Fertility tracking apps: When and why some women may want to consider them

Couples trying to conceive might want to temper their expectations for these tools.

Couples trying to conceive might want to temper their expectations for these tools.

(Credit: Getty Images)

For couples trying to conceive in the digital age, the sheer amount of information – how-tos, dos, don'ts, tricks, tips – can be overwhelming.   

One recent tool that's gaining popularity are fertility tracking apps designed to help women track their menstrual cycles and identify the times of the month where they're most likely to conceive.

There are thousands of apps to choose from that vary in cost — anywhere from zero dollars to more than $200 per month for a deluxe subscription packages including herbal formulas delivered to your door, or nearly $400 for an app that syncs with a specialized thermometer to monitor basal body temperature.

Regardless of the cost, most work using the same basic principle. A woman enters information about the timing of her previous menstrual cycles and their average cycle length, and the app uses this information to calculate the day she's likely to ovulate. The app then tells you when your most fertile days will be, typically the five days before ovulation. Have sex during those days and you're more likely to become pregnant.

Given how much we rely on our phones for everything from telling us how to get somewhere to what to eat, it's not surprising that these apps are growing in popularity. Dr. Farid Abdel Hadi is an Obstetrician and Gynecologist with a fertility practice in Durham, Ontario. He says he's seen an uptick of clients coming into his practice who are using apps to help them conceive: "Is [the use of apps] widespread? Yes it is" he says, "more and more people are downloading them"

But do these apps actually help people conceive, and conceive more quickly? The evidence that they do is, as yet, shaky.  A 2015 study by the makers of Glow, a popular fertility tracking app co-founded by PayPal founder Max Levchin, purported that women who tracked their ovulation cycles regularly were more likely to get pregnant, and that got pregnant more quickly, than those who didn't. But these results were mostly debunked by experts, who said that the study's methodology didn't allow it to prove with any certainty that it was the app itself that was behind the difference.

Other research has shown that some apps aren't actually accurate. A study published last year by researchers at Cornell University reviewed 33 apps and found that while most correctly identified the users' day of ovulation, only 3 accurately predicted when their fertile window would be.

For this reason, says Dr. Hadi, assuming that following an app's advice to the letter guarantees that you will get pregnant quickly, may be a mistake.  And, he adds, getting too obsessional about following an app's advice can have its own side-effects.

"I have seen how much stress has been laid on the shoulders of both the men and women." Some couples, he says, "feel they've failed, so when I try the medical approach to help them, they're already exhausted."

It might be worth saying, when it comes to preventing pregnancy, experts unanimously agree that fertility tracking apps are not a reliable form of birth control.  

So should you download a fertility tracking app at all? Absolutely, says Dr. Hadi. Using an app to better understand your body and your cycle can be empowering and useful for women at any stage of their reproductive life, from puberty to menopause.

When used with a healthy dose of skepticism, "I totally agree with using an app'" Dr. Hadi says "but for each and every person, not just for people who are trying to get pregnant."  

Miranda Elliott has a Masters in epidemiology and works in public health.