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What is Natural Family Planning?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Natural family planning (NFP) refers to several different ways to prevent or to attempt pregnancy that are generally endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, and some other religious groups. These methods are often used more to prevent pregnancy, though studies have shown a certain amount of success in using them in the opposite direction to result in pregnancy. NFP practices are based on analysis of a woman’s cycle by various means to detect ovulation and by abstaining from intercourse during times when a woman is most likely to become pregnant, if pregnancy prevention is the goal.

It is well known that the Roman Catholic Church does not approve of the use of barrier or artificial methods of birth control. Typically, the church believes it is acceptable to attempt pregnancy prevention if no artificial means are used. The methods that make up part of natural family planning lean heavily on the idea that abstinence is important to avoid pregnancy, and it is not an affront to God to understand when pregnancy is most likely to occur or to avoid sexual intercourse during this time period.

A few different methods for predicting ovulation can fall under the heading of natural family planning. These include ones that analyze vaginal mucus. As ovulation nears, mucus becomes clear, stretchy and more prevalent. By tracking the changes in mucus as they occur over the month, a woman may be able to determine her fertile periods and avoid intercourse during this time. Women may also measure basal temperature to determine likely days of ovulation, or use a fertility monitor to assess pregnancy likelihood. Some with very regular cycles can assume likelihood of pregnancy occurring based on tracking on a calendar.

When women are breastfeeding, they may use natural family planning called the lactational amenorrhea method (LAM). There are certain guidelines for this including lack of periods, nursing at least once every 4 hours, and the infant being under six months old. This doesn’t work for everyone, because even despite regular nursing, some women may begin ovulation again sooner, as indicated by return of normal menstrual cycles.

It’s difficult to gauge effectiveness of natural family planning. When couples use a method perfectly, they may have an annual fail rate of about 5-10%, or sometimes even higher. The LAM method tends to be fairly effective with a fail rate of between 2-5%. NFP isn’t always used perfectly though, and some methods may be less effective than others.

There are benefits and disadvantages to natural family planning. It will clearly not prevent all pregnancies and it does nothing to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. This is of great concern to many world health organizations, especially in countries where marital infidelity is common and rate of devastating STDs like HIV is very high. However, for people using additional birth control like condoms with NFP, it might help lower rate of unintended pregnancy, though it should be clearly understood the church does not endorse this practice.

There are many Catholic couples, especially in western countries, that part ways with the church on its birth control teachings. It’s fair to state that many American Catholic couples, for instance, do not practice NFP. There remain a fair number of American Catholic couples that support NFP and swear by its various methods as reliable means to prevent pregnancy.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Sporkasia — On May 01, 2014

Trying to pinpoint a time when ovulation will occur has become much more simple. You can now buy a variety of ovulation kits at pharmacies. Some of the test kits are more complicated to use than others. You should read the directions on the packages before making a purchase, so you can find one that you feel comfortable with.

By Animandel — On Apr 30, 2014

@Feryll - Combining natural family planning methods can decrease the chances of a pregnancy. However, many people have misconceptions about the withdrawal method, which refers to the act of the man removing his penis from the woman's vagina before ejaculation.

The main problem with using this method as a means of birth control is that sperm is often released in small amounts before a man fully ejaculates, so withdrawal may not make a difference. Also, getting the timing down perfectly for this method may be rather difficult.

By Feryll — On Apr 29, 2014

I have a friend who is Catholic. He and his wife plan to use natural family planning methods once they are married. This article says that the annual fail rate for a couple using a single natural planning method perfectly is five to ten percent.

Those numbers aren't bad, I guess, but a bit scary when you don't want to get pregnant. I am wondering how the numbers change when a couple uses multiple natural methods regularly. Or, is it feasible to try to combine the natural methods and use them perfectly and have them complement one another?

In addition to keeping track of her ovulation cycle, the couple plans to use something called the withdrawal method. My friend says this will greatly reduce the chance of pregnancy.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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