The concept seems simple: have unprotected sex, get pregnant. Easy, right? And for many women, it is. For others, it doesn't seem that way. So are there natural ways to get pregnant faster, especially if it seems to be taking forever?
The answer is yes, with a caveat. "When a woman decides she wants a baby, she should immediately make lifestyle changes to help Mother Nature," says Dr. Arlene Morales, a reproductive endocrinologist affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group. "But she also needs to be realistic. If many months go by and nothing happens, it's time to get evaluated to see what Mother Nature is up against."
In general, women under 35 can attempt to conceive without evaluation for 12 months, knowing that 80 percent of women in that age bracket will conceive within the first six months. Women over 35 should set their benchmark at six months, knowing they are half as fertile as their 20- and 30-something counterparts. That being said, if a woman has irregular periods or either partner has health issues that may impact fertility, it is important to see a reproductive specialist.
Kicking off conception
Once a woman goes off birth control, she can start trying to get pregnant right away. Some women wait to conceive, believing a myth about pills having a "wearing off period." "Go off the pill on a Monday, start trying on a Tuesday," says Dr. Morales.
Next, a woman should follow a few basic guidelines — small changes that can boost her odds by helping her body's natural rhythm:
Have sex every other day.
One common myth about conception is that men need to "build up" or "save" their sperm. Science says something different. "Infrequent ejaculation actually has a negative impact on the quality of sperm," says Dr. Morales. "Every day isn't the best idea either. You have to strike the right balance to get good quality sperm and exposure at the right time." This balance lands at every other day — enough to put sperm where it needs to be, without adding the emotional and physical stress of sticking to a daily schedule.
Get familiar with your fertile window.
Fertility, for the most part, is basic math. Ovulation occurs halfway through your cycle. So if your period arrives like clockwork every 28 days, expect to ovulate around day 14. Your fertile window is a six-day interval ending on the day of ovulation. And sperm typically lasts two to three days inside the female body, making early exposure better than later. Up your odds by having sex every other day during this most fertile time.
Don't be ruled by ovulation monitors.
"It's a misconception that you need to have sex the exact second the egg pops," says Dr. Morales. In reality, the egg sticks around for a full 24 hours. While ovulation monitoring kits and apps can help you get more familiar with your cycle, some women add undue stress by taking them too seriously. So instead of rushing to have sex when your app tells you to, relax and keep to your schedule of every other day during your fertile window.
Swap out your lubricant.
It's true: many lubricants on the market can slow a man's sperm, so switch to a product that is mineral oil-based or hydroxyethyl cellulose-based. What isn't true are rumors of coital positioning — how certain sex positions work in your favor. "After sex, the sperm that impregnates you is already in the cervical canal and uterus," says Dr. Morales. "There's no evidence that having sex a certain way, or in a certain position such as laying upside-down afterward, changes the likelihood of conceiving."
Take prenatal folic acid daily.
At least a month prior to trying to conceive, start a daily prenatal vitamin that has at least 400 micrograms of folic acid. When taken before and early in pregnancy, folic acid helps prevent spinal birth defects. It has also been shown to help fertility by improving cell division and controlling certain amino acids.
Quit smoking and recreational drugs.
Women who smoke cigarettes are 60 percent more likely to be infertile. But women aren't the only ones affected. Studies have shown that men who smoke can have a decreased sperm concentration. Other studies have suggested that recreational drugs like marijuana may affect sperm in a variety of ways, including decreasing testosterone levels inside the testicle (where sperm is made), degrading sperm production and restricting blood supply to testicles.
Minimize caffeine and alcohol.
Go ahead and enjoy that latte, just don't overdo it. It has been found that drinking more than three cups in a day can cut a woman's fertility as much as 50 percent. Plus, cutting coffee is a good practice to start early, because caffeine has been associated with miscarriage during pregnancy (ask your OBGYN for caffeine limitations once pregnant). For men, studies show that caffeine can negatively affect their sperm. So keep it healthy by capping coffee at no more than two cups per day.
Be smart about the foods you choose.
Should women switch to organic food when they're trying to conceive? The jury is still out. But Dr. Morales suggests small swaps to keep eating smart. "There's not enough information out there," she says, "but I always suggest buying organic where it counts — like thin-skinned fruits. We don't know enough about fertility and pesticides." It's also important to avoid foods high in mercury (like large fish) because it can cause hormone imbalances.
Maintain a healthy BMI.
While there's no magic diet that can make you more fertile (or decide the sex of your baby), an unhealthy body mass index (BMI) can make it harder to get pregnant and result in a riskier pregnancy. Studies have shown that women with a BMI over 35 take twice as long to get pregnant. And it goes both ways. Women with an unhealthy, low BMI can also struggle. "I see a lot of women who are avid runners. They need to understand that a BMI under 19 can make it more difficult to conceive."
Find ways to relax.
Acupuncture. Massage. Herbal medicines. These and more have been touted as miracle treatments for infertility. But the truth is, there are no solid scientific links. What they can do, is reduce stress — something Dr. Morales sees big value in. "Stress is not good for fertility," she says. "So I never discourage women from finding therapies that help them relax. What I do discourage is the idea that these therapies can be a substitute for clinical evaluations."
Consulting with a specialist
When natural methods don't seem to be working, Dr. Morales urges women to stay positive. Seeing a specialist isn't an indication of resignation, but simply the next step in a journey. "There are very clear-cut ways we can gauge your reproductive situation," she says. "Maybe the answer is to keep trying naturally. Maybe it's to explore new diagnostic or treatment options. But either way, it helps the patient and partner feel more confident in their choices."