigations. Seeing a fertility specialist is not necessarily a fast track to IVF, depending on your individual situation there are many simple treatments that we can explore to help you conceive.

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Conceiving in your 40s, what are the chances?

I was recently asked to comment in a Sun Herald article on 26th August (also published online here: Sydney Morning Herald) on Collette Dinnigan, who pregnant at the age of 46, has called on women not to leave it too long to try for a baby.

It is always news when a high profile personality such as Ms Dinnigan, has a child, particularly when the personality in question is a bit older.  The difficulty is that these occasions, while very happy for the people involved, give a misleading picture of the actual likelihood of conception in these circumstances.  Remember that high profile personalities such as Ms Dinnigan, are human beings who quite rightly value their privacy and so very rarely (quite understandably) talk to the press when things aren’t going so well.  It was therefore, a particularly courageous action of Ms Dinnigan, while celebrating her own happiness, to so publicly, point out the difficulties that may face other women, seeking the same fulfilment.

What then, are the issues for women in their forties who are planning to have a child?

The main difficulty is that conceiving is simply harder at that age and, even once a woman does conceive, the risk of miscarriage is higher.  Surprisingly, although we have very good data about the effects of age on IVF conception (more shortly), we don’t have very good statistics about the effects of age on conceiving naturally. The limited available data about natural conception comes from old population studies or studies of unique populations, such as the Hutterites of North America, who do not use contraception.  Interestingly these data, such as they are, seem to be entirely consistent with the more modern and abundant IVF data.  Generally, in one year of trying, 75% of women under 30 years and 66% of 35-year-old women but only 44% of 40-year-old women will achieve a live baby naturally.

The main explanation for this, is that women are born with a finite number of eggs, and from that moment onwards, the number of eggs is declining all the time, until women go through their menopause at around 50-51.  Nonetheless, women in their 40s do still ovulate each month.  What is it about their eggs that cause all these problems?

A common misunderstanding with some women is that the fact she looks and feels young, and leads a healthy lifestyle, means that her eggs will be healthier. I regularly see women who have taken enormous care with their fitness and their health.  The rest of their body is in great shape, completely fit and ready to carry that longed-for pregnancy.  Sadly, despite this, the eggs still can’t do it.  The effects of time are remorseless and, sadly, there is no wonder drug to fix it.

Scientists have shown that eggs from older women are more likely to have an abnormal makeup making pregnancy less likely, miscarriage more common and increasing the risk of Down Syndrome, a condition where a child is born with an extra chromosome number 21.

Nor is IVF a cure for this problem. For women, in their early 40s, IVF is still a good thing to try and gives significantly higher success rates than trying naturally.    However, IVF success rates fall sharply after the age of 40 and by the time a woman is 45 are close to zero.

So, what’s the good news?  Well despite all of the above, many women do conceive in their forties, either by IVF, or naturally, and have very happy healthy families.  It is obviously better to have your family earlier, if you can, but all hope is not lost, just because you’re past 40.  Conception and early miscarriage are the big problems but, if you do conceive and get past the first few weeks, by far the most likely outcome will be a healthy child.  While the risk of Down Syndrome is increased, most of the other problems that affect young children are not increased by being conceived a later maternal age.

Finally, many women worry that by having their children later, their long term health and emotional development may be affected.  On the contrary, we now know that the children of older mums grow up to be as healthy and bright as any other child.

Snapshot of Fertility in Australia

There have been a number of happy and high profile stories in the press recently about older celebrities giving birth to healthy children. Stories like this used to be extraordinary, but they certainly seem to be on the increase. While this trend is supported by data that shows the fertility rate and numbers of births are increasing for women over 30 and especially for women in their early 40s, women and couples should understand the risks associated with having children later in life.  IVF Australia, Melbourne IVF and Queensland Fertility Group, have teamed up to create their latest infographic - “Fertility and Age in Australia” which explores some of these issues.
 Fertility in Australia infographic

Paternity, Maternity, Equality

Conceiving a baby in a same sex relationship

IVFAustralia, and its partner clinics Melbourne IVF, Queensland Fertility Group and TasIVF, are proud supporters of ‘rainbow families’. IVFAustralia were an Official Supporter of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year, and we’ve seen the number of same sex couples accessing our donor program double in the last year.
In 2011, a survey of 3,835 LGBT people found 33% of women and 11% of men had children1 - but close to 40% reported wanting to have children or have more children. This so-called ‘gayby’ boom is thanks to changes in community attitudes and laws, including better access to Assisted Reproductive Treatments for lesbian and single women.
So, if you’re hoping to experience the joy of starting a family within a gay or lesbian relationship, what do you need to consider?

How long will it take to conceive?

Generally speaking, we’d expect a healthy woman with no fertility issues to fall pregnant through IVF or Artificial Insemination within six months. You can prepare for pregnancy by improving your diet, doing regular exercise and other lifestyle factors.
When you access the donor program there are a few extra decisions you need to make.
Do you choose a known donor, or an anonymous donor? In a lesbian relationship, do you want to implant an embryo with eggs from one mother into the other? Should you store some sperm from the same donor for later, in case you’d like a related sibling? For two dads, the process of finding a surrogate can also be complex.

How do we choose a donor?

Our fertility clinics offer access to both Australian and US* donor sperm. The access fee for US donor sperm is higher, but the waiting list is also shorter as there is a shortage of local donors (gay men, we’d love to hear from you!)
When you’re using donor sperm or eggs, there are a few legal, emotional and ethical factors to consider and a counsellor will help you work through these concerns so you can make the best decisions for your family’s future.

Are there any legal issues?

Each state has different laws about parental recognition and access, so it’s worth seeking specialist advice before you start.
For example, in Victoria, the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act (2008) removed discrimination against lesbian and single women with regard to fertility treatment, recognised parenting status for non-birth mothers and also effectively legalised ‘altruistic’ surrogacy. It also recognises lesbian couples as equal parents of their child or children as long as they were in a de facto relationship.

What else should we be prepared for?

30 years of research2 has shown that the children of same-sex parented families do just as well as the children of heterosexual parents socially, educationally, physically and emotionally.

The issues your children will face as they get older are just the same as the issues facing any children conceived using donor sperm or eggs: Where did I come from? Should I contact my donor? You need to be prepared for these questions at some point.
In the meantime, we hope we can help you fulfil your dream of having a baby, and that you will experience the joys of pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

What should be my next steps?

If you would like to learn more about the fertility treatments available for same-sex couples in your regions, visit one of our websites. 

 * IVFAustralia and Queensland Fertility Group patients only.

1 Leonard et al. (2012) Private Lives 2: The Second National Survey of the Health and Wellbeing of GLBT Australians, The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Melbourne
2Rainbow Families Council of Victoria (2010) Rainbow Families and the Law, RFC, Melbourne, 

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