Irregular periods can be irritating to deal with. You never know when to carry products with you or if PMS is to blame when you're extra tired and irritable. While period irregularity can be irksome when you're not TTC, it can be downright worrisome if you're trying for a baby. It's not uncommon to wonder if you can get pregnant with an irregular period.
The answer depends on a variety of factors. However, know that in most cases, women with period irregularity can conceive. To do so, though, you may need to work with your doctor to address the cause of irregular periods.
What is an irregular period?
An irregular period might seem like a period that comes on day 28 of one cycle and day 30 of the next. But there are actually more rigid guidelines regarding what qualifies as period irregularity.
The "typical" cycle is around twenty-eight days. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), an abnormal period is one that "changes a lot from month to month," particularly a period more often than every 21 days, less often than every 45 days, more than 90 days apart, or lasting for greater than seven days. If your cycle length varies only by two to three days and the variation only lasts for a month or two, it may not be irregular.
Period irregularity tends to last for longer than a couple of cycles. Having only one cycle shorter than the next could be due to acute conditions. For example, illness, stress, or even travel can throw off your period. However, if you're finding that your cycle is all over the place consistently, you could have an abnormal period.
What causes irregular periods?
Abnormal periods and cycle irregularity can have a variety of causes. Not all of them mean your irregular periods are cause for concern. Such as:
Health conditions. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), sexually transmitted diseases (STIs), hormonal problems like hyper or hypo- thyroidism, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and other issues can affect your cycles.
Weight fluctuations. Extreme fluctuations in weight can impact your hormones, in turn disrupting your cycle. Intense exercise can also lead to period disappearance, known as amenorrhea.
Medications. Certain drugs, like birth control, can cause your period to fluctuate, especially when you are starting or stopping the medication.
Lifestyle. Your lifestyle may play a role in cycle regularity. Times of extreme stress might cause your period to be late as stress hormones upset the balance of other hormones in your body. Extreme sleep disruption, often caused by travel, may also affect when your period comes.
It's important to note that there are times in a woman's life when an irregular period can be considered normal. For example, when a woman is pregnant, her period (usually) ceases. Similarly, those who are breastfeeding also experience a pause in their period. When it does return, it may not be regular for a few months.
Can I get pregnant with an irregular period?
In most cases, you can get pregnant with an irregular period. Many women experiencing an irregular period will still ovulate, and ovulation presents a chance to conceive. That being said, irregular periods and pregnancy success can be trickier.
You've probably heard of ovulation. It is the phase of your cycle when one of your ovaries releases an egg. For those with a 28-day cycle, it happens around day 14, two weeks before your period begins. After the egg is released, it journeys down the fallopian tube, where it can meet with sperm. The mature egg only stays there for 12 to 24 hours, the window in which it can be fertilized. Due to this, timing ovulation and intercourse is key.
With irregular periods, that's where the difficulties lie. Erratic periods can make it much harder to track and time ovulation. The chance of successfully getting pregnant for a healthy woman is around 30% each cycle. Chances can decrease if your periods fluctuate by more than ten days. Still, some signs can help you predict ovulation. Additionally, ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) may be able to help you more accurately pinpoint the days' ovulation is likely to occur.
In some cases, irregular periods can signify anovulation. When a mature egg is not released, ovulation does not occur; this cycle is called anovulatory. Anovulation can be consistent or irregular, with consistent anovulation possibly pointing to an underlying hormonal or fertility concern. If you do not ovulate, you cannot become pregnant naturally. Fortunately, doctors can often treat anovulation with fertility drugs or treatments.
What can I do to find out if I'm ovulating?
If you have irregular periods and are trying to conceive, your first question may be, "am I ovulating?"
To figure out ovulation, you can try at-home methods. Yet, for some, these may not be accurate enough to tell if you are ovulating definitively. In that case, you should work with your doctor.
To try and discern if you're ovulating at home, you can try the following:
Track your menstrual cycle. You'll want to have a good idea of how long your cycles are on average. It can also help you see if your cycles are truly irregular.
Check your cervical mucus (CM). CM typically changes around ovulation, becoming clearer, wetter, and slippery; often called egg-white in consistency.
Track your basal body temperature. Known as BBT, it should rise slightly after ovulation takes place. To track BBT, you must follow precise guidelines about how and when to take your temperature.
Try an OPK. An ovulation predictor kit measures hormone levels found in your urine. You'll need to dip a test stick into your pee and read the results like a pregnancy test.
Most women will use a variety of these methods to help pinpoint ovulation. Other symptoms like bloating, cramping, or breast tenderness can accompany ovulation. However, they're not accurate predictors on their own.
A fertility specialist may use blood testing, urine tests, ultrasound, or biopsy to check for ovulation or underlying fertility issues. If you believe you aren't ovulating, contacting your doctor is best.
Irregular periods may not prevent you from becoming pregnant. However, they can make predicting ovulation and therefore achieving pregnancy more challenging. Additionally, if irregular periods occur with anovulation, pregnancy may be near impossible.
If you are experiencing irregular periods or are concerned about ovulation, it's best to reach out to your doctor. After they assess your concerns, they can help guide you to the best next steps. In some cases, you may need treatment. Alternatively, your doctor may suggest a mix of lifestyle changes like supplements and diet, and cycle tracking, which can help promote regular periods and fertility.