What is ovulation? Everything you need to know about ovulation

Want to know more about ovulation? Our ovulation guide tells you exactly how to work out when you're ovulating, what triggers ovulation as well as when you should have sex to increase your chances of conception.

What is ovulation?

If you’re trying to get pregnant, understanding what ovulation is and the impact it has on your fertility is important – but can also be really confusing!

Here, we separate the facts from the fiction on everything from the early signs of ovulation to questions about eggs and sperm, and share plenty of sex tips for conception too.

What happens when you ovulate?

Every month your body prepares itself for a pregnancy, so each month you release an egg from your ovum. This usually happens mid-cycle, about 14 days into your cycle, but cycles do vary from person to person. The release of eggs usually alternates, with one of your ovaries releasing an egg one month and the other the next, and the egg then travels down your fallopian tube to the womb. If the egg isn’t fertilised by a sperm it’s then shed with your womb lining during your period.

How long does your cycle last?

Every woman is different. The average cycle is 28 days, but many healthy, fertile women will have a cycle slightly shorter or longer than this, so won’t necessarily ovulate on day 14. If yours isn’t spot on 28 days, don’t worry – it doesn’t mean there’s a problem with your fertility. When you ovulate depends on the due date of your next period and not the previous one – for instance, if your cycle regularly lasts 31 days, you should ovulate on day 17. So if you have sex on your prime fertile days, between days 14 and 17, you have a good chance of falling pregnant. Confused? Our ovulation calculator can help.

What triggers ovulation?

It’s all down to hormones. You produce Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) during the first part of your cycle, which triggers your body to start the process of maturing eggs for ovulation. High levels of oestrogen produced at this time trigger a release of LH, Luteinizing Hormone, causing the mature egg to burst from the follicle. That is ovulation. Normally, only one egg will be large enough to burst through the follicle during ovulation but occasionally two will, which is how non-identical twins are conceived.

How can you tell if you’re ovulating?

If you learn to ‘read’ your body and get to know your cycle you should be able to tell when you’re ovulating. The key is to look out for changes in your cervical secretions. After your period you can feel quite dry for a day or so and then get a sticky, whitish type of secretion. Then, when you start to ovulate the secretion from your vagina will change to a clear, sticky, mucus-like discharge. It’s wettish and stretchy, like raw egg white, and normally quite noticeable, so start looking out for it. This is a sure sign you’re ovulating.

Do ovulation prediction kits and temperature charts make a difference?

They can be a useful guide to tell you when you’re ovulating, but can also be inaccurate on timing. Ovulation kits work by testing your urine for a hormone surge which occurs just before ovulation, but the time you get the result, the window of opportunity may have passed. Something called basal body temperature (BBT) measurements can also be used, but these rely on the fact that your body temperature increases a very small amount after ovulation – again, you may have already ovulated by the time you get this information, so it’s too late to conceive. Learning to read your body and pinpointing the fertile time in your cycle is cheaper and often more effective.

How long do the sperm and egg live?

An egg lives for about 12-24 hours after you ovulate, and sperm can live for five to seven days. Ideally, you need a lot of sperm on stand-by to ‘pounce’ on that egg when it’s released, so have sex in the days leading up to when you ovulate and a day after. You only release the one egg, but a single ejaculation from your partner will supply millions of sperm, so keep the supply up by having lots of sex.

Can you only conceive if you have sex on the day you ovulate?

No, that’s a myth. Because sperm can live for up to a week after ejaculation, they may still be in your fallopian tube when you ovulate, and so able to fertilise an egg. Research shows that even if you have sex six days prior to ovulation you stand a good chance of conceiving. If you wait to have sex only on the day you ovulate, you may miss your chance of pregnancy altogether.

When should you have sex?

Recommendations from the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists are that you should avoid timed intercourse and instead have sex several times a week around the time of ovulation.

This is thought to be the best way to have a good chance of pregnancy, so don’t get hung up about having sex on the day you ovulate, and don’t assume you are ovulating on the 14th day of your cycle.

Just have lots of sex in that week around ovulation, and make sure you keep it about having fun rather than obsessing over making a baby – our sex tips might help.

What should I do after sex to boost my chances?

As fertility expert Zita West, says, ‘There’s no need for extreme measures such as putting your legs up in the air or doing handstands!’

Many women invest in a fertility pillow because they think it will help the sperm get to the right place but there is little evidence to suggest these work.

To increase your fertility chances Zita recommends is lying still for 20-30 minutes after you’ve had sex to allow the sperm time to make their way up to the womb and fallopian tubes.

If you do get up and feel some of the seminal fluid leave you, don’t panic. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have been successful – even if you lose up to half the sperm released, there should still be more than enough for you to conceive.

Can ovulation be painful?

Some women get a sharp pain in their lower abdomen, called mittelschmerz, as the ripe egg is released by the ovary. Rarely women may lose a small amount of blood when they ovulate too but a huge amount of pain shouldn’t be felt. If you are bleeding between periods or experiencing a lot of discomfort, you should consult your doctor straight away.

Why can it be so difficult to get pregnant?

Humans just aren’t very fertile as a species. You only have a one in three chance of conceiving every month – and that’s just when you’re a healthy twenty-something. As you get into your thirties those chances become less with fertility typically dropping in women from the age of 35.

However, remember that 1 in 7 couples doesn’t get pregnant within a year of trying – but half of these will get pregnant in the next year, without fertility treatment. The worst thing you can do is get stressed and dwell on the question ‘why can’t I get pregnant?’.

If you try and worry less and enjoy the process more you might find it happens quicker and easier than you thought possible!