The Truth About Ovulating, Sex, and Conception.
There are a lot of half-truths (and full-on-falsehoods!) on ovulation and getting pregnant out there. Believing incorrect information on conception could possibly make it harder for you to get pregnant. Do you know your myth from fact?
Myth: If You Don’t Get Pregnant After a Couple Months of Trying, Something Is Wrong
You may have gotten the impression in your high school sex education class that getting pregnant is almost too easy. One time in bed and that’s it—you’ll be expecting. Years of using birth control can also put you into this mindset. When you spend so much time worrying that you might accidentally get pregnant, you may be surprised when you don’t conceive instantly.
The truth is that few couples get pregnant the first month they try. It’s completely normal to take up to six months to get pregnant. Some couples take up to a year to conceive, and that’s also within the realm of normal.
How quickly can you expect to get pregnant? One study found that after three months of trying, 68% of the couples were pregnant. After a year, 92% conceived.These women were using fertility tracking techniques, however. It wasn’t hit-or-miss intercourse that got them pregnant.
What if you’re not pregnant after a year? Go see your doctor. If you’re age 35 or older, go see your doctor after six months. (More on why below.)
Myth: Ovulation Occurs on Day 14 of Your Cycle
Ovulation might occur on day 14 of your cycle. But…it also might not. Ovulating as early as day 6 or 7 or as late as day 19 or 20 isn’t uncommon or abnormal.
When learning about female reproduction, most people are taught that a woman’s cycle is 28 days on average and that ovulation occurs at the mid-point, on day 14. The key phrase here is on average. A healthy woman with good fertility can have a cycle as short as 21 days or as long as 35 days, and all be considered fine. The day of ovulation shifts earlier or later, depending on how long a woman’s cycle is.
Myth: Your Ovaries Take Turns Ovulating an Egg
This isn’t true. Your body doesn’t systematically “schedule” ovulation to alternate ovaries from month to month. Ovulation can switch from side to side, but it doesn’t have to.
It’s common for women to tend to ovulate more often on one side than the other, actually. That could be your left ovary or your right ovary; it depends on a number of factors. This is also why you may notice you get ovulation pain on one side more frequently than the other.
Which ovary releases the egg has more to do with which ovary has a follicle (which contains the developing egg, or oocyte) that reaches the final stage of maturity. At the start of your cycle, several follicles in each ovary begin to develop. Only one (or two) will make it all the way through the stages of development and ovulate. When more than one follicle releases an egg, that’s how you may conceive non-identical twins!
Myth: You Can’t Get Pregnant If You Have Sex on Your Period
You can get pregnant if you have sex during your period. Your ability to get pregnant is dependent on when you ovulate, and not directly associated with menstruation.
Some women mistakenly believe that if they are still on their period, they aren’t yet in the “fertile window.” (That’s the time period of five to six days when it’s possible to get pregnant.) But if your cycle is short, and you ovulate on day 7 or 8, you can conceive from sex on your period.
Another misconception people have is that menstruation will “wash out” any sperm along with period blood. But that’s not true. Your period won’t stop sperm from swimming up to your reproductive system.
Myth: To Get Pregnant, You Need to Have Sex After You Ovulate
If you want to get pregnant, you need to have sex before you ovulate. Ideally, sex in the two days before ovulation is most likely to help you conceive.
This is a common misunderstanding, and it’s easy to see how people come to this conclusion. It seems to make sense that the egg needs to be present first, before you send in the (sperm) swimmers. However, that’s not how it works.
First of all, sperm can survive in the female reproductive tract for up to six days. The sperm will die off as the days pass, so the closer to ovulation you have sex, the better. But they don’t need to get there “at the moment” of ovulation.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the egg becomes nonviable very quickly. If a sperm cell doesn’t fertilize the egg within 12 to 24 hours of being released from the ovary, pregnancy can’t occur.
When you take into consideration this short viability window, sex after ovulation could be too late. (There are, however, other good reasons to have sex after ovulation.)
Myth: You Should Have Sex Every Day—Or Even Twice a Day!—to Get Pregnant Faster
You certainty could have sex every day, if you wanted to. But there’s no evidence that it will help you get pregnant faster. It’s much more likely to lead to burn out and frustration, especially if (or when) you don’t get pregnant in the first month.
Sex every other day, or sex during your most fertile days, is all you need to conceive. In fact, if you had sex three times a week, you’d also be likely to hit your most fertile time.
The reason why more sex doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get pregnant faster is because conception is about much more than timing. There are a variety of physiological factors that impact whether you get pregnant in any given month. If timing were all it took, people would conceive the first month they tried every time.
Myth: The Signs of Ovulation Are Always Obvious
There are many ways you can track or attempt to detect ovulation, from basal body temperature charting to cervical mucus observations, to ovulation predictor tests and more. For some women, one or a few of these methods are perfect, and they have no difficulty using them. That’s not always the case.
For some women, basal body temperature charting won’t work, either because their sleep schedule is too complicated, or they can’t remember to take and record their temperature consistently every morning.3 For some women, cervical mucus tracking is easy, and for others, they question whether they even have “fertile-quality” cervical mucus.
Even ovulation test kits, which you’d think should be fool-proof, can be complicated. Determining whether the test line is darker than the control line is not always simple.
With all that said, if you’re concerned about a lack of ovulation signs, talk to your doctor. It’s possible you’re having difficulty detecting ovulation because you’re not ovulating. Ovulation problems (anovulation) are a possible cause of female infertility.
Myth: If You’re Ovulating, You Won’t Have Trouble Getting Pregnant
Ovulation is essential to getting pregnant—but it takes more than just an egg to conceive. For example, the pathway to the egg must be clear. If the fallopian tubes are blocked, pregnancy can’t occur. Also, you need sperm. Getting pregnant isn’t only about the woman’s fertility.
It’s also important to know that infertility doesn’t always have obvious symptoms. Some fertility problems (in both men and women) are not detectable without fertility testing. It’s not possible to tell without lab testing if a man’s ejaculate has enough sperm cells to be fertile. There may be no obvious signs if a woman’s fallopian tubes are blocked. Ovulation is just one piece of the fertility puzzle.
Myth: 40 Is the New 30, Even for Getting Pregnant
Unfortunately, no matter how good you look, and how healthy you are, your fertility declines with age. Your odds of getting pregnant at 40 are not as good as they are at 30. In fact, female fertility begins a steep downward path around age 35.
This is why women over age 35 should seek help for getting pregnant sooner than younger women. If you’re younger than 35, you should try to get pregnant for a year before you talk to a doctor. If you’re 35 or older, you should seek help after six months.
Myth: You Can’t Get Pregnant After 40
All that said, getting pregnant after 40 is entirely possible. Plenty of women have babies after 40 and even 41. Your risk of infertility increases at 40, along with your risk of miscarriage. It may also take a little longer for you to get pregnant. But you’re not sterile just because you celebrated your 40th birthday. Even if you’ve started perimenopause, until you’ve actually completed menopause, if you want to avoid pregnancy, use contraception.
Myth: Age Doesn’t Matter for Men
You’ve likely seen stories of male celebrities fathering children past age 60. This may have given you the impression that male fertility has no age limit, but that’s not entirely true. While men don’t go through a biological process like menopause, with a definite ending to their fertile years, male fertility does decline with age.
Besides an increased risk of infertility, pregnancy’s conceived with men over 40 are more likely to end in miscarriage or stillbirth. There is also an increase risk of certain disease and conditions, including autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and childhood leukemia.
One study found that combining female age with a man’s age can create fertility problems. They found that when a woman was age 35 to 39, if her partner was five or more years older than she was, their odds of conception dropped from 29% (on their most fertile day) to just 15%.
Myth: Birth Control Causes Infertility
Birth control does prevent pregnancy when you’re using it, which is exactly how you want it to work! But once you stop taking it, your fertility returns. Research has found that birth control does not increase your risk of infertility.
Sometimes, a woman will have regular periods while taking birth control, and then, after she stops, they become irregular. She may think that this means the birth control caused her cycles to be irregular, especially if she had regular cycles before taking contraception. This isn’t accurate, however.
Most hormonal birth control drugs cause an artificial regular cycle. Once you stop taking it, the body takes over. It’s not that the birth control caused your cycles to become irregular, it’s that the birth control was creating an artificial regular cycle.
Sometimes, it happens that a woman conceives easily her first or second child, goes on birth control for awhile, and then when she tries to have another, experiences infertility. It’s easy to blame the birth control for this, but secondary infertility isn’t caused by birth control use.
There is one form of birth control that may impact your fertility longer than a month or so after discontinuation: the birth control shot, or Depo-Provera. Depo-Provera doesn’t cause infertility—your fertility will return. However, the effects of the medication can last much longer than a month or so after you stop using it. While most women will be able to conceive within 10 months of stopping the injections, it can take others up to two years for their fertility to return.8 Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.
Myth: If You Want to Get Pregnant, You Need to Have Sex in the “Missionary Position”
Any sexual position that results in ejaculate getting near the cervix can lead to pregnancy. For that matter, even if ejaculate gets near the vaginal opening, pregnancy can occur.
The so-called “missionary position” of man on top, woman on bottom, is assumed to be the best position for conception. However, there’s no evidence that you’re more likely to get pregnant having sex this way.4
Myth: You Don’t Need to Worry About Your Health Habits Before You Get Pregnant.
You know you shouldn’t smoke or drink when you’re pregnant, and that you should be sure to eat a nutritious diet. But does it matter before you conceive? Yes, it does!
Smoking negatively impacts both male and female fertility.9 It’s also really difficult to quit overnight. Better to quit before you conceive.
While an occasional drink is likely okay, heavy drinking when you’re trying to get pregnant could harm your fertility.9 Also, you might accidentally drink when you’re in early pregnancy. Remember that you’re already four weeks pregnant by the time you can get a positive pregnancy test result.
As for your diet, what you eat matters when you’re trying to conceive. It’s especially important to get enough folate in your diet. Low folic acid intake is associated with an increased risk of birth defects.10
Myth: You Have to Drop Your Starbucks Habit if You’re Trying to Conceive
It’s debatable whether you need to completely quit caffeine when you’re trying to get pregnant. The research hasn’t been clear. For example, a study in Denmark found that tea drinkers were slightly more likely to get pregnant, that soda drinkers were slightly less likely to conceive, and that coffee seemed to have no impact on fertility.11
What does all that mean? We don’t know. For now, though, most agree that less than 300 mg of caffeine a day should be fine. One cup of coffee is less than 300 mg.
Myth: “Trying Too Hard” Makes It Harder to Get Pregnant
“You’re trying too hard to get pregnant,” someone may say, “If you stop trying so hard, you’ll get pregnant.” That’s not true.
There’s no evidence to say that “trying too hard” (whatever that means) will make it take longer to get pregnant. In fact, someone who is trying to get pregnant is likely using fertility awareness methods to track ovulation and is more likely to have sex when they are most fertile. If anything, they may be more likely to get pregnant.
One last thing…
There are a lot of misconceptions out there on getting pregnant and ovulation. Not enough is taught in school about fertility, as the focus is usually on avoiding sexually transmitted infections. How could you have known differently? Don’t feel bad if you believed some of these myths.
If you ever have a question about your fertility, remember that your primary care physician or gynecologist is an excellent source of information. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! They want to help you.