Having a baby may seem like the most natural thing in the world, but for many this just isn't so. Getting pregnant may be easy for some, but for others it can be a long, difficult, and frustrating journey.
When is the best time to get pregnant? What age?
The best time to get pregnant is when you are physically, mentally and financially ready to be pregnant and become a parent.
Women are most fertile between the ages of 20 and 24. After this, fertility gradually decreases with age, with a gradual decline into the 30s and a sharper decrease after the age of 35.
Being an older mother
By the time women reach their 40s, their chances of getting pregnant fall further still. Although women do have successful pregnancies and healthy babies in their 40s, they do have a higher risk of complications than younger women.
Diabetes and high blood pressure during pregnancy are more common among women over the age of 35 than in younger women. These conditions can result in complications for both mother and baby. Having a baby with chromosome abnormalities, such as Down syndrome, is often a fear of older mothers. Although the risk of having a baby with Down syndrome is relatively low for older women (about one per cent at the age of 40), it is still higher than for younger women.
What time of the month am I fertile?
You are most fertile 12 to 14 days before the start of your next period, when ovulation (the release of the egg by the ovaries) generally takes place. The mucus that lines the canal of the cervix is usually thick, but becomes clear and slippery and easier for sperm to swim through at the time of ovulation. During this time you have a small window, that is, a few days, in which to get pregnant. Ovulation is geared to the next period not to the one that has passed. For the egg to be fertilised, sperm must be present in your body at the same time that you release an egg. This is not always easy to achieve because although sperm can fertilise an egg for several days after ejaculation, the egg is fertile for only about 12 to 24 hours after it has been released.
Plot your menstrual cycle
To establish when you are most likely to get pregnant, you will need to understand your menstrual cycle. Make a note in your diary of when your period starts — this is referred to as day one. Count the days until your period arrives again; the end of your cycle is the day before your next period begins. Cycles range in length from about 21 to 40 days, with only about 10 per cent being precisely 28 days. If your cycle is generally 28 days long, then you know that you are likely to ovulate on day 14.
Keep in mind, though, that fertilisation can take place at different times after the last period as some women do not ovulate consistently. If your menstrual cycle varies every month, it is difficult to predict the date of ovulation. In this case, you can conduct tests that determine the day you ovulate, such as keeping a temperature chart or using a home ovulation kit. Tests should be conducted over a number of cycles so as to determine a pattern of ovulation.
Phases of the normal menstrual cycle
Home ovulation kits
Home ovulation tests are available that will help you predict when ovulation will take place. One type of test works by detecting an increase in the amount of luteinising hormone (LH) in your urine. It is this surge in your LH level that brings about the release of your egg. Levels of LH peak in the urine 24 to 36 hours before the egg is released. To use the test, you need to test your urine with a disposable test stick around the predicted time of ovulation in your cycle.
Another type of home ovulation test involves testing your saliva for subtle microscopic changes that occur during your menstrual cycle. The test kit contains a magnifying lens that is used to examine samples of saliva, which changes appearance when your oestrogen level rises several days before ovulation.
Home ovulation tests can take the guesswork out of the process and help you to find the times when you are most likely to get pregnant.
Temperature chart — a guide to ovulation
Taking daily body temperature readings and recording them on a temperature chart is the easiest method to determine the time of ovulation, but is less accurate and reliable than home ovulation kits. You will need to take your temperature every morning, starting on day one of your menstrual cycle. Do this before getting out of bed and before eating or drinking. Just before ovulation takes place your temperature will be at a low point. Then if ovulation occurs the temperature will rise slightly (about half a degree Celsius) and stay higher until your next period starts. Digital thermometers are easy to read and are very accurate. The easiest way to see the temperature rise is to plot your recordings on a graph. After a few months, you should have a good idea of which day ovulation occurs in your cycle.
Another clue that you are just about to ovulate is an increase in the amount of cervical mucus that appears in the vagina and a change in its consistency. The mucus is clear and slippery and increases in amount around the time of ovulation.
The pain of waiting
Trying to have a baby but not succeeding can be very stressful, therefore it is better for partners to support rather than blame each other. Distraction is a good therapy. Plan a holiday, knowing that you will not be able to travel so easily when a baby eventually arrives. Remember that time passes slowly when you are waiting, but many couples who experience infertility do succeed in having their longed-for baby, especially in light of the ongoing advances in infertility treatments.
Keep in mind that it is normal for even a woman in her 20s to take up to a year to conceive and that difficulties in conceiving can be due to either male or female problems. The term sub-fertility refers to failure to conceive after 12 months of regular sex without contraception, suggesting a reduced chance to conceive because of one or more factors in either or both partners (rather than an absolute infertility). If you have been trying for a year or more to get pregnant and have had no success, ask your doctor to refer you and your partner to a fertility specialist.
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3. Mayo Clinic. Getting Pregnant. Pregnancy after 35. Healthy moms, healthy babies. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pregnancy/PR00115 (accessed Feb 2013).
4. Mayo Clinic. How to get pregnant. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/how-to-get-pregnant/PR00103 (accessed Feb 2013).
5. American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Age and fertility. A guide for patients. http://www.asrm.org/awards/detail.aspx?id=10601 (accessed Feb 2013).