Back when my husband and I decided to try for a baby, I remember feeling so impatient. I basically wanted a baby right then. Today. That instant. The inevitable nine months seemed too long to wait, let alone the time it would take for us to conceive.
I am sure I am not alone in this sentiment.
So, if you too are feeling impatient to become pregnant, here are some science-based tips to help maximize your chances.
1. Have sex at the right time. Timing intercourse correctly is the most important thing you can do to conceive quickly.
When I was an ignorant teenager and terrified of getting pregnant, I, and my friends, thought and acted as if sex at any time could make a baby. Not so.
In fact, pregnancy can only occur during a short window each month. The window opens only for the 6 days before ovulation and closes the day after ovulation. Without having sex then, your chances of becoming pregnant are zero.
2. Don’t just have sex on the day of ovulation. Have sex 1 or 2 days before. The chances of conception increase steadily from about 5 days prior to ovulation, peaking 1 to 2 days before ovulation. Sex the day of ovulation is actually slightly less likely to lead to pregnancy than sex 1-2 days before.
Over-the-counter ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) can be incredibly helpful for figuring out when you typically ovulate, especially if your cycles are irregular. OPKs detect the surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) that precedes ovulation.
Note, though, that OPKs have a serious potential downside. They detect a hormonal surge whose peak occurs 14-26 hours prior to ovulation. This can be too late, causing you to miss the day of peak fertility. OPKs are great for getting a sense of when in your cycle you usually ovulate, but they should not be used to pinpoint peak fertility.
Shortly after ovulation, the egg begins to degrade in quality. Once the egg has been released from the follicle, it is viable for a maximum of 12-24 hours.
The optimal time for fertilization appears to be even shorter, within 2-6 hours of the egg being released.
Sperm can take up to 12 hours to reach the egg. In theory, sperm can survive in fertile quality cervical mucus for up to 6 days. However, a recent study showed the vast majority of conceptions, 94%, occurred with sperm that were no more than 2 days old. If you have sex 1-2 days before ovulation, then the sperm are right there waiting when the egg is released.
There’s another potential downside to having sex right after ovulation: pregnancies that result from eggs fertilized towards the end of their viable window are more likely to end in miscarriage.
3. Get to know your cervical mucus.
Every month you ovulate, your cervical mucus gradually changes from dry, white, and sticky (infertile), to wet, stretchy, and egg white-like (fertile; shown on the right).
Infertile mucus acts as a barricade, blocking the sperm from swimming up the cervix to the egg.
Fertile cervical mucus, in contrast, is designed to be swimmable and even provides a fern-like scaffolding to help the sperm reach the egg.
In the absence of fertile cervical mucus, sperm tend to swim aimlessly around in circles, making little progress towards their goal. Fertile mucus helps orient the sperm’s movement, making it more linear and directed.
Fertile mucus also provides nourishment, which allows sperm to survive in the normally acidic and inhospitable vaginal canal. This may be why timing intercourse to the day of the most fertile cervical mucus maximizes the chances of conception.
4. Skip the lube. Most vaginal lubricants impair the sperm’s swimming ability, and thus can block their progress to the egg.
If you must have lube, a few “sperm-friendly” lubricants, have recently come to market. Of these, Pre-seed® appears to have the least detrimental effect on the little swimmers.
5. Don’t try to boost your chances by abstaining from sex before your fertile window. A fertility doctor once told me a story about a couple he had been treating. The man had a low sperm count, so his wife had asked her husband to save up for a month prior to their IUI (intrauterine insemination).
What a waste, he told me. Sperm get old sitting around. After sitting around for thirty days, most of his sperm were dead.
Daily intercourse does temporarily lower the total number of sperm released in men with normal sperm counts and motility (a fancy word for sperm movement). Despite this, daily intercourse during the 6-day fertile window provides the highest chances of conception, approximately 37% per cycle.
If this sounds intimidating, exhausting, or overly regimented, you may be reassured to learn that intercourse every other day lowers your chances only slightly, to about 33%.
But for men with low sperm counts or poor motility, sex daily or even multiple times a day during peak fertility maximizes the chance of pregnancy. Frequent sex for these men does not significantly lower their sperm counts, and in fact, may even improve their sperm’s motility.
Smoking also directly affects the maturation of the egg, making it less fertilizable, and lowers the chances of pregnancy in couples seeking treatment for infertility.
If you do become pregnant, smoking raises the odds of miscarriage by roughly 30%. Exposure to secondhand smoke raises the odds of miscarriage by roughly 10%.
No one should smoke when trying to have a baby, or while pregnant.
7. Avoid drinking alcohol the week that you are trying to conceive, and after ovulation. A recent review studied couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Compared to nondrinkers, women drinking one or more alcoholic drinks a day had 4 times the chances of an IVF failure.
And men are not off the hook when it comes to drinking either. The review also found that drinking among the men was linked with lower rates of successful IVF embryo transfers.
8. Don’t stress about stress.
It’s a common misconception that stress is to blame for much of infertility.
Yes, severe, prolonged emotional or physical stress, like that caused by starvation or living in a war zone, can suppress ovulation and prevent pregnancy.
But mild psychological stress–the sort caused by politics at work, a harrowing commute, or failure to become pregnant–has not been consistently shown to affect the chances of conception.
Instead, the relationship most often goes the other way around: having trouble becoming pregnant causes stress.
9. It’s not happening? Remember that getting pregnant is a numbers game. For perfectly healthy women of normal fertility, perhaps only 30-40% of the eggs released are capable of implanting once fertilized.
As many as 60% of these early pregnancies may be lost right before a missed period and therefore never detected. Even doing everything right in a given month is no guarantee of pregnancy.
For a couple of normal fertility in their early 30s, the chances of conception are about 20-30% each cycle of trying.
After one month of trying, this means your chances of not being pregnant are 70-80%. After two months, your chances of not being pregnant drops to around 50-65% (70-80% x 70-80%).
After 6 months, the chances of having normal fertility in your 30s given that you have not conceived are around 10-25%. In other words, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 couples of normal fertility will not conceive within their first 6 months of trying.
After 12 months of trying to conceive, however, the likelihood of normal fertility drops considerably: the chances of having normal fertility given that you have not conceived after 12 months are around 1-7%.
Failure to conceive after 12 months does not imply that you will never conceive naturally. Even couples with a lower than normal chance of conceiving each cycle have reasonably good chances of conceiving eventually.
But if you have failed to conceive after nine months of properly timed intercourse, it is reasonable seek out a fertility workup.
For women over age 35, the general advice is to seek a fertility workup earlier, after only six months of unsuccessfully attempts to conceive. This is because fertility problems are more common in the late 30s and because, if you have other fertility issues, you may have less time before age also starts to impact your ability to conceive.
Finally, ladies, please don’t assume the problem is you and not your partner. The media have drummed it into our heads that our biological clocks start ticking, loudly, as we approach the dreaded 35. (In reality, the steepest decline in fertility occurs later for most women, sometime in our late 30s and early 40s.)
Perhaps this is why we often assume our aging ovaries are to blame.
But, for the 1 in 6 couples who experience some form of infertility, about 40-50% of the time a problem with the man’s fertility is the main cause or a contributing cause.