When I was 25, I was newly married and ready to be done with hormonal birth control. While researching new options, I stumbled across the Fertility Awareness Method (not to be confused with the Rhythm Method), a method that is just as effective as the pill but without all the icky side effects, and decided to give it a go. If you are unfamiliar, this method of birth control, or FAM as we refer to in birth control naturalist circles, teaches you how to monitor your natural body signs to detect/predict ovulation and thus avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex. I won’t go too much into detail here, but one of the signs that can help you predict ovulation is to monitor the changes in your cervix. Through my adolescent and young adult years, I never gave much thought to my cervix. In reproductive related health, the uterus and vagina seem to always take center stage. As I learned more I began to realize the truly amazing talents of this often overlooked little organ. So, if you are, like I was, unfamiliar with the cervix and all of its skills, read on.
What is the cervix?
The cervix is a two inch long tubular organ. In the center of this organ is a tiny opening (called the external os) that expands and contracts at various times during a woman’s cycle via a thick region of smooth muscle. Technically, it is the base of the uterus, and it is what connects the vaginal canal and uterus. Think of it as a magical little doorway.
What does the cervix do?
Actually? A lot. The cervix, during a regular menstrual cycle, not only opens and closes depending on the day but hardens and softens as well as moves up and down in the vaginal canal. The closer you are to ovulation, for example, the higher, softer, and more open your cervix will become (this is to allow the most amount of sperm possible entry into the uterus). And as you approach menstruation, the lower, harder, and more closed your cervix will become – although it will open again slightly during menstruation to allow for menstrual flow from the uterus. During childbirth, the cervix is what dilates to 10 centimeters and is the opening through which the baby enters the birth canal.
What does the cervix look like?
The cervical muscle is tubular and smooth. The tip looks a little like a doughnut—a donut had a hole that could expand and contract. Although the cervix is inside the vaginal canal, there are ways to see it. You could order an at-home speculum kit or the next time you are having a pelvic exam you could ask your doctor to take a peek. Better yet, you could head over to the Beautiful Cervix Project (a project started by O’Nell Starkey when she was a midwifery student) and take an afternoon to explore all the vastly different variations of cervices there are.
How do you find your cervix?
Finding your cervix is quite simple. First, wash your hands with hot water and soap, this will make sure you don’t accidentally introduce bacteria to your cervix. Plus, you’ll want warm hands for this. I prefer to check my cervix in the bathroom, but you can go anywhere you feel comfortable. Next, remove your clothing below the waist (or just do it after you finish a shower), and if it is possible for you, squat down as far as you can with your knees wide. I like to hold on to the sink for balance. Some people check their cervix while lying down or even standing, but I find squatting feels more natural. The position helps push the cervix lower into the vaginal canal, making it easier to find.
Now, with your right hand (or left if you are a leftie), insert your middle finger up into your vaginal canal slowly, your cervix will be toward the back. And depending on where you are in your cycle, you may need to feel around a bit. If you are close to ovulation, your cervix may blend into the walls of your vagina and may be too high for your finger to reach. In that case, give it a minute or two and try to feel the opening of the cervix, it will feel like a divot. You’ll know it when you find it. The cervix itself will feel squishy and soft, like your lips, and may be indistinguishable from the vaginal wall. In that case, give it a few days and try again. If, however, you are at the beginning or end of your cycle, it will be a lot easier to find, usually because the cervix sits lower in the vagina during these phases of your cycle. The os will be tightly closed, but the cervix itself will feel as if it has grown longer. Its texture will be firm and feel more like the tip of your nose.
Why do I need to know all of this?
Well, I guess you could say you don’t. I lived 25 years before I truly understood what my cervix did. But, I can tell you with absolute certainty that understanding and observing the changes of your cervix will not be a waste of time. Tracking cervical changes (paired with the observance of cervical fluid) can help you track your fertility. It can also help alert you to where you are in your cycle: if your cervix is high, soft and open, for example, you are at mid-cycle. And understanding the nuance of your cervical changes can help you detect the early signs of hormonal disorders and other medical conditions like cervical dysplasia, cervical polyps, or even cervical cancer.
In all honesty, observing your cervical changes help you take better control of your reproductive health, understand your unique cycles, and most importantly, help you become more comfortable exploring your body. I’m not going to lie, I had my reservations about touching my cervix when I first started with the Fertility Awareness Method, but with time and practice, it makes me no more uncomfortable to check my cervix than it does to touch my nose.
Amy Sutherland is a period-positive advocate, educator and writer. She prefers tackling topics like reproductive health, fertility, sexuality, feminism, social justice issues and all those tricky subjects you avoid talking about at family gatherings. Amy holds a Master’s Degree in Women’s Health as well as a Graduate Certificate in Holistic Health Studies. Read her full bio here.