How can I increase my chances of getting pregnant?
You may be reading this article because you are thinking about starting a family or just want to know more about getting pregnant. Research studies show there are a range of factors that can affect a couple’s fertility and their ability to conceive. Women are often naturally in-tune with their bodies and their menstrual cycles (periods) and this is always a good starting point. If you ‘know’ your body you can start to understand when you are at your most fertile when planning a pregnancy.
Improving your chances of getting pregnant isn’t just about the female reproductive system though – as they say… it takes two to tango! There are a number of healthy lifestyle choices that men can make to help ensure their sperm are as strong and healthy as they can be to give your baby-making efforts a boost!
Knowing when you ovulate
You can increase your chances of getting pregnant if you know when you ovulate each month i.e. when you release an egg from your ovary. Women of a childbearing age ovulate just once during each menstrual cycle, so if you know when you ovulate, it means you and your partner can time sexual intercourse for around that time. This helps to ensure you have the best chance of getting pregnant during that month’s cycle.
Knowing when you ovulate is particularly important because there is only a finite window of around six days each cycle when it is possible to get pregnant. This fertile window leads up to and includes the day that you ovulate, and women are at their most fertile in the two days leading up to ovulation.
Common signs of ovulation
There are a range of signs and symptoms that women can experience around the time of ovulation. However, these are as individual as the women experiencing them and some women will be more aware than others. Similarly, some women don’t experience any signs and symptoms at all and are completely unaware that they are ovulating.
The main signs and symptoms of ovulation are as follows:
Changes in vaginal discharge – where there is a change or increase in women’s normal vaginal loss (i.e. cervical mucus), this is a sign that they are approaching ovulation or have ovulated. Cervical mucus relates to the discharge usually seen on toilet paper and in women’s underwear – this discharge changes in consistency as ovulation approaches. At around the time of ovulation, women’s cervical mucus becomes clear, slippery and stretchy – resembling ‘egg whites’. When there is more cervical mucus, this is a good indication that the ovary is about to, or has released an egg.
Change in basal body temperature – the basal body temperature refers to the lowest body temperature that is reached during rest (usually whilst sleeping). It is usually estimated by taking a measurement of temperature immediately upon waking up and before undertaking any physical activity.
Before ovulation, most women are found to have a consistent basal body temperature, however, as ovulation approaches a decline in body temperature is often noted. This is followed by a sharp increase in basal body temperature of around 0.2oC once ovulation has occurred. This increase in temperature occurs because the release of an egg stimulates the production of the hormone progesterone, which naturally raises the body’s temperature.
Women are at their most fertile in the two or three days before their basal body temperature rises. It has been suggested that women may have an additional 12 hour – 24 hour window of fertility after they have first noticed the increase in temperature. However, fertility experts generally agree that this timeframe is usually too late to get pregnant.
Some women will take regular basal body temperature measurements each morning over a few months, so they can track their fertility when planning for a pregnancy. They can then plan to have sexual intercourse during the two to three days prior to the day on which their temperature normally spikes.
Cervical changes – Most women are unaware of the changes that their cervix (neck of the womb) undergoes during each menstrual cycle. However, it is good for women to be aware of how their body prepares for getting pregnant. The position and feel of the cervix changes from being hard, low, closed and dry to becoming much softer, higher, open and wet during ovulation. These changes are in preparation for the passage of sperm through the cervical canal (neck of the womb) towards the fallopian tubes.
All of the above are referred to as ‘Natural Family Planning’ or ‘Fertility Awareness’ and help women to use their body’s natural functioning to identify when they are at their most fertile. Some women will use this awareness of their body as a form of birth control; however, this method is less reliable than other methods of contraception.
Additional symptoms of ovulation
Besides the three main symptoms listed above, there are a number of additional signs and symptoms that women may experience. They include:
o One-sided mild cramping or pain in the pelvic region
o Breast tenderness
o Abdominal bloating (caused by fluid retention)
o Light spotting (bleeding)
o Increased awareness of taste, smell or vision
o Increased libido (sex drive).
How can I tell that I’ve ovulated?
There are a number of different methods that can help you to work out when you ovulate. Most women have a menstrual cycle that lasts 28 days with day one being the day that they start menstruating (bleeding) and ovulation occurring around day 14. However, if women have irregular periods or longer menstrual cycles, it can be a little more difficult determining when they ovulate. If this applies to you, it is recommended that you speak to your doctor or family planning nurse for their advice.
Ovulation predictor kits
These look and work in the same way as over-the-counter pregnancy testing kits which detect the presence of the pregnancy hormone in women’s urine. Ovulation predictor kits detect a surge in luteinising hormone (LH) just before ovulation occurs. Studies suggest that these kits are easy to use – in fact, much easier than taking basal body temperature recordings, and that women are quickly able to accurately identify their fertile time.
Ovulation kits are able to predict ovulation 24 hours – 36 hours before the egg is released. However, whilst they are able to detect a surge in the levels of LH they are unable to confirm that an egg has definitely been released from the ovary. LH levels can surge whether or not ovulation takes place and studies show that false LH surges can also occur before the actual one. Therefore, couples are advised to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter.
Make sure you have sexual intercourse when you’re most fertile
The most fertile time to try for a baby tends to be around three days before you ovulate through to the actual day of ovulation. If you are able to work out this timeframe, you and your partner can plan to have sexual intercourse at the peak of your fertility when you will have the best chance of getting pregnant.
While the egg that is released from your ovary only lives for around a day, your partner’s sperm however can survive for much longer inside your body – in fact, sperm can survive inside the fallopian tubes for three to six days. This means you have a ‘window of opportunity’ to try and get pregnant because there are still going to be sperm ‘loitering with intent’!
However, if you don’t know when you ovulate and when you are at your most fertile, it is recommended that you have sexual intercourse every other day to maximise your chances of getting pregnant. This approach ensures there are healthy sperm inside your fallopian tubes whenever your egg is released from the ovary. Some couples however, may decide that they want to have sexual intercourse every single day to improve their chances of conceiving. Research shows that this will not increase your chances of getting pregnant, but neither is it detrimental to conceiving.
Fertility experts also recommend that if you are trying for a baby, you and your partner should not abstain from sexual intercourse until your most fertile period. This is because there could be an accrual of dead sperm within your partner’s semen. It is therefore, recommended that your partner ejaculates at least once daily in the days leading up to your most fertile period.
What about lying still after sex?
Historically, women trying for a baby have always been encouraged to remain still and supine (on their backs) following sexual intercourse. Other women report sitting with their legs resting up against a wall, or with a pillow propped under their buttocks to elevate their bottom and ensure the sperm stay put and, hopefully, reach the egg. However, a recent study has found that sexual positions make no difference whatsoever when it comes to getting pregnant. Fertility experts at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) have stated that there is no reason for women to stay in bed longer than it takes “to get your breath back”. They also suggest that too many couples trying to conceive forget how to enjoy sex.
Tips for healthy sperm
There are things that men can do to improve their chances of fathering a baby. Sperm are needed to fertilise the egg, so where there are plenty of strong, healthy sperm in the semen this will increase the chances of conception. There are certain lifestyle choices that your partner can make to give his sperm a boost. Because sperm take a while to mature, the sooner your partner can make any of these changes – the far better it is for the health of his sperm and your future baby-making.
Lifestyle changes include the following:
o Reduce alcohol intake – Research studies have found that drinking alcohol every day is associated with lower levels of testosterone and lower sperm counts. This can lead to an increased number of abnormal sperm in the semen
o Stop smoking and avoid recreational drugs – Studies have found a link between tobacco and drug use and poor sperm function
o Eat a nutritious diet – There are a number of key vitamins and minerals that are known to support the development of strong and abundant volumes of sperm. These include eating foods that are rich in zinc, folic acid, calcium, and vitamins C and D
o Maintain a healthy weight – Where men are obese/overweight, this has been found to be associated with lower sperm counts and poor sperm mobility. Where sperm slow down, they are less likely to reach the egg and fertilise it
o Avoid high temperatures – Heat kills sperm! Testicles are at their reproductive healthiest when they are maintained at a temperature of 94 to 96oF. This temperature is a couple of degrees lower than the body’s normal temperature. For this reason, it is always best for men to wear looser-fitting, cotton boxers/underpants. They should also avoid using hot tubs, saunas and taking lengthy soaks in a hot bath.
How long does it usually take to get pregnant?
Studies have found that when couples start trying for a baby, most will have conceived within the first six months. In fact, around eight out of 10 couples get pregnant within six months.
However, it is important to remember that fertility declines as we get older and because women are increasingly choosing to delay they fertility until they are in a stable relationship and financially secure, this is something that may need to be considered.
It is generally accepted that if you are younger than 35 years-old it is fine to keep trying for a baby for a year before seeking specialist fertility advice. However, if there is no sign of a pregnancy after a year of trying then couples should see a doctor.
This timeframe is reduced for women who are 36 years or older – they are advised to seek specialist advice if they haven’t conceived after six months of trying for a baby.
Similarly, if there are any pre-existing medical conditions or known causes that are likely to cause fertility problems for either you or your partner, it is advised that you seek specialist advice without delay.
Support Groups and Organisations
Family Planning Association (FPA) – The sexual health charity. Further information is available at: www.fpa.org.uk
Foresight – The Association for the Promotion of Pre-conceptual Care. Further information is available at:
The Foresight Approach has been developed over 5 decades to optimise the chances for people to have a baby, to support the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of children and young people, and to improve the health and longevity of the elder population.
Tommy’s – Tommy’s provide evidence based, expert and user led, accessible pregnancy information to support expectant parents in understanding what they can do to support a healthy pregnancy. Further information is available at: www.tommys.org