Just as some people eat only organic foods, some couples have made the decision to use only natural birth control. And their reasons for doing so are as varied as the options now available.
"Some want to avoid potential side effects," says Danielle Johnson, D.O., an OB-GYN with St. Luke's University Health Network in Easton, Penn. "Others want to do something that they have complete control over and do not have to rely on a prescription or a trip to the doctor's office."
But a quick internet search can reveal a dizzying array of natural birth control methods. They include everything from abstaining from sex during certain times of the month to taking particular herbs before or after intercourse to using chemical-free lambskin condoms. Even more confusing, according to Johnson, is that the phrase "natural birth control" can mean different things to different people.
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"Some might say natural is any method that does not include the use of synthetic hormone," she says, "but under that classification, the copper intrauterine device would be considered natural. Similarly, others may consider natural to be something that doesn't require a prescription, but under that classification the diaphragm would be left out. I would consider natural birth control methods to be those that do not contain hormones or implantable devices or procedures."
To help you wade through the various means of "natural" contraception, we've rounded up several options moms are trying, and let the experts weigh in.
Fertility Awareness Method
Also referred to as natural family planning (NFP), the fertility awareness based method is a drug- and device-free form of birth control that involves tracking when you are most likely to become pregnant and avoiding sex during those times. To get the most accurate view of your fertility window, the American Pregnancy Association recommends combining three NFP methods: The calendar (or rhythm) method involves tracking your menstrual cycle over several months, the basal body temperature method involves taking your temperature daily to pinpoint the slight rise in temperature that occurs during ovulation, and the cervical mucus method involves tracking the amount, consistency and color of mucus to determine highly fertile times of the month.
If the method is followed diligently, the effectiveness rate of NFP hovers around 90 percent, although the average effectiveness rate for a typical couple is around 75 percent.
The pros: It's inexpensive, has no side effects, and is immediately reversible if you decide to become pregnant. However, these methods are not recommended for people who are unable to abstain or cannot use other contraceptive methods during the fertile days of the cycle, advises Johnson.
The cons: It's time-consuming. You need to track your fertility from six to 12 months before beginning this method.
"For women who are serious about monitoring their physical changes during their cycle, it can be quite efficacious," says Felice Gersh, M.D., an OB-GYN and the founder of the Integrative Medical Group in Irvine, Calif. But she adds that the fertility awareness method is not ideal for women who have an irregular menstrual cycle. It also does not protect you from sexually transmitted diseases.
Another form of birth control that involves no chemicals or devices is known as the withdrawal method. This is when a man pulls his penis out of his partner's vagina prior to ejaculation.
The pros: Like natural family planning, the withdrawal method has no side effects, but its success in preventing pregnancy depends on a couple's amount of self-control.
The cons: "The typical use failure rate of this method is 20 percent versus the perfect use failure rate, which is about 5 percent," says Johnson. "This reflects the difficulty in using this method consistently and correctly. Oftentimes, patients use this method along with other methods, such as fertility awareness."
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Women who exclusively breastfeed after giving birth experience a natural postpartum infertility that can last around six months. Some choose this option — also called the lactational amenorrhea method—as a natural, albeit temporary, form of birth control.
The pros: If followed perfectly, it can be 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, meaning about 2 out of every 100 women who use this method get pregnant within the first six months after their baby is born.
The cons: Keep in mind that the breastfeeding method only works for those who nurse at least four hours during the day and every six hours at night. It is also not as effective if you supplement your baby's diet with formula, or even if you pump.
"With many women returning to work at six weeks postpartum, this method cannot be relied upon for long by many couples," says Johnson.
Herbal Birth Control
Some proponents of natural healing recommend using certain herbs, roots, and plants to thwart pregnancy. They are said to do this by preventing ovulation, blocking the sperm from fertilizing the egg, or preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. Among them include ginger root, wild carrot seed, thistle, stoneseed root, neem and castor bean. However, because these supplements are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is not enough scientific evidence to back up the claims.
"I would say a resounding 'no' to using herbals as a form of birth control," says Gersh, "The data on these are sparse and cannot be relied upon."
In addition, some of these herbs and plants can be toxic if taken incorrectly, so always speak with your doctor before trying them.
Chemical-Free Latex and Lambskin Condoms
All condoms are not created equal, so for those interested in a more natural form of protection, they may opt for latex or lambskin condoms that don't contain spermicides or nitrosamine, a possibly carcinogenic ingredient found in some drugstore brands. While both latex and lambskin condoms, are equally effective in preventing pregnancy (87 percent effective for the typical user), keep in mind that lambskin condoms, which are made of the intestinal membrane of a lamb, have a very distinct difference.
"These condoms contain small pores that may permit the passage of viruses but not sperm," says Johnson. "[Lambskin condoms] should not be used for prevention of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV."