What to think about when choosing a method to suit you and your partner
If you don’t want to get pregnant at the moment, it’s important to choose a method of contraception that suits your body and your lifestyle. There are a number of aspects to consider when deciding on the right type of contraception for you, for example, how reliable you want it to be, the type of relationship you’re in and the side effects you find acceptable. You may also want to check your choice with your doctor and get their advice too before going ahead.
If you don’t have one long-term partner, you may need to consider that many methods won’t protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The male and female condoms provide the best protection from STIs.
If you are in a more stable relationship, then you may want to think about how easy it is to talk to each other about sex and contraception – are you open to a discussion each time you have sex or is this awkward? Do you want the responsibility for contraception to be more of a joint discussion or do you want complete control? Even in a stable relationship, STIs can be present from previous relationships, so a quick check up can be worthwhile before moving on from condoms.
Family planning and contraception
If you are thinking about having children in the next 6-12 months you may want to re-consider the method of contraception you are using. Barrier and natural methods won’t affect your fertility and you can get pregnant immediately you stop, but if you are using hormonal contraception it often takes some months for your natural menstrual cycle to re-establish itself after you stop – you may want to consider using a barrier or natural method in the meantime to prevent pregnancy until you are ready to start trying.
Side effects and contraception
Women often report side effects, such as mood changes, loss of libido, weight gain and headaches with hormonal contraceptives. There are many different types of hormonal contraceptives and you can talk with your doctor to understand if there are other options you can try, or look at alternative methods with no side effects.
Some people are allergic to latex, so will need to be careful about the condoms they choose (there are non-latex options). Other methods also have side effects that some women may notice e.g. heavier periods with IUDs, skin irritation with patches, local irritation with contraceptive implants, erratic periods with IUS (Intra-uterine system).
The effectiveness of a method of contraception depends on both the way it works i.e. the mode of action, and also the way it is used. Some methods are intrinsically more reliable than others, for instance, a method that stops ovulation completely will typically be more reliable than a method that creates a barrier between the egg and the sperm – the first is less likely to fail than the second, even if they are both used perfectly.
Then some methods are easier to use than others and some rely much more on you to ‘get them right’ e.g. once an IUD (coil) is inserted, there is nothing for you to do apart from check it is still there and change it every 5 years or so. However, the mini-pill needs you to remember to take it at the same time every day and if you don’t put a condom on correctly it can slip or split.
Some contraceptives require regular visits to your doctor and some you can buy in a Pharmacy without the need for an appointment e.g. condoms.
Also, as mentioned above, some methods of contraception require you to use them at the time of intercourse or every day, whereas others may only need attention every few months or even years.
If you think about your lifestyle e.g. do you travel a lot, does your work involve a changing shift pattern, how does this affect your ability or willingness to use certain methods? Do you prefer to use a long term method that you won’t need to think about again for months or even years or do you want to keep your options open to change at short notice?
When you’ve got an idea of how each contraceptive method works, check out our detailed advantages and disadvantages table.
How does contraception work?
The more you know about how your menstrual cycle and reproductive system works, the more you will understand how each method of contraception interferes with the process of conception and be able to make an informed choice about the method that suits you best.
What does it take to get pregnant?
Pregnancy occurs when a sperm, from the male ejaculate, fertilises an egg, from one of the female ovaries and the resulting embryo implants (buries itself) in the lining of the womb, where it can grow and develop into a baby.
Typically, once every cycle one of your ovaries will release an egg – this is ovulation - and the egg survives for up to 24 hours. As sperm can survive in your body for up to five days, however, unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy if you are due to ovulate during the following few days. So you can get pregnant from intercourse on a few days (typically about six days) each menstrual cycle BUT it’s very difficult to know exactly when those days without monitoring your hormone levels, are because menstrual cycles vary from woman to woman and cycle to cycle.
Your menstrual cycle
Your ‘menstrual cycle’ covers:
Menstruation: your period (bleeding)
Follicular Phase: the development of an egg or ‘ovum’
Ovulation: the release of the egg (ovulation)
Luteal Phase: the days after ovulation until your next period starts
The menstrual cycle starts on the first day of your period and typically lasts between 23 to 35 days - until the day before your next period starts.