For some women, conceiving can be as easy as tossing out their contraception, whether they're working on their first baby or their fourth. For others, reaching the goal of fertilization becomes a nightly chore, a mad mating dance that revolves around ovulation kits, specific sexual positions, and, more and more commonly, a succession of fertility tests to help pinpoint possible problems.
Whether you've just started trying to become pregnant or have been at it for a while, heeding some common sense advice that's based on good science can help boost your odds of conceiving. Here, noted fertility experts from around the country have outlined the do's, don'ts, and don't-bother-withs of getting pregnant.
Have sex frequently. It may seem like a no-brainer, but given many couples' hectic schedules, it's easy to overlook this one. If you're not timing your cycles or you have irregular periods, you can cover your bases by having sex every other day, say fertility specialists.
Figure out when you ovulate. Women with very regular 28-day cycles can just count 14 days from the first day of their period to determine their ovulation date. If your cycles aren't regular (or even if they are), an ovulation kit can help you pinpoint your most fertile time.
Most ovulation kits measure the level of luteinizing hormone (LH), one of the hormones that signals the ovaries to release an egg, present in your urine. LH begins to surge around 36 hours before you ovulate, but most kits don't detect it until 24 hours prior. A woman with a 28-day cycle should start testing her urine on day nine or ten after the start of her period so she doesn't miss her surge.
A new palm-size, electronic device called ClearPlan Easy measures LH and estrogen levels, and can signal ovulation up to five days in advance.
Monitoring cervical mucus is another way to track ovulation. "It's not as reliable as a kit," says Sandra Carson, M.D., professor of ob-gyn at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, "but it doesn't cost anything." This method involves checking your secretions for a few months until you notice a pattern. Estrogen causes mucus to thin after your period, while rising levels of progesterone right after ovulation make it thicken. Once you pinpoint when you ovulate, you can plan to have sex several times leading up to that day.
The drawbacks: Many women find this method inconvenient or inaccurate since such factors as nursing and antihistamines, even fertility drugs, can dry up mucus.
Charting your basal body temperature is useful for figuring out when you ovulate. "Your temperature usually dips by half a degree 24 hours before you ovulate; then it goes up as you ovulate," says Pette Zarmakoupis, M.D., an ob-gyn and director of the Kentucky Center for Reproductive Medicine, in Lexington. But since basal body temperature can be thrown off by a number of things, such as illness, don't rely on it alone.
Step up sex before ovulation. As soon as you pick up a hormonal surge, have sex that day, plus the next two days. Pregnancy rates peak two days before ovulation, says Clarice Weinberg, Ph.D., chief of biostatistics at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Some experts speculate that's when cervical mucus is at its optimum for helping sperm travel to the egg and break down its shell-like coating.
Sperm can live inside the uterus for 24 to 48 hours, which means there will be plenty on hand to greet the egg once ovulation starts.
Another reason to have sex before you ovulate, as opposed to the day it happens: An egg survives for only 12 to 24 hours after ovulation, so if you begin to ovulate in the morning and wait until nighttime to have sex, the egg may lose its viability by the time the sperm gets to it. In addition, says Dr. Zarmakoupis, cervical mucus starts to become thick and impenetrable right after ovulation, rendering it "hostile" to the passage of sperm.
Enjoy yourself. "The most important thing to remember is to keep sex fun," says Felicia Stewart, M.D., coauthor of Understanding Your Body: Every Woman's Guide to Gynecology and Health. When it becomes a chore, it's easy to view sex as just one more item on your to-do list.
Give it time. Barring fertility problems and other conditions or habits that can interfere with conception, half of all couples get pregnant within six months, says Dr. Stewart, and 85 percent do so within a year.