If you're new to trying to get pregnant, or you're just trying to understand the female reproductive system, you may have questions on the very basics. Questions like... What is ovulating? What does ovulating have to do with getting pregnant? When will I be ovulating? How will I know if I am ovulating?
Maybe you feel embarrassed to ask your doctor or a friend because you feel like everyone knows this - admitting you don't may feel like failing health class all over again.
Fear no more!
Not only will your questions get answered below, you'll also know more than most do about ovulating, and even more importantly, you'll have the information you need about ovulating to get pregnant.
What Is Ovulating?
Ovulating is what happens when an egg, or ovum, is released from the ovaries. Usually, when a person says they are ovulating, they mean to say they are in the especially fertile period of two to three days that precede ovulation.
When a woman begins puberty, the ovaries house approximately 300,000 eggs. Despite this apparent storehouse of eggs, a woman only ovulates around 300 ova over her lifetime.
During each menstrual cycle, reproductive hormones work together to stimulate the ovaries. A few immature eggs, also known as oocytes, begin to grow and respond to those hormones.
While you might think that the oocytes develop, grow, and ovulate all in one month's time, this is actually untrue. Oocytes develop over several months, until they are either ready to ovulate or stop growing and remain dormant. (Read a more detailed explanation of the female reproductive cycle.)
There is also a misconception that each ovary takes a turn ovulating every other month. For example, one month the right ovary ovulates and then the next month, the left ovary ovulates. In fact, ovulating occurs on whichever side has the winning, most mature ova or ovum of the month. In some women, one ovary may ovulate significantly more often than the other.
What Does Ovulating Have to Do With Getting Pregnant?
Theoretically, conception requires at least one ovum and one sperm. (Technically, unless conception is occurring in a lab, a man must ejaculate millions of sperm to have a good chance at fertilizing just one egg. But that's another story.)
Semen can live three to five days in the female reproductive tract. In other words, if you had sex on Monday, there will still be live, viable semen hanging out in the woman's fallopian tubes on Thursday.
The human ovum, however, lives just 24 hours, and typically, it must be fertilized within the first 12 hours of ovulation.
Some people mistakenly think that sex for conception must occur after ovulating. They assume that until an egg is present, you can't get pregnant. This is not correct. If you want to get pregnant, sex should ideally occur before ovulating, so there are sperm cells waiting to greet the ovulated egg. Conception is also possible if you have sex the day after ovulating, but the odds are lower.
When people say, "I am ovulating, so I need to have sex tonight!" what they really mean is they will soon be ovulating (not that they are ovulating that very second!) There's no need to have sex at the very moment of ovulation.
When Will I Be Ovulating?
Each woman ovulates on their own schedule. There's a misconception (pun intended, ha ha) that ovulating always occurs on day 14 of the menstrual cycle (with day 1 being the day you get your period.)
This is untrue. In fact, even women with 28-day menstrual cycles don't always ovulate on day 14. One study found that less than 10% of women with 28-day cycles were ovulating on day 14.
It's also assumed that most women ovulate 14 days before the first day of their next period. For example, if you have 32-day cycles, that would mean ovulating on day 19. This is also not always the case.
So how do you know when you will be ovulating?
How Will I Know if I Am Ovulating?
Most women experience signs and symptoms before ovulating. Some symptoms may appear several days before ovulation, while others won't happen until the day before or day of ovulation.
Signs and symptoms that occur before ovulating include:
- Increase in sexual desire
- Increase in cervical mucus (You may notice more discharge on your underwear, which resembles raw egg whites.)
- Softening and opening of the cervix
- Ovulation pain (Ovulating is not usually painful, but some women feel a cramp or sharp pain in their side.)
Signs and symptoms of ovulating that occur on the day or days after include:
- Decrease in sexual desire levels
- Decrease in cervical mucus, changing from wet and abundant to dry and sticky
- A rise in body basal temperature
- Breast tenderness (usually several days after ovulation, sometimes mistaken as an early pregnancy sign)
Wondering if you're having ovulation symptoms now? Take a Quiz: Am I Ovulating?
While knowing when you are ovulating can help you time sex for your most fertile days, it's not really required. If you have sex three to four times a week, you're bound to have sex around your ovulation period.
If you don't experience any ovulating symptoms at any time during your cycle, or if you have irregular periods, you may not be ovulating every month.
Wondering if your periods are normal? Take a Quiz: Are My Periods Normal?
More on getting pregnant:
- How to Get Pregnant: For Beginners
- We Can't Get Pregnant. Now What?
- 12 Take Action Plans for Getting Pregnant
- Clomid Day by Day: What to Expect, What's Happening in Your Body
- What Is IVF?
- What to Expect During Fertility Testing
- How to Cope When Trying to Conceive Overwhelms You
- Symptoms and Risk Factors of Infertility
- A Complete Guide to Baby Making Sex
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Allen J Wilcox, David Dunson, Donna Day Baird. "The timing of the 'fertile window' in the menstrual cycle: day specific estimates from a prospective study" BMJ 2000;321:1259.