It is simply exasperating to discover that after years of fretting about contraception and unwanted pregnancy, planned conception turns out to be such an unrewarding slog. By the time foreplay involves ovulation kits, calendars, secretions and temperature charts, couples inevitably begin to question whether there is something physically wrong them, but if it is any consolation, Zita West, who is one of Britain’s best known fertility experts, admits that 50% of the couples she sees in her practice are completely normal, they just don’t understand ovulation and they don’t have enough sex.
Men describe performing on demand as a ‘turn off’, but it’s a veritable party compared to masturbating into a sterile jar in a hospital cubicle. Having sex every day or every other day particularly before, during and after ovulation is the ideal because storing up sperm for longer than three days is detrimental to its quality. Sperm can live for several days inside the body and there is a better chance of fertilisation if ejaculation takes place in advance of ovulation so that sperm have time to travel up the fallopian tubes and lie in wait for the egg. Fertile mucous in the cervix protects the sperm, keeps it alive and then helps it on its way to meet the egg.
Obviously it’s not a message that anyone has cared to publicise too much for fear of the impact it would have on the sexual behaviour of teenagers, but it is actually quite difficult to get pregnant. For every 100 couples having sex 2 to 3 times a week, approximately 30 will conceive within 1 month, 60 will be pregnant within 6 months and 85 will have conceived within 1 year. And the older you get the more problematic it becomes. At seventeen, two beers and a backseat seems to be all it takes, but by the time a woman is 35 and desperate to reproduce, her chance of conception has reduced to just 10% per cycle.
In his book Breathe: A Guy’s Guide to Pregnancy (Simon and Schuster), author Mason Brown plots this inverse relationship between the odds of conception and it’s desirability in a humorous little chart entitled ‘Brown’s First Law of Conception’. At the peak are unwed mothers and the recently fired. At the base are anxious couples who are desperate to see two blue lines on a test. And there is increasing evidence that the 30% of couples who fail to conceive for no known reason may actually be scuppering their chances of natural conception by getting so worked up about it.
Sarah Berga, from Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, has established that female infertility is related to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In her study, eight of sixteen women who had not ovulated for six months were given cognitive behavioural therapy and the other eight were given no treatment. Twenty weeks later the researchers found that 80 per cent of those given therapy had started ovulating again compared with 25 per cent in the other group. Two months later two of the women became pregnant.
Improvements in fertilty have also been seen in women who have been given other stress management therapies such as acupuncture, massage and yoga. So, if getting pregnant is proving difficult, before you start stressing about IVF, try throwing out the ovulation charts and taking a holiday. Stressed out couples generally find that their libido returns when they get away together and a survey of more than 1000 US BabyCenter mums found that 40 percent of those who took a ‘conceptionmoon’, conceived while on vacation.