Every woman experiences menstruation a bit differently regardless of whether she’s using a period tracker. The luckiest ones have light, regular periods that come and go like clockwork. For many others, menstruation is somewhat of a mystery. Some months are heavy, crampy nightmares, while your period hardly makes an appearance in others.
But if there’s one universal experience, it’s having your period show up at the worst possible time—at the beach when you’re wearing a white bikini, on an airplane when you forgot your tampons, or maybe when you’re on a run a couple of miles from home. Ugh! The only way to get some sense of when Aunt Flo is coming to town is by using a period tracker.
Yes, period tracking: that thing most of us were encouraged to start doing when we got our first period, but we got annoyed with (or even embarrassed by) making little red dots on a calendar and gave it up entirely. I’ll admit it—I’ve become a sex-positive, health-conscious woman who still bashfully shrugs at the gyno’s office when she asks the date of my last period and who scrambles to find a tampon when my period shows up seemingly out of nowhere. Not an ideal situation—and let’s not even get into the pregnancy scares that can happen if you aren’t tracking your menstrual cycle.
Fortunately, getting a handle on your cycle isn’t that hard. A range of period tracking methods—from high-tech apps to old-school, pen-and-paper calendars—can help you learn when to expect the crimson tide and how long it will take to ride it out. We asked Diana Ramos, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN and chair of the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative, to share the best ways to track your period and the benefits of being disciplined about it, once and for all.
Period Tracking: What’s the point?
It’s thought of as a tedious task that requires discipline and a willingness to tune in to your body on a daily basis. Why should you even bother with period tracking?
“One of the most important benefits of period tracking is getting to know your body—this is especially important if you’re of reproductive age and you’re trying to become pregnant or avoid pregnancy,” Ramos explains.
Using a period tracker can help you notice disruptions in your menstrual cycle. You might realize that your period has become irregular or changed in frequency, which could be symptoms of bigger health concerns.
“Sometimes a woman’s period is happening more often and for longer duration—signs that something could be abnormal. Heavier bleeding might also indicate a hormone imbalance, fibroids, or an underlying disease. Unless you know what’s normal for your body, you’re not going to know when something’s potentially wrong,” says Ramos.
And of course, one of the main benefits of period tracking is knowing when you should throw a couple of tampons in your purse. Who doesn’t want that peace of mind?
But despite all of these benefits, most women still haven’t figured out how to track their periods. Ramos estimates that only about a third of women use a period tracker—the rest of us are in the dark about our menstruation and ovulation. Yikes!
How to Track Your Period the Old-School Way
You don’t need to get fancy when it comes to tracking your period. The old-school approach of using pen and a calendar has helped women track their periods for centuries (maybe longer)—and can give you a better understanding of your body.
Start by putting a mark on the calendar on the first day of your period. That signifies the start of your menstruation cycle, says Ramos, and it’s the date gynecologists want when they ask when your last period was. Continue marking every day that you bleed with a red dot or whatever symbol resonates with you (a heart, a skull and crossbones, a frowny face—we don’t judge). Then, start the process again the next time you menstruate.
Your calendar should also include information about how much you’re bleeding, Ramos says. You could measure it based on how many pads and tampons you’re using or by giving your flow a loose estimate of light, medium, or heavy.
Other symptoms, like your emotions, cramps, and overall health, can also be noted on your period tracker, depending on how much information you want to include. After about three months of tracking your period, you will learn the length of your cycle (typically 21 to 35 days), roughly when you’re most fertile (usually the mid-point between periods), and other patterns related to your menstruation.
“The longer you do it, the more you can learn,” says Ramos. “Period tracking should be a lifelong habit and can give you something to refer to if your body changes.”
Bringing Period Tracking Into the 21st Century
Technology has made a lot of things easier for us—including period tracking. Monitoring your cycle has gone modern with a range of femtech apps that can help you track everything from your flow and period length to your moods, weight, and birth control use. Here are three of our favorite digital period trackers:
Dot: Rated 4.7/5 stars in the App Store, Dot Period & Fertility Tracker “works like a weather forecast for your menstrual cycle.” All you have to do is record the first day of your flow, and the period tracker gets to work predicting your likelihood of getting pregnant any day of the month, when you’re going to ovulate, and the date of your next period. You can note your moods, period symptoms, and sexual activities right in the app. Dot’s pretty smart—it’ll let you know if your cycle is off and you might need medical attention.
Clue: Clue has earned high marks for its accuracy, features, and functionality. Its intuitive design makes it easy to track your period, the heaviness of your flow, and even the types of menstrual products you use. Clue also encourages users to log their birth control, cramps, sleep, skin and hair conditions, and tons of other health-related symptoms. The more information you provide, the better Clue becomes at analyzing the state of your reproductive health.
Flo: While it brands itself as an ovulation and period tracker, the Flo app does much more than just record the days of your cycle, although it’s great at that! It’s an overall lifestyle monitor that allows you to record your weight, travel, stress levels, sex drive, sleep duration, water consumption, and just about every other healthy lifestyle activity you could imagine—earning it an average of 4.8 stars from more than 200,000 people who’ve rated it in the App Store.
While digital tools have taken the guesswork out of period tracking for many women, the pen-and-paper method is still perfectly acceptable. Healthcare professionals just want you to track your period in whatever way works best for you so they can be aware if something’s amiss.
“Period tracking is a good habit to get into as young as possible, but you can start any time,” Ramos notes. “The most important thing is that if you notice something abnormal, go see your healthcare provider. Don’t try to guess what might be happening.”