Birth control

If you and your partner don't want to have a baby at this time, one way to prevent pregnancy is by using birth control. Birth control, also called contraception or family planning, can help a woman manage when to get pregnant and how often. Before pregnancy, birth control can help protect the health of mothers-to-be and their babies.

It's important that all couples have the tools and information they need to make these health decisions. To get started, learn about birth control methods you or your partner can use, and talk with your health provider.

Types of birth control
Many different kinds of birth control are available. Each method has its pros and cons, and some methods work better than others do at preventing pregnancy.

Barrier methods
Barrier methods are some of the safest forms of birth control. They work by blocking the man's sperm so it cannot reach a woman's egg. This prevents pregnancy from taking place. Some barrier methods also protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Barrier methods include condoms, spermicides, the diaphragm and the cervical cap. Barrier methods prevent pregnancy between 71-98 percent of the time, depending on the type of method used. To be effective at lowering the chance of pregnancy, these methods must be used correctly every time a person has sex. Some couples find it hard to use these methods every time they have sex.

Hormonal methods
Hormonal birth control works by preventing a woman from releasing an egg (ovulation). Without the egg, pregnancy cannot take place. Unlike barrier methods, these methods do not protect against STIs.

Hormonal methods include oral contraceptives (birth control pills), skin patches, injections (shots) and vaginal rings. Hormonal methods are very effective at preventing pregnancy (92 to 97 percent), depending on the type of method used. To be effective, the method must be used as instructed. Some women do not like the side effects caused by these methods.

Breastfeeding women should talk to their health provider about which hormonal method to use as some may affect milk supply.

Intrauterine devices (IUDs)
An IUD is a small device that is shaped in the form of a "T." It prevents pregnancy by releasing a hormone. Your health care provider places the IUD inside your uterus. It can stay in your uterus between 5 to 10 years, depending on the type of IUD used, or be removed any time you want to try to get pregnant. Unlike barrier methods, the IUD does not protect against STIs.

IUDs are among the most effective birth control methods (99 percent). Some women do not like the side effects caused by these methods.

Natural family planning
Another method to prevent pregnancy is to avoid having sex on the days a woman is most fertile. This usually takes place a few days before and during ovulation. You can predict your ovulation by charting your last menstrual cycle, monitoring your body temperature, observing your cervical mucus or using an ovulation prediction kit. Unlike barrier methods, these methods do not protect against STIs.

Natural family planning prevents pregnancy between 75-99 percent of the time. To be effective at lowering the chance of pregnancy, these methods must be used correctly. Some women find these methods complicated and hard to learn.

Choosing a birth control method
When choosing birth control, there are many things for you and your partner to think about, such as:

  • Your overall health
  • How often you have sex
  • If and when you want to have children
  • How well each method works in preventing pregnancy
  • If the method prevents STIs as well as pregnancy
  • Any potential side effects
  • How easy the method is to use for you or your partner
  • Cost
  • If it's a good choice for breastfeeding moms
  • How comfortable you and your partner feel about the method

Learning how to use some birth control methods can take time and practice. Don't be afraid to talk to your health provider or ask questions. The most important thing is to find and use the birth control that works best for you. You can always try one method, and if you don't like it, try another one.

Other than abstinence (not having sex), no birth control method can prevent pregnancy all of the time. Some methods are more successful than others. But you can greatly increase a method's success rate by using it correctly all of the time.

Getting pregnant after birth control
If you've been using birth control and are ready to have a baby, talk to your health provider about stopping your use of birth control. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how long you should wait to start trying to get pregnant after stopping birth control.

If you've recently had a new baby, ask your provider how long you should wait to get pregnant again. For most women, it's best to wait at least 18 months. But some women can't wait this long because of their age or other reasons. Talk to your provider about what's right for you.

For more information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
CDC Show Your Love Campaign

Last reviewed April 2009

Most common questions

Can dad's exposure to chemicals harm his future kids?

Dad's exposure to harmful chemicals and substances before conception or during his partner's pregnancy can affect his children. Harmful exposures can include drugs (prescription, over-the-counter and illegal drugs), alcohol, cigarettes, cigarette smoke, chemotherapy and radiation. They also include exposure to lead, mercury and pesticides.

Unlike mom's exposures, dad's exposures do not appear to cause birth defects. They can, however, damage a man's sperm quality, causing fertility problems and miscarriage. Some exposures may cause genetic changes in sperm that may increase the risk of childhood cancer. Cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, can seriously alter sperm, at least for a few months post treatment. Some men choose to bank their sperm to preserve its integrity before they receive treatment. If you have a question about a specific exposure, contact the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists at www.mothertobaby.org/.

I've been diagnosed with PCOS. Can I get pregnant?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a medical condition that can affect a woman's menstrual cycle, hormones, heart, blood vessels, appearance (especially excessive hair growth) and the ability to have children. Although women do make small levels of androgens, also called male hormones, women with PCOS typically have high levels of androgens. This creates a hormonal disorder that affects ovulation and fertility. PCOS can cause many infertility cases. However, with the right treatment, many women have been able to get pregnant.

Women with PCOS often have trouble keeping a healthy weight. Having a healthy weight and increasing physical activity will help maintain ovulation and fertility. It'll also help prevent other complications like diabetes and heart disease. Your health care provider might consider the following treatments to help you get pregnant.

- Medications to help improve insulin resistance and ovulation
- Medication to induce ovulation

My menstrual period is irregular. Can I get pregnant?

Every woman's menstrual cycle is different. Some women have their cycle like clockwork. Others have trouble knowing when it's going to happen. If you have only slight variations from month to month, but you have your menstrual period at least once every 25 to 35 days, this could be normal. However, if your cycle is absent for more than 2 months, you bleed too little or too much and you can't predict when it's going to happen, talk to your health provider. Having an irregular menstrual cycle may mean that ovulation isn't happening or it's happening only a few times a year. This will affect your ability to get pregnant. Your health provider will probably check your thyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands. After a checkup your health provider will discuss your treatment options.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).