When it comes to getting pregnant, simply having made a baby does not make you an expert. Yet once you and your partner announce that you’re trying to conceive, everyone from your jeweler to your sister-in-law’s cleaning lady will claim to have the secret method your doctor isn’t telling you. While these snippets of advice can be intriguing, and may even appear to have some justifiable basis, some are unfounded, unscientific, unproven and are best left with the old wives themselves.
First, it’s important to understand that it’s not that easy to get pregnant. Many women spend their entire young adulthood trying not to getting pregnant, fearful that even thinking about sex without protection could land you in pants with a pouch. But as adults, we soon realize that having a baby isn’t as easy as our biology teachers would have us believe.
A healthy couple in prime reproductive age has only a 25 percent chance of conceiving during each cycle. And, according to Felicia Stewart, M.D., co-author of Understanding Your Body: Every Woman’s Guide to Gynecology and Health, only half of all couples get pregnant within six months, and 85 percent do so within a year.
So what’s our first lesson? It takes time. Don’t get freaked out if you don’t get pregnant the first time you try, or even the second or the third. The story you heard about your friend’s friend who accidentally skipped a pill and got pregnant is a rarity, assuming it’s even true.
The absolute first thing you should do once you and your partner decide it’s time for a baby is see your doctor. Blood pressure, weight, an unknown vaginal infection and even the use of certain herbs can all affect your ability to conceive. And, if you or your partner more than occasionally consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes, use marijuana or have a history of drug abuse, now is the time to quit. Not only will these bad habits adversely affect your fertility, but they can also reduce your partner’s sperm count, as well as the swimming rate of his sperm.
The second thing you need to do is to go off your birth control. If you’ve been using condoms, a diaphragm, cervical cap, IUD or natural methods such as withdrawal or the rhythm method, all you have to do is stop using them and go for it. If you’re on the Pill, Norplant® or Depo-Provera®, you need to consult your doctor, as he may want you to finish out one last cycle, or wait a little before trying to rid your system of any lingering hormones.
So now that you and your partner are on the road to healthy living, it’s time to discuss the number-one, scientifically proven method for successfully getting pregnant: knowing and following your cycle. Now we know this isn’t as interesting as lying with your legs up over your head after sex (which by the way is a myth and does not work), but it is the most effective method. There are four ways you can go about getting to know your cycle and monitoring your ovulation.
Go by your days: Contrary to the belief that your most fertile day is 14 days after your period starts, it’s actually 14 days before your next period starts. If your cycle is regular, a little math could help time things. For a 30-day cycle, day 16 is your most fertile day. Similarly, if your cycle is normally 32 days, then you should go for it on day 18.
Go by your mucus: It sounds about as fun as it is, but it can really help you identify when you’re ovulating. When ovulation occurs, your body produces a slippery, thin substance called cervical mucus that helps to facilitate the passage of the sperm. If you examine yourself daily, you’ll notice a vaginal discharge that’s transparent and thicker between your fingers, like egg white, on your most fertile days.
Go by your temperature: "Your body temperature usually dips by half a degree 24 hours before you ovulate; then it goes up as you ovulate," says Pette Zarmakoupis, M.D., an ob-gyn and director of the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine. But since basal body temperature can be thrown off by a lot of things, don’t rely on it alone.
Go buy a kit or monitor: Kits measure the level of Luteinizing Hormone (LH), one of the hormones that signal the ovaries to release an egg, in your urine. They offer 22 – 36 hour advance notice that you’re going to ovulate. Even better, electronic devices, like the Clearblue Easy Fertility Monitor, track your LH and estrogen levels for a more accurate way to identify a greater number of fertile days — up to five days in advance.
In conjunction with working with your cycle, there are a few other things you can do to increase your chances.
Tell him to hang loose. Have your partner trade in his tighty-whiteys for boxers about two months before you try and conceive to keep his testicles cool and unrestricted. Although they may look cute, tight quarters and overheating can actually cause his sperm count to drop. For that same reason, have him resist the urge to dip into a hot tub or sauna at the gym.
Get wild more often. Having sex every other day can help you cover your bases if you’re not timing your cycles accurately or you’re having irregular periods. So get out there and have fun.
Avoid sex underwater. Although a midnight skinny-dip can make you feel like making love, it’s not an ideal situation for making a baby. Water washes away vaginal mucus, which helps sperm get to the egg. Also, the chlorine found in most pool water can alter vaginal chemistry and kill sperm.
There’s a better way to do it. While no sexual positions actually prevent you from getting pregnant, doing it the old-fashioned way can help. According to Felicia Stewart, M.D., of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, "No matter what the position, sperm can be found in the cervical canal within seconds after ejaculation. But still, it can’t hurt to get the sperm close to the cervix using positions that permit reasonably deep penetration, like the missionary [position]."
Steer clear of severe stress. The daily pressures of life, or even worrying about not getting pregnant, aren’t enough to prevent you from conceiving. However, studies have shown that extreme levels of stress can contribute to missed periods, making it difficult to time your fertility.
And finally, if for nothing else but comedic value, we’d like to debunk some of more popular, yet nonetheless strange, myths for getting pregnant.
The following methods will not, and we repeat, will not help you get pregnant.
Taking Robitussin® cough syrup before trying to conceive.
Taking the herb Wild Yam.
Not urinating after sex.
Lying with your feet over your head after sex.
Standing on your head after sex.
Making love during the day with the lights on.
Having sex every day instead of every other day.
Sitting in the same chair a pregnant woman has sat in.
Staring into the eyes of a pregnant woman.
Putting ice packs on your partner’s testicles. (Ouch!)
And most of all, remember that trying to make a baby is one of the most wonderful activities that two people can share. It’s a true sign of your love and commitment to one another and creates a special bond that will last a lifetime. Don’t view sex while trying to conceive as a chore or another thing on your to-do list. Have fun, stay positive and try not to worry about it so much. Good luck!
arenting magazine, June/July 1999
Elizabeth Pryor, M.D., FACOG
New England Journal of Medicine
American Society for Reproductive Medicine