Trying to bring a child into this world is an emotionally trying process at the best of times. It gets even more stressful when a woman finds it difficult to conceive. It takes one year of unsuccessful attempts to conceive, for a couple to be medically assessed for infertility.
About half of the couples, who cannot conceive within a year, usually succeed the following year if they keep on trying. This is because, it is not unusual for women to take up to two years to fall pregnant .
Barring any underlying medical causes for infertility, what can you and your male partner look out for, to improve the chances of conceiving?
Keep a Lid on Stress
Far from being a buzzword, stress has acute and chronic effects on your body, especially over time. Finely regulated reproductive hormones can be thrown out of whack when your body is stressed. While it is understandable that trying to conceive can be stressful it is important to keep in mind that this stress can have unintended adverse effects on the likelihood of conception. Meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery and yoga can all help reduce stress.
Establish a Fertile Window
Your chances for successful conception are boosted when you know when your body is ovulating, that is the cycle when a mature egg is released from your ovary. Since sperm can last for up to a few days in the uterus and fallopian tubes, plan for regular unprotected sexual intercourse during this time period.
Contrary to popular belief, not all women can expect to ovulate on day 14 of their menstruation cycle. The key is not to stress out over precise calculation and arrangement. One way to track your fertility pattern is to measure basal body temperature (the lowest temperature attained by the body during sleep) upon waking every morning using a special thermometer — which is not surprisingly called a basal body thermometer.
This thermometer can detect a small rise of 0.3˚C or 0.4˚F. This spike occurs after ovulation. Start on the first day of your menstrual period and plot the measurements on a chart. You are most fertile two to three days before ovulation and 12 to 24 hours afterwards. Alternatively, you can roughly subtract 14 days from the length of your menstrual cycle to estimate the day of ovulation.
Have Fun and Do it Often
While it seems too obvious, hectic work and lifestyle (with baby planning on top of everything else) can get in the way of enjoying the experience. Becoming parents really doesn’t boil down to being scientific or micromanaging every little aspect of your life, which is likely to stress you out instead. So, whether it’s once a day or two to three times a week, take the time to relax and have it your way. For men, it’s a myth that frequent ejaculation decreases male fertility, and there is evidence that sperm concentration and motility remains normal. A renewed supply of semen is likely to increase the chance of fertilising the egg.
Stub it Out
Both active and passive smoking contributes to infertility, being associated with increased abnormalities in the egg and sperm, reduced reproductive function in women and lowered sperm count and motility in men. Women who smoke accelerate the rate of egg loss and may have menopause a few years earlier than non-smokers. Furthermore, a smoke-free household is crucial as exposure to tobacco smoke is associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in babies. Smoking cessation takes time and willpower (and often a few tries) so ensure you or your partner have sufficient resources and support before setting a quit date.
Wine or beer or ‘hard’ liquor, whichever form of alcohol you consume, may disrupt hormonal regulation of the reproductive cycle and make it harder to conceive. The safest option is to avoid alcohol altogether if you’re trying for a baby or if it’s not possible to abstain from alcohol, limit consumption to one to two standard drinks once or twice a week. For men, excessive alcohol consumption may affect libido and sperm quality in the short term. Pregnant women should not drink alcohol at all due to the risk of permanent harm to the developing fetus.
Screening for STI
Get tested for sexually transmitted infections first, ideally before having regular unprotected sex with your partner. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea are often asymptomatic, if untreated, may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and other upper genital tract infections, which can cause infertility. Moreover, vaginal discharge caused by infections or sexually transmitted diseases can hinder sperm entry and survival.
While not based on scientific evidence per se, there is no harm in taking up yoga to reduce stress and help you cope better. Practising yoga improves blood flow and releases tension from your body. However avoid poses that cause you strain or tightness.
Chugging down more than five cups of coffee a day or the equivalent in caffeine consumption is linked to decreased fertility. Moderate caffeine consumption of one or two cups of coffee a day appears to be fine for fertility and pregnancy.
Be Discerning with Lubricant Use
Vaginal lubricants can damage sperm and decrease its motility, stopping the sperm from reaching cervical mucus conducive to its survival. Try ramping up foreplay instead or simply using warm water. Polymer-based lubricants purported to be sperm-friendly is another (pricier) option.
Avoid Anabolic Steroid Use
The use of steroids to build muscular form in the long term leads to testicular shrinkage and infertility. Testosterone is an anabolic steroid which is naturally produced but are also taken in the form of synthetic derivatives by body-builders. Accumulated in the body, it suppresses hormonal signals that stimulate natural production of testosterone and sperm. The effect on sperm production is usually reversible but may take months to reverse.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Among other risks to health, both obese (BMI of over 30) and underweight women (BMI under 19) can experience an increase in the time to successfully conceive. If you carry excess weight into pregnancy, complications during pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or hypertension can result in harm to you and/or the baby.
Eat Well and Live Well
Practising a healthy lifestyle is crucial as there is still insufficient evidence for special ‘fertility diets’ that purportedly boost fertility. If you have ovulatory dysfunction, for example, in polycystic ovarian syndrome, leading a balanced lifestyle can improve your chances of success. Stick to the principles you know. Data from a large observational study highlights the benefits of avoiding trans-fat and soft drinks as well as the consumption of proteins and iron from plant sources, unsaturated vegetable oils, complex carbohydrates rich in fibre and full-cream milk. Folic acid supplementation prevents neural tube defects in the baby-to-be.
Consultant obsterician and gynaecologist at the OBGYN Women’s Specialist centre and senior lecturer at Monash University School of Medicine, Dr. Sharad Ratna, shares the following tips to boost chances of conception:
- For women
– Take folic acid supplementation
– Track your menstrual cycle to ascertain when ovulation will occur, roughly in the middle of a 28-day cycle.
- For men
– Do not wear tight underwear
– Avoid excessive exposure to heat such as from hot spas or the sun
Preconception care is important for women and men in during their reproductive years and not only for those who are planning to conceive. Why? Apart from addressing lifestyle and health issues which will help improve well-being, it increases the likelihood of a healthy baby being born from unplanned pregnancies. If you are planning for a baby, these measures should be considered, months in advance:
- Taking folic acid supplements daily, on top of eating healthily and exercising regularly.
- Quit smoking, drinking alcohol and illicit drug use.
- Managing your weight is especially pertinent if you are overweight, obese or underweight.
- Ensuring any medical condition(s) you have are well-controlled, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, to avoid it affecting your pregnancy in the future.
- Discussing your need for medications you are taking, including over-the-counter medicines and herbal supplements with your doctor and whether you should continue taking it before and after becoming pregnant.
- Making sure your vaccinations are up-to-date and avoiding contact with toxic chemicals, cat or rodent faeces and other potential health hazards.
- Testing for sexually-transmitted infections which may affect both your fertility and the baby’s health.
Did you know…?
Cervical mucus of fertile quality is discharged in the greatest amount right before ovulation. Similar to raw egg whites in colour and consistency (clear and slippery), generally you are most fertile two to three days before and during the first signs of wetness.