I’ve been trying to conceive for 20 months or so now. I have a condition call Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) which makes it difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve written quite a few blog posts about my personal struggle with trying to conceive with PCOS, which you can read about here.
Since I’ve been talking about trying to conceive on this blog and subsequently on social media, I’ve been bombarded with targeted ads for gadgets that are supposed to help you get pregnant. These gadgets are both clever and disgusting in how they prey on the insecurity and desperation many people feel when they are trying to get pregnant. They are full of testimonials from people who used the gadget and managed to get pregnant, and their images are full of smiling women holding a beautiful new born babies. And when you are selling life, people will pay extraordinary prices. These kind of ads are not what anyone who is stressed about trying to get pregnant needs to see when they’re innocently scrolling through their social media feeds, trying to relax.
I’m not saying the companies are making false promises (I don’t think any of them are outrageous enough to guarantee you will get pregnant), I’m saying that they are making lots of money preying on the insecurity and desperation of people who are struggling to get pregnant, and they are so difficult to ignore. I almost spent money I couldn’t afford on one myself, because I was desperate for anything that would help. If you happen to have a lot of money and the prices of these gadgets aren’t that much to you, sure, go ahead. But if you’re like me and need to be careful with your finances, I want you to know that there are much cheaper ways to do the same things that these gadgets promise.
Before I start taking apart two of the companies who’s ads are thrust in my face on a daily basis (because, hey, I wasn’t already enough aware of my failure to reproduce) and make some suggestions of things you can buy instead, I want to make it clear that I am not affiliated with any of the companies I mention in this post. There are no affiliate links in this article. Also, although I’ve only picked on two companies, because they have been unfortunate enough to get on my radar, there are many other gadgets that claim to do the same or very similar, which you should be equally critical of.
Let me begin by the product that I was so close to shelling out my hard earned money for, before I realised what a scam it was: OvuSense.
What a great name, right? The marketing people really knew what they were doing when they marketed what is essentially a love egg that reads the temperature of your vagina while you sleep. Just look at the fucking testimonial on the front page:
“I am pregnant after using OvuSense for two months. We were trying for 8+ years before that.”
How can anyone struggling to conceive read that quote and not get their credit card out right away? You know what though? It could have been a fucking co-incidence. All Ovusense does is predict the day that you ovulated (spoiler alert! THAT’S WHAT THEY ALL DO). So, the woman who got pregnant after using it for two months; either she didn’t have regular (medical advice is for “regular” is every two to three days) sex for those previous eight years, in which case having the Ovusense would have encouraged her to actually have sex, or (and this is my personal theory), she had a hormonal condition that meant she wasn’t ovulating much, which had begun to reduce meaning she did finally ovulate and get pregnant which the Ovusense had absolutely nothing to do with (it’s been shown that people with PCOS ovulate more regularly in their late 30s and 40s because the hormone levels start changing and drop down in to a more “normal” range, so while other people are just beginning menopause people with PCOS are suddenly at their most fertile). Anyways, impossible-seeming quote aside, is ovusense backed by science?
Ovusense is Clinically Proven?
Ovusense has an impressive list of Clinical References that they probably thought no one would ever check out. But guess who’s got two thumbs, a PhD and access to academic papers? This guy! That big long list of academic papers on the Ovulsense website: most of them have nothing to do with Ovusense. They are all background on how ovulation affects Basal Body Temperature (BBT) and how BBT can be used to predict ovulation. Lots of the references are just generally about infertility such as papers on PCOS and IUI.
On the front page of their website, Ovusense claim “OvuSense is backed by over 50,000 cycles of use, 2 clinical trials and 5 peer-reviewed publications”. This is quite frankly not true. Here are the five “peer-reviewed publications” that Ovusense cite, which actually did use the Ovusense (as the research was paid for by them):
Papaioannou S, Aslam M (2012) Ovulation Assessment and Fertile Period Prediction by Portable Computerised Vaginal Temperature Analysis – The OvuSense Advanced Fertility Monitoring System. European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology 28th Annual Conference
– This is a reference from a conference presentation: this is not a peer-reviewed paper, it is an abstract to tell people at the conference what the presentation is going to be about. I can’t even see what is about in any more detail than reading the fucking title because the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology do not keep records of the abstracts of their conference presentations for more than 3 years.
- Papaioannou S, Aslam M (2012) Ovulation assessment by vaginal temperature analysis (Ovusense Fertility Monitoring System) in comparison to oral temperature recording. American Society for Reproductive Medicine 68th Annual conference.
– This is also a conference presentation, again this is not a peer-reviewed paper, it is an abstract to tell people at the conference what the presentation is going to be about. There are only 19 people in the study, which isn’t much at all. I like to see at least 100. From the abstract the methods and exactly what they were analysing is unclear, but I gather that they asked the participants to take oral morning temperatures as well as go for Ultrasounds and use the Ovusense. They claim that Ovusense was more accurate than taking oral temperature at predicting ovulation, which they confirmed happened through ultrasound (but as I said, the maths they used is super unclear). However, we do already know that oral temperature isn’t as accurate as vaginal or rectal temperature, so I want to see a study that compares it to someone taking early morning vaginal BBT using a regular thermometer.
- Papaioannou S, Aslam M (2013) Quality Index assessment of vaginal temperature based fertility prediction and comparison with LH testing, ultrasound folliculometry and other home cycle monitors. American Society for Reproductive Medicine 69th Annual conference.
– another conference abstract, this time with 21 participants, saying the same thing as the last one but with different, equally vague, maths.
- Papaioannou S, Delkos D, Pardey J (2014) Vaginal core body temperature assessment identifies pre-ovulatory body temperature rise and detects ovulation in advance of ultrasound folliculometry. European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology 30th Annual Conference.
– poster presentation, not peer reviewed and studied only 21 people (I guess they found two more people to join in?). It showed that they could fit an algorithm to the Ovusense data that would predict ovulation in 90% of cycles (ultrasounds were used to confirm ovulation). There’s nothing in it that says Ovusense is better at predicting ovulation than other BBT methods; it wasn’t compared to anything else.
- Papaioannou S, Aslam M (2013) User’s acceptability of Ovusense: a novel vaginal temperature sensor for prediction of the fertile period. J Obstet Gynaecol 33:705–9.
– this one is the only peer-reviewed scientific paper, but all it is saying is that the of 13 participants that they gave a survey to 76.9% thought the Ovusense was comfortable to wear in their vagina at night. That’s 10 out of 13 people, for those of you who prefer their maths to be plain, which means 3 people found it fucking uncomfortable, which is quite a lot when you are only asking 13 in the first place. Also, why only 13 when the study they selected from had 21 participants? This paper has absolutely nothing to do with how well it helped people get pregnant, or how accurately it predicted ovulation, its about how user-friendly it is.
To summarise all that science: they have only published one peer-reviewed scientific paper (not five as they claimed), and that was about how user-friendly 13 people found the Ovusense, not about how well it predicts ovulation or whether it helps people get pregnant. The four remaining “publications” are just them presenting their (small) clinical trials at conferences; the methods, results and conclusions have not been evaluated by other scientists in the field. The information that is available in these abstracts is vague, particularly when it comes to methods and statistics, and no where in any of these documents does it say that the Ovusence is 99% accurate at predicting ovulation (which is what their website says). The best figure they present in these papers is 90% as accurate as an ultrasound. Plus these trials were only on 19-21 people, which is not enough in my opinion.
I’ve gone in to so much detail here because I am angry that they are trying to trick consumers in to thinking there’s loads of clinical evidence that using the Ovusense is better than other methods, and that evidence just simply isn’t there. They are not just “stretching the truth”, they are outright lying to their customers on the very first page of their website.
Ovusense helps people with PCOS?
What makes me even angrier with Ovusense is that they mention PCOS regularly on their website, and in their ads that are targeted at me, when they have no clinical evidence that Ovusense can even predict ovulation in people with PCOS. They also claim it can predict anovulation, but again, I see absolutely no peer-reviewed clinical trials that prove this. They claim you can take the data to your doctor to help them diagnose you, and sure you could do that, and your doctor may even have the time to look at your app, but you could also go to them with regular BBT chart written down in a notebook, or a just list of your cycle lengths, and whatever you do give them, they’d still order their own diagnostic tests. I don’t believe having an Ovusense will realistically help to diagnose your infertility problem any quicker.
I know, I’m being really harsh on their science here, but I think they deserve it, since they are trying to use science to sell the Ovusense.
How much will Ovusense cost you?
So, how much for a thermometer that you keep in your vagina overnight? Well, that all depends on how long it’ll take you to get pregnant. Because they paygate the app that goes with the vagina thermometer, and without the app you won’t have access to the temperature of your vag (it sends the temperature via bluetooth to your phone, rather than just telling you like a regular thermometer). To buy the thermometer plus just two months of the app (I can’t imagine many people get pregnant in just 2 months, despite what that woman who was trying for 8 years says) it’ll cost you £99. After you (realistically) don’t get pregnant, you’ll have to continue paying £20 per month to keep the app working, or pay £120 for a year’s access to the app. The year’s access is a much better deal, but what desperate person who’s trying to conceive wants to think they’ll need this app for another whole year? If I had brought the Ovusense when I first starting trying to conceive, I would have given them £459 (about $600 USD) to date. For a vagina thermometer. Holy shit.
I’m not saying that the Ovusense doesn’t work, I actually think it probably does work, particularly if you have regular menstrual cycles and no hormonal issues. What I am saying is that they are grossly exaggerating their scientific evidence that it works any better than just using a thermometer to take your vaginal temperature before you get out of bed in the morning, and they are preying in particular on people with diagnosed fertility problems, like myself, despite having no evidence at all that it can accurately predict ovulation (or anovulation) in these groups.
At the end of this long ass blog post (sorry about the length), I’ll let you know of the (almost) free way you can do what Ovusense does.
The Ava Bracelet
The Ava bracelet is another “clinically proven” (as it informs me as soon as I enter their website) gadget that predicts when you are going to ovulate. It’s basically a fitbit, but for pregnancy (so you’ll be paying for it FOREVER). It also takes your temperature while you sleep, but this time it’s just on the surface of your wrist, which is actually a much less accurate way of recording your temperature than using a thermometer in your mouth (your skin will change temperature really easily, you could be colder because your arm was out the covers, for example). However, the ava bracelet doesn’t really rely just on temperature, instead, it’s all about your pulse. It takes your resting heart rate while you sleep and uses that, alongside other measures like your temperature, to predict ovulation.
Is the Ava Bracelet Clinically Proven?
Like with the Ovusense research page, most of the papers cited on the Ava bracelet’s research page are actually conference papers (not published peer-reviewed research), but unlike Ovusense, all the references appear actually relevant to the Ava bracelet (i.e. they actually used it or something like it), and they have two peer-reviewed published papers in scientific journals. I won’t bother with the conference abstracts this time, I’ll just give you a quick summary of what has actually been peer-reviewed and published.
- Shilaih M, Goodale BM, Falco L, Kübler F, De Clerck V, Leeners B. Modern fertility awareness methods: Wrist wearables capture the changes of temperature associated with the menstrual cycle. Bioscience reports. 2017 Nov 24:BSR20171279
– This study had 136 non-pregnant women take part, and it was basically testing if wrist temperature taken automatically while you sleep by a bracelet can predict ovulation (as measured by a urine hormone test). They showed that it isn’t a very good predictor, as the lowest recorded temperature only coincided with ovulation in 41% of cycles, but that it did show ovulation had occurred by a temperature shift after ovulation. This is the case with most BBT measurements: it helps you to predict patterns in your cycle so you can guess better in the future, rather than warning you that ovulation is going to occur in the cycle you are currently in. Unfortunately, they didn’t compare the Ava bracelet readings to any other method of measuring BBT, e.g. taking your oral temperature first thing in the morning, to see if it was more accurate (I don’t believe it would be).
- Shilaih M, de Clerck V, Falco L, Kübler F, Leeners B. Pulse Rate Measurement During Sleep Using Wearable Sensors, and its Correlation with the Menstrual Cycle Phases, A Prospective Observational Study. Scientific reports. 2017 May 2;7(1):1294
– In this study they had 91 non-pregnant women aged 22 to 42 who wore one of three bracelets that measured their pulse while they slept. They also recorded their menstrual cycle and took ovulation urine hormone tests to detect ovulation. Basically, they showed that your average (median) heart rate when you sleep increases during your fertile window in comparison to when you’re on your period, meaning that this measure can be used to predict ovulation. The ava bracelet was one of the three devices worn, but each device was as good as each other, so basically they didn’t show that there was anything special about the Ava bracelet in comparison to other heart rate monitors.
So far I am pretty satisfied that Ava have actually scientifically tested that pulse rate and wrist temperature are related to the different phases of the menstrual cycle, including ovulation. Their website is much more measured and honest about the research the Ava bracelet is based on, and modest about it’s claims. It even clearly says it will be more accurate if you have a regular cycle. I trust Ava more. However, I am unconvinced that it is better than other (cheaper) methods.
How much will the Ava Bracelet cost you?
Just to buy the Ava Bracelet will cost you £149, but like all of these products, the bracelet is absolutely useless without the app. The app will cost you £14.90 a month. So if I had been using the Ava Bracelet from the start of my journey I would have paid them £447 (about $585 USD) to date. They do offer a lifetime membership to the app, which is a much better deal as it doesn’t run out (could be great if you are wanting to have multiple children) for £299, but that’s a lot of money to drop on a promise. They also offer a money back guarantee if you don’t get pregnant within a year (you can’t have had it more than 15 months), but you have to prove to them you’ve been using it and that you’ve not got pregnant and had a miscarriage, and you have to send it back to them, so you can’t get you’re money back and then keep using it because you’re still trying to get pregnant (as I would be).
Although I am happier with the Ava bracelet, dropping 300 quid on a heart rate monitor that also takes your temperature less accurately than you could do with a thermometer, that does nothing but attempt to track your fertility doesn’t sound like a fantastic deal to me.
What I use instead of these gadgets
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a scientist and I believe that gathering data on yourself can be helpful, I just don’t believe you need to spend that much money to do so. Here are the things that I use, that cost a lot less than many fertility-specific products, and they don’t hold you to a subscription fee that can end up costing you a fortune if you happen to take a long time to get pregnant.
1. A Basal Body Temperature Thermometer
This is just a digital thermometer that reads your temperature to two decimal places. This means it is more accurate than regular thermometers. The one I brought cost me £3.39 and came with a chart that you could photocopy or print out (they sent it me digitally too), which you could use to track your BBT via old fashioned pen and paper. I’ve been using it every day for over a year now and it still works fine.
If you want to be able to predict if you have ovulated accurately, and notice which days in your cycle are likely to be the most fertile, you need to be consistent about your temperature taking. You need to take your temperature before you get out of bed in the morning, and ideally at exactly the same time every day (I usually go for within 30 minutes). Vaginal or Rectal temperatures will be more accurate than oral ones, but the most important thing is to be consistent (i.e. don’t take your temperature from your vagina one day then your mouth the next). If you want to change something, like the time or place you take your temperature from, wait until you start a new cycle.
2. A Cycle Tracking App
Rather than just rely on pen-and-paper, I use the app Flo to track my cycle and record my BBT. I’m really impressed with it, Flo is free to use (they do have a vip level that you can pay a subscription fee to use, but I have never felt the urge or need to use it), it’s also ad-free as far as I can tell, it’s really user-friendly, it can integrate information from other apps.
It has cost me absolutely nothing, and it almost always accurately predicts when my period is going to start, despite my cycles being very irregular. Seriously, it’s a bit creepy in its accuracy. You can give it an awful amount of information, such as your mood, how you body is feeling, sleep, weight, exercise, PMS symptoms and also set reminders to give it this information (e.g. I have a reminder set to tell me to take my temperature because there’s been a few times when I’ve gotten out of bed without doing it). If you have regular cycles, just having a BBT thermometer and Flo app would give you a pretty accurate fertility window, and it would have only cost you £3.39.
3. A Heart Rate Monitor
This is an optional extra that does cost quite a bit of money, but is significantly less money than the Ava bracelet. Basically, I brought a fitbit Inspire HR. I didn’t do a whole load of research on this, so their might be one that is better value for money than the one I got. The reason I picked the Inspire HR is because it has a 24 hour heart rate monitor, plus detailed sleep tracking. It measures my resting heart rate while I am asleep and plots a graph of my resting heart rate daily. It also tracks my steps and exercise, and it tracks my period. Best of all? You can link it up with Flo, so Flo will use your resting heart rate, sleep and exercise data taken from the fitbit app to better improve your predictions of fertile days.
It did cost me quite a bit (I paid the full £89.99), but the fitbit app is free forever, no subscriptions needed, and the fitbit watch itself will continue being useful for so much more than just fertility. My fitbit cost me £60 less than an Ava bracelet (that can only do fertility), and I am not stuck paying subscription fees. I’m enjoying using the fitbit to track my gym workouts and it’s got a really relaxing breathing exercise on it that works to chill me out.
Although my app and temperature taking usually just confirms to me that it’s unlikely I have ovulated at all, there are the few magical times when it shows me that it’s likely that I did ovulate, and that does give me hope. I’ve pictured a recent example below, when heart rate and temperature were in agreement.
So this whole blog post has been a bit of a personal fuck you to the companies that are trying to rinse me for money, and the ads that I’m the target of since I’ve been talking about trying to get pregnant. I feel like I’ve won a little bit because I’ve only spent £93.38 and no subscription fees and I still manage to get all science-y about my body. But then again, I’m the sucker who brought a fitbit for the wrong reasons, so who’s really winning?
Trying to conceive is an emotional rollercoaster, where people will spend a fortune searching for anything that can give them hope. We’re a vulnerable crowd, and people trying to make money realise that. My advice to anyone that’s trying to get pregnant is to question the science behind everything: look and read the references if you can, ask yourself “what is this device really doing?” then think about if anything else (cheaper) can do the same thing, or if it is even likely to be helpful for you at all. If you’re having sex every other day, being able to predict your fertile window won’t mean anything to you anyway; you’re already going to be having sex in your fertile window. For me, looking at the data is a way to understand my body better, but not a way to guarantee pregnancy.