The odds of a young fertile couple conceiving by having sexual intercourse around the time of ovulation (the release of the egg from the ovary) are approximately one in five every month. Around nine in 10 couples achieve pregnancy after one year of unprotected sex. There are various strategies that can improve your odds of conceiving. Identifying the woman’s fertile phase is the most important.
Tests to have when planning for a baby
If you are planning to become pregnant it is a good idea to see your doctor and make sure you are physically fit and healthy.
Your doctor will conduct:
- A general examination
- A Cervical Screening Test
- Tests for any sexually transmissible infections such as chlamydia that can interfere with fertility
- Blood tests to check for anaemia, your Rhesus factor (blood type) and your immunity against German measles (rubella) and chickenpox (varicella)
- Urine tests to check for diabetes
- A test for toxoplasmosis infection (if you have a cat, or eat very rare red meat).
Your doctor can also:
- Identify and manage possible problems for you and your baby based on your personal and family health history (one way of doing this is to identify family, medical, pregnancy, drug, nutritional and social histories)
- Provide information about health services and choices of pregnancy care
- Help you to achieve a body weight that is ideal for conceiving
- Screen for conditions such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Refer you for counselling if genetic (or inherited) conditions have been identified
- Start you on folate at least one month before becoming pregnant
- Review any medicines you may be taking
- Give you advice about giving up birth control, if you are on it
- Start appropriate management, including early referral to a specialist, where you have a pre-existing condition.
Timing sexual intercourse for conceiving a baby
New human life begins when an egg (ovum) from a woman is fertilised by sperm from a man. Ovulation occurs around 14 days before the start of the menstrual period, when an egg is released from one of the ovaries. Conception occurs when the egg fuses with a sperm in the fallopian tube.
The most important factor when trying to conceive is to have sexual intercourse during the woman’s fertile phase. This phase is defined by a changing mucus pattern (of a variable number of days), as well as the time of ovulation and the life of the egg. Being aware of these patterns can help couples to time their sexual intercourse.
Having sex in the days prior to ovulation (when the woman may be aware of a slippery sensation at the vulva) and on the day of ovulation (usually the last day of the slippery sensation or changed mucus pattern), increases the odds of pregnancy.
Couples who have sexual intercourse around the middle or later stages of the woman’s menstrual cycle may have already missed the egg, which has a short lifespan.
Fertility and conceiving a baby
A couple isn’t suspected of fertility problems until they have tried and failed to conceive for one year. Around 40 per cent of fertility problems are female and 40 per cent are male. The remaining difficulties are caused by unknown factors.
There are a number of known reasons why some women have difficulties becoming pregnant. Some causes include problems with:
- Fallopian tubes
- The uterus
- The cervix
- Low body weight
- Excessive exercise
- Cigarette smoking.
Some of the reasons why men may be having difficulty impregnating their partner include:
- Blockage or absence of any section of the male reproductive tract (for example, due to vasectomy or injury)
- Sperm quality
- Functioning of the male reproductive tract (for example, impotence, testicular problems, other medical conditions, production of antibodies which hinder the activity of sperm)
- Hormonal problems.
Sometimes the cause of the delay cannot be explained.
If you are experiencing difficulty in becoming pregnant, talk with your local doctor who can refer you for tests to find out the cause of your problem.
Factors that interfere with ovulation
A woman who is underweight may ovulate erratically, or not at all. Generally, a woman who weighs less than 50 kg should see her doctor for advice. Ovulation can be disrupted by other lifestyle factors, including:
- Excessive exercise – too much exertion releases hormones that interfere with the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
- Emotional stress – stress affects the hypothalamus, which is the brain structure that oversees the menstrual cycle.
- Disordered eating – this may include crash dieting and skipping meals.
Diet and conceiving a baby
There is no special diet that improves the odds of conception, but now is the time to start eating a healthier range of foods including fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats. There is no evidence to support the theory that taking supplements of vitamin C boosts fertility.
It is recommended that women increase their intake of folate for a few months prior to conceiving and throughout the first few weeks of pregnancy, as this B-group vitamin has been found to reduce the risk of certain birth defects. Good sources of folate include leafy green vegetables, legumes, and cereals, juices and most bread, which are fortified with folic acid. Folate supplements are also recommended.
Drug and alcohol use and conceiving a baby
Cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol are not only harmful to a developing baby, but can interfere with fertility. Quitting cigarettes will improve your overall health and your odds of conception. A woman who is trying to conceive should strictly limit her consumption of alcohol and avoid binge drinking completely.
Smoking and conceiving a baby
Smoking in pregnancy can result in a number of poor outcomes for you and your baby including increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth, a small baby for its gestational age, cleft lip or palate, bleeding in pregnancy and stillbirth.
If you are pregnant and are smoking, the healthcare professionals providing you with pregnancy care will offer to help you stop smoking, to reduce the risks to your baby from exposure to maternal smoking. Talk with your doctor or midwife about how to quit.
About one-third of Australian women are smokers when they become pregnant. Although some stop smoking, some continue. The greatest benefits to your baby are achieved by quitting for the whole pregnancy, but quitting at any time will produce some benefits.
Drinking alcohol and conceiving a baby
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been associated with miscarriage, babies who are small for their gestational age and intellectual impairment in children (known as fetal alcohol syndrome).
Although heavy drinking and binge drinking are more likely to cause fetal alcohol syndrome, it is recommended that you stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy or limit your intake to one or two standard drinks once or twice a week.
Drug use and conceiving a baby
During the first three months of pregnancy, drugs and medicines can interfere with the development of your baby’s organs.
Drugs and medicines include:
- Medications prescribed by doctors
- Medications bought without a prescription from the chemist or supermarket (including pain killers, cold and flu medicines, laxatives, vitamins and herbal preparations)
- Drugs obtained illegally.
If you are prescribed medication or are thinking of taking a non-prescription medicine before becoming pregnant, or at any time during pregnancy, you should ask your pharmacist or doctor whether it is safe for you and your baby.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Jean Hailes for Women's Health
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.