Dr. Jones: You've done everything you can to get ready to start a family, and now it just didn't happen. So when should you get help?
So you're a 28-year-old woman, and you've been trying for a while to get pregnant. You stopped your birth control, and it didn't just happen. When should you get help?
Well, it depends. Of course, it depends. It depends on a lot of things, your health and history, and the male part of getting pregnant part of the business. But we usually start with your age. We're going to do this in three parts. So if this isn't your age, or the age of the person you're worried about, check out our other podcasts about when to get help getting pregnant.
Here in The Scope studio virtually with us is Dr. Erica Johnstone. She is a specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, and an associate professor at the University of Utah. Welcome, Dr. Johnstone.
Dr. Johnstone: Thank you.
Age Considerations in Fertility: Guidance for Women Under 35
Dr. Jones: Well, we're so glad you're here. So let's just say that you, the listener, are between 25 and 35. Of course, you could include 20 to 25. So let's just say you're under 35 years old, and you've decided to try to get pregnant, and you're so excited, but it didn't happen in the first three months. When should you consider getting some help?
When to Seek Professional Help
Dr. Johnstone: So generally, for women who are under 35, we recommend trying for a full year before you seek help. And that's because it often happens. Close to half of women will conceive within those first three months. There are plenty of women and plenty of couples with perfectly normal fertility for whom it will just take a little bit longer.
Exceptions to the Waiting Period
Now, there are a few exceptions to that, situations when it might make sense to seek help sooner. One of those is if either the woman or her partner has previously been treated for cancer with chemotherapy or radiation.
Another of those situations is if a woman is having very irregular periods, going 45 days or more without a period, or potentially having no periods at all. Those would be times when you'd want to seek help sooner.
Preparation for Pregnancy: What You Can Do
Dr. Jones: I know that people who want to have a baby, when they're finally ready, they want to do it right now. "I just want to have a Christmas baby," or, "I want to have a spring baby. I don't want to be pregnant in the summer." But what should you be doing while you're going to try on your own for a while? What do you tell people when you say . . . It's hard to tell someone to go away and come back in six months. What can you tell people to be doing while they're trying to get their 12 or 13 cycles of trying in?
Lifestyle Changes and Health Habits
Dr. Johnstone: Sure. So, first of all, things we think about are just being ready to be pregnant. So some key parts of this. One, take a prenatal vitamin every day. Two, if you're a smoker, I recommend that you quit smoking. The same is true for vaping, any sort of illicit drug. You want to really limit your use of alcohol and caffeine. I recommend that every woman who's trying to conceive, make sure that she's up to date on her vaccines, including the COVID vaccine.
Strategies for Frequent Intercourse
Then when it comes to actually trying to get pregnant, we think that probably, over time, one of the most effective strategies is just to have frequent sexual intercourse throughout the menstrual cycle, ideally about every other day, three times a week. This should work well. With this approach, you don't need to strictly worry about timing intercourse, just frequent intercourse throughout the cycle.
Dr. Jones: Right. Some people really struggle because they want to buy a kit that will tell them when they're ovulating, or they want to use their symptoms. But it turns out that just doing it is the way people get pregnant.
Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely. As it turns out, as many kits and products as there are now, the human race existed for many, many, many generations before the existence of those products.
When to Seek Professional Help
Dr. Jones: And so who should you see to get help? If you're still a relatively young woman and a relatively young couple, and it's been nine months and you're picking up the phone to make an appointment, because you might not get the appointment next week, who should you be calling?
Choosing Between OB-GYN and Reproductive Endocrinologist
Dr. Johnstone: So I think for women under 35, it's reasonable to start with your OB-GYN, particularly if you already have an OB-GYN who you've established care with, who you might be able to get in to see sooner. It's also always an option to see a reproductive endocrinologist. And so, for women in this age group, either is a good option.
Evaluations and Tests
Dr. Jones: And so what would they do? Let's say you've been trying and it's got to be 10 months or something like that, and you got your appointment and you want to kind of be ready for what kinds of things they might do when you go to visit them. So what would they be doing in this first part of your visits with them and your evaluation?
Dr. Johnstone: One of the first things will be a very detailed history. We'll look at a woman's menstrual history. We'll look at her medical history, any surgeries that she might have had, any symptoms she might have related to her periods, pain with intercourse, and things like that. We'll look at a general health history and health habits.
And we'll do the same for the male partner in terms of his general health history, any issues with things like erectile dysfunction, or difficulty with ejaculation, etc.
And then we'll start with some tests, typically for both partners. So, for the male partner, we will usually do a semen analysis. And so this is collecting a sperm sample after about two to five days of abstinence so that we can look at the number of sperm, we can look at how many of those are swimming and swimming in a progressive fashion, and how many of the sperm have normal head shapes. And this helps us to say, "Do we think there's a male factor making it harder to conceive?"
For the woman, we will often do some general health labs. Essentially, women in early pregnancy get a lot of blood tests done that are screening tests, looking at blood counts, maybe looking at their thyroid, their blood type, checking their immunity to different diseases, and infectious disease testing. We know that for every single one of these tests, it would be optimal if there's a problem to find it before pregnancy.
We'll also look at ovarian reserve. And what that means is does a woman have a normal number of eggs for a woman her age? Is it higher than most women her age, or is it lower than most women her age? One of the important things to know about that is while it's really useful as we talk about treatment, it is not a predictor of who will and who won't get pregnant.
Dr. Jones: It just may help direct what kind of treatment is most likely to be helpful and which might not be.
Dr. Johnstone: Yes, exactly. We'll also typically do an ultrasound to look at a woman's uterus and ovaries, look to see if we see abnormal ovarian cysts, fibroids, polyps, or any sort of structural or anatomic findings that might be contributing to the difficulty.
And finally, we would do a test like a hysterosalpingogram or a saline infusion sonohysterogram to assess whether a woman's fallopian tubes are open.
Optimizing Health for a Successful Pregnancy
Dr. Jones: Right. So those are the beginning tests, and it helps guide future therapy, I think. There are circumstances that would make it important to at least get information or get help sooner. You already mentioned that if women's cycles are really irregular, or if either of the partners had treatment for cancer when they were younger, it might mean that they don't have as many eggs and sperm.
But if a woman or her partner has a pretty serious medical condition, we want to make sure that that medical condition is in really tip-top shape before they get pregnant. So sometimes do you recommend people see a specialist, like an OB specialist, before they get pregnant?
Dr. Johnstone: Absolutely. So for women who have significant underlying health conditions or something in their history that might make their pregnancy higher risk than for other women, we'll recommend that they see a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine before conceiving to talk about, "Are you on the best medications for your condition? How is that health condition going to affect your pregnancy? And how is your pregnancy going to affect that health condition and the treatment options?"
Dr. Jones: Right. Well, remember, it takes normal eggs and normal sperm, fallopian tubes, and a uterus to get pregnant and grow a baby. And in humans, it often takes a little time. But don't wait forever. We can help. And thanks to Dr. Johnstone and thanks to you for joining us on The Scope.
updated: December 7, 2023
originally published: September 30, 2021
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