Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: iCycleBeads App

One doesn't grow up in a household with a women's health self-help educator, a woman who moonlighted as a Gynecological Teaching Associate, and not have an underlying acceptance of so-called "natural family planning."

I became used to seeing speculums around the house and I vividly remember large spiral-bound notebooks describing the Sympto-Thermal Method, which seems like an incredibly complicated way to avoid using the pill. But in the 80s, IUDs were off the market in the US because of the Dalkon Shield, and some women, distinct from those who learned about natural family planning for religious reasons, were looking for other options.

The Sympto-Thermal Method, which relied on both basal body temperature measurements and an examination of cervical mucus throughout the menstrual cycle, is labor-intensive, complicated, and unpopular.

Fast forward to 2007. The Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University (a Catholic school) won a contract from the USAID to teach people in certain target countries how to use fertility awareness methods methodically and correctly as a way to help women avoid pregnancy when an absence of national infrastructure makes the consistent use of condoms or other methods difficult.

Though the beads have been around for several years (I first wrote about them in 2009), Time published an article last fall that ginned up criticism from American feminist bloggers because of the IRH's association with Georgetown and the Catholic Church's anti-contraception stance.

Claims that the method is ineffective because of IRH's alleged ideological stance are not borne out by the data. Research published in 2001 in Contraception, the most authoritative journal on the subject, confirmed that the method, when used consistently and correctly, is 95% effective at preventing pregnancy. The method is also in use by PSI, UNFPA and other partners which are definitely not influenced by Catholic restrictions on family planning.

The reaction from many outside the granola/natural parenting arena has been resoundingly negative, but I wanted to find out how it actually works from a user perspective, leaving aside the debate about whether a Catholic institution can be trusted to advocate effective birth control.

Cycle Beads are not actually sold by Georgetown, but a private company called Cycle Technologies that holds the license from the University. In response to the popularity of the method among Western users, Cycle Technologies released an iPhone app, iCycleBeads,in February 2011, a Spanish version in March, and an Android version in July.

So how does it work? The Beads are a strand of 32 beads that represent the days of the menstrual cycle, color-coded to indicate the risk of pregnancy on a given day. On the brown days, sex is low-risk; on the white-bead days, it's higher risk. Users are instructed to use condoms, withdrawal, or abstain from vaginal sex on the white bead days to prevent pregnancy. The app sends you notifications when you're in the no sex or backup method days so you don't have to keep track of it yourself.

Not everyone can use Cycle Beads--you have to have regular menstrual cycles that are between 26 and 32 days in order to use the method, but the cycles can vary in length as long as they're in that timeframe.

I downloaded the app on my iPad so I could review it, but I have an IUD so I haven't relied on it for pregnancy prevention and instead examined the actual user experience. But my friend Carol, a 30 year old married friend of mine who always refers to me as her "hippie" friend, asked me about the app last year when she decided she was ready to go off the pill.

I asked Carol to tell me about her experience, negotiating the use of this method with her husband, and whether they had had any "slip-ups," the main concern with using a method that depends on your ability not to have them.

Carol's experience, she said, has been good. For nearly a year of use, she and her husband have had maybe 4 slip-ups (they use condoms instead of not having sex on the white bead days) where they have used withdrawal instead. She hasn't had any pregnancy scares.

Her husband was onboard. "Jesse had used condoms all the time with his college girlfriend who wasn't on the pill, so he was used to it. He's always been really good about that stuff."

The only hiccup came last summer when she had a visit with a healthcare provider who had never heard of the standard days method and scared her back into using the pill. She rapidly gained five pounds and after two months, went back to the app.

After moving and changing jobs and health insurance, Carol's plans to get pregnant have been pushed back and she plans to continue using the app until she and her husband are ready to start trying for a baby in a few years.

My only technical complaint with the app is that while it sends you notifications telling you when the fertile period begins and ends, it doesn't tell you when you're likely to get your period. As someone who also uses Monthly Info for period tracking (Carol does,too), I wish that the two things could be combined. The app is obviously tracking your menstrual cycle and it seems that it could be jiggered to predict when I need to buy that box of tampons I've been putting off. It would also be nice if the beads could somehow lay over Google calendar or another calendar program so you wouldn't have to look in two places to find out what day you're on.

Regardless of ideological objections to a method developed by a Catholic university, Cycle Beads are cheap, effective, and easy to use, characteristics largely absent from the modern contraceptive landscape. And no, the Beads don't protect against STIs, but neither does any other method--except condoms.

Highly recommended for those in monogamous relationships with known STI risk who can, with their partner, commit to using a back-up method or abstaining from vaginal sex for 11 days a month.

Cost: $2.99 in the iTunes Store or Android Market, plus the cost of back-up method, if applicable.
Free online screening tool can help you figure out if you're a candidate for the method and teach you how to use it correctly.


  1. There's an excellent app for the fertility awareness method called OvuView. It tracks your period and gives you notifications for when it will start. It has a list of methods including the Standard Days method that you can use to track fertility. I bought cycle beads before really looking into it, and after reading TCOYF i decided this app was easier than charting on paper. wow, I sound like an ad, sorry, but that is the first app I ever paid for. $4 and so worth it. But really, yay cycle beads (and screw the pill)

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