Over the past year, many of us have realised just how much we miss the little things that make us happy, like spending time with loved ones or even giving a much-needed hug! It’s also made us think about the bigger things that are important, like the decision to start a family.
After spending years of your life trying not to get pregnant it may come as surprise to hear that there’s more you can do to make a baby than to just have unprotected sex.
If it’s taking longer than you thought it would, it’s hard not to put pressure on you and your partner and inadvertently take the fun out of sex – rest assured it takes most couples the best part of a year to become pregnant. According to the NHS, around 84% of couples will conceive naturally within a year if they have regular unprotected sex (every two or three days).
If more help is needed
Occasionally, parents-to-be need additional fertility support along the way. If you’ve been trying to get pregnant for a year without success, you should visit your GP who may refer you to a specialist. For some, seeking additional support can be helpful.
1. Have a preconception check-up
It’s by no means a must, but a preconception check-up is a good place to start if you’re thinking of trying to get pregnant. They can be particularly helpful if you have an existing medical condition about which you’re concerned – diabetes, epilepsy or mental health issues, for example – or if you’re on long-term medication for any reason.
GPs in the UK don’t offer these appointments as a matter of course, so sometimes a practice nurse or midwife will take the appointment rather than a GP. They’ll usually run through your reproductive health with you (previous pregnancies, smear test results and your menstrual cycle) as well as your general health.
They took my blood pressure, checked my weight and checked my files for anything else. Then the doctor went through how to get myself in prime condition for trying to conceive. I found it a bit pointless as I already knew everything they told me, but I am a planner so felt better for doing it.
People in certain ethnic groups may be offered tests for conditions such as sickle cell anaemia or thalassaemia, and if you’re aware of any genetic disorders in your or your partner’s family, that can be discussed, too. You might also be offered a rubella immunity test as immunity can diminish over time. Expect a general chat about lifestyle issues such as diet and exercise as well.
While many women don’t worry about seeing their GP until they know they are pregnant, a preconception appointment can be a good chance to iron out any concerns and address any issues that, once you’re pregnant, you might have to put up with for a while. Most importantly, though, it’ll give you a warm, smug glow to know you’ve got all the health boxes ticked well in advance.
2. Get a sexual health check
If you’ve ever had unprotected sex, now’s a good time to get checked over to make sure that all is in working order. Get your partner to have their sexual health checked out while you’re at it, so you know you’re both embarking on the TTC journey with a clean bill of health.
A sexual health check can be done by your GP, though they may refer you to a GUM clinic. Generally, they’ll test for HIV, chlamydia, hepatitis B and syphilis; all of these can be passed on to a baby during pregnancy and/or birth, and some may affect your fertility too.
Chlamydia in particular is often completely symptomless but can cause damage to the fallopian tubes, making it hard to conceive, and has been linked to miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth – so it’s definitely worth the hassle of a test now, if there’s a chance you could be infected. A simple course of medication usually clears it up.
While you're having your downstairs thoroughly investigated, it’s also worth ensuring you’ve had a smear test before trying to conceive, just to make sure there’s nothing that may require treatment of a sort that a pregnancy would preclude.
3. Stop taking contraception
It goes without saying that, if you’re thinking about getting pregnant, you're going to have to stop using contraception at some point – but it might be worth doing so a bit earlier than planned if you use hormonal contraception such as the coil, pill or implant, and moving to a barrier method, such as condoms, for the interim.
While you can get pregnant immediately after coming off the pill or having the implant or coil removed, it’s worth having a few contraceptive-free months before you begin trying. You might notice changes, such as heavier periods, skin breakouts and mood swings; you may lose a few pounds or put them on.
But the key benefit is that you’ll be able to get to grips with your natural cycle so that when the time comes, you’ll be more aware of when you ovulate, or when you're releasing an egg. Basically, everything goes back to the way it was before you began taking the contraception.
On the plus side, for many women who have been on the pill most of their adult lives, there’s a sort of thrilling freedom in going contraceptive commando for a while.
4. Start taking preconception vitamins
NHS advises that you start taking Folic acid a few months before you start trying to conceive.This is to reduce the risk of development issues early on in pregnancy. You may also want to consider taking a vitamin supplement which includes Vitamin D, Vitamin C and Vitamin B12.
Make sure the one you choose is a version for conception or pregnancy. Some other supplements contain things such as the retinol form of vitamin A or fish liver oil, neither of which are suitable during pregnancy.
5. Start charting
Charting your basal body temperature (BBT) isn’t necessary but it is a good way to get to know your body better and work out when the most fertile times of your cycle are, and therefore the best times to do the deed to increase your chances of conception. All you need is a thermometer and a notebook (and clean hands!)
Around the time of ovulation, your body’s temperature on waking rises by 0.25°C to 0.5°C. If you take your temperature first thing every morning, you’ll be able to plot this on a graph and work out at what point in your cycle you ovulate. Your temperature doesn’t rise until just after you ovulate, though it often dips slightly just before, so once you've spotted the peak, it's almost too late to act on it if you're actively trying to get pregnant.
Charting a few months before you begin trying will allow you to get a good picture of when in your cycle you're ovulating and the length of your luteal phase (the days between ovulation and the end of your cycle). The best way to get a clear picture of when you ovulate is to chart your cervical mucus alongside your BBT, so roll your sleeves up – this does mean what you think it means.
If you have a look at your cervical mucus, for most of the month it’s sticky or a bit non-existent. Around your most fertile few days, however, it becomes clearer and stretchy – about the consistency of egg whites. Make a note of when these days are. They should tally-up with when you see your temperature spike, giving you a clear picture of when O-Day falls. All useful information for when you’re actively trying.
6. Have the chat(s) with your partner
Becoming a parent will one day bring up a whole raft of issues for you and your partner to potentially disagree on (made all the easier by the fact that at least one of you will be hormonal and both of you sleep deprived). Use this time pre-trying for a baby to get those big discussions in while there’s not yet a 'real' baby to disagree over, and emotions are therefore not running quite so high and tempers aren't quite as short.
- How many children would you each ideally like to have?
- If getting pregnant doesn’t come easily, would you go down the assisted conception route? How about adoption?
- Once you're pregnant, how will you give the good news to the grandparents?
- Who's going to be at the birth?
- Will you give birth at home or in hospital?
Then there's the not undaunting prospect of an actual, real baby to contend with.
- How do you plan to carve up the night-time wakes?
- Who's going to take maternity or paternity leave? And how long for?
- What are your beliefs on discipline? Television? Religion? Tacky TV characters on T-shirts? The perfect PTA fete cake recipe? Not to mention the biggie – naming the child.
7. Start some good habits
We’re talking ‘diet and exercise’ essentially. Look up your BMI and check you’re in the right sort of area – ideally between 18 and 25. If you're underweight you might want to try and put a few pounds on to make trying to conceive easier. Being overweight can also make conceiving more tricky and it’s more likely you’ll run into complications like high blood pressure and diabetes during pregnancy.
Don’t panic if you find you’re pregnant and are heavier than you’d hoped – it’s all about attaining optimum conditions if possible. Plus it’s a good chance to make all those dietary changes you’ve been promising yourself you’ll make for years.
So, what should be in your preconception diet? As well as taking a good daily prenatal supplement (for three months before you start trying, ideally), you can try and boost fertility with some saintly and smug superfoods:
Folate protects ovarian function – in breakfast cereal, kale and other green, leafy veg. The NHS also recommends you take folic acid while trying to conceive.
- Zinc improves sperm quality – get your partner to scoff shellfish to increase his zinc levels.
- Iron is thought to improve egg health – try a few handfuls of pumpkin seeds, red meat, and beans and pulses.
- Vitamin B12 helps with the implantation of the fertilised egg – clams are your friend here.
- Omega three fatty acids help regulate hormones. Chia seeds are high in these, but if they sound like a superfood step too far for you, have a good old-fashioned banana, which contains plenty of hormone-regulating vitamin B6.
Now’s the perfect time to take up an exercise you can continue into pregnancy, too. Anything you can do to tone up and increase fitness levels pre-pregnancy is going to benefit you later on. Exercise is also good for reducing stress, which some evidence suggests can help increase your chance of getting pregnant.
Swimming is brilliant because the water supports your weight so you’ll be able to carry on late into pregnancy when you’re more Moby Dick than Michael Phelps. Yoga and pilates are good for core strength, relaxation and strengthening your pelvic floor, but most exercise is fine in pregnancy as long as it’s something your body is used to and you don’t push yourself too hard. Now is probably not the time to take up show jumping or wrestling, however.
8. Bin bad habits (or just rein them in a bit)
There’s no getting around it, if you’re thinking of having a baby you’re looking down the barrel of a lot less fun – it’s a lot more fun, too, but not of the dancing-on-tables-necking-Jaegerbombs variety (not until your baby’s sleeping through the night, anyway).
Smoking is obviously a no-no in pregnancy but you’d be well advised to give it up before you get to that stage. Firstly, because there’s nothing like nicotine withdrawal to make the stressful early days of pregnancy feel even worse – but more immediately, because stopping smoking significantly improves fertility in men (it can affect sperm count) as well as women.
If you need any more encouragement, remember packing in the fags will save you a fortune, too (almost as much as a baby is going to start costing you, so enjoy the temporary financial flush now). If possible, giving up smoking at least three to four months before getting pregnant is ideal.
Wondering whether alcohol affects fertility when you're trying to conceive? Well, the official guidelines on drinking state that if you’re trying for a baby and there’s a chance you could be pregnant then you shouldn’t drink at all and men should stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. This does not translate to ‘Drink like it’s going out of fashion until you spot the blue line on a pregnancy test’ but equally, there’s no need to cut out alcohol pre-conception and certainly not in the planning stages. Cutting down a bit is a good idea, though, as regularly exceeding your daily alcohol limit can damage fertility in both men and women.
9. Start saving
The average cost of raising a child to 21 has exceeded £230,000 recently, so anything you can put aside now will make life easier when the purse strings are tighter. Start putting aside regular savings, whether it’s for maternity leave, baby gear or an account for a university/first home fund.
Whatever you can save now, it will make a difference, even if it just sees you through nappies for the first six months. Plus it’s good practice learning to live on a bit less than you’re used to.
While you’re at it, try and make a rough calculation of how much your maternity/paternity leave would be, which will give you an idea of how long you can afford to be off work. If it’s really important to you that you have a whole year off, for example, you can make a savings plan based around that aim.
10. Make the most of being baby-free while you can!
Ask any parent what they miss most about their pre-baby days and going out is often at the top of the list. While lockdown continues to curb our freedom, there aren't a lot of opportunities to enjoy an impromptu trip to the cinema or a weekend break in warmer climes. Nevertheless, make it your mission to do what you can to enjoy your child-free days. You’ll appreciate it some dark afternoon when you're pureeing a trio of root veg while attached to a breast pump. After all, there are plenty of child-free things to enjoy at home:
First and foremost – your bed. Bank as much shut-eye as you can. Everyone tells you to take naps when you’re pregnant but no one warns you of the cruelty that is pregnancy insomnia. And even if you’re lucky and insomnia doesn’t hit, you’ll have to contend with nights broken up by a dozen trips to the loo, or spent tossing and turning because you just can't get comfy.
Pre-TTC is the time to really enjoy sleep as you have known it until now. Getting a solid and sensible seven to eight hours a night is optimum for your health, and is even thought to improve fertility.
Of course, there are plenty of more active ways you can spend a few hours in bed, too. There’s something special about no-pressure sex that’s hard to recapture once lost. If you’re going to be shagging with intent in a few months' time, make time for utterly frivolous sex now. After all, practice makes perfect!
Practice does also make babies, however, so if you’ve stopped taking the pill, make sure you’re using other methods of contraception unless you want all your plans brought suddenly and inexorably forward.
If you can drag yourself from your bed, now is also a good opportunity to get your house not 'baby ready' but perfect for you. Once you’re a family, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in it, after all, so now is your chance to make sure you don’t spend the first six months as a mum sitting on the sofa, staring at living room walls that you hate.
Stripping the bathroom ceiling is not going to be your priority in your early days as a parent or during pregnancy. Get your nest just how you want it and then sit back and admire your un-crayoned-on walls, your stain-free sofa and your floors unblemished by the wheels of ride-on toys. Make a mental picture of this idyll that you can conjure up at will through the distinctly more messy days ahead.
Trying to conceive: frequently asked questions
How often should you have sex when trying to conceive?
You're most likely to get pregnant if you have sex within a day or so of ovulation (when an egg is released from the ovary). This is usually about 14 days after the first day of your last period (if your cycle is around 28 days long – many women's cycles are longer or shorter than this).
It's difficult to know exactly when ovulation happens unless you're charting your basal body temperature to find out exactly when you're most fertile. This, as well as the fact that sperm can live for up to seven days in a woman's body, means that it can be difficult to tell exactly when in the month you should be having sex.
According to NHS' advice on getting pregnant, you will have the best chance of getting pregnant if you have sex every two or three days throughout the month.
Is there an ideal sex position for increasing your chances of getting pregnant?
There’s no evidence to suggest that some sex positions are better than others when it comes to getting pregnant. Some studies have shown, however, that missionary and doggy positions allow for deeper penetration, meaning the sperm is deposited right next to the cervix. This means these positions may give you a better chance of getting pregnant.
Some people also think that the old 'legs in the air after sex' trick helps your chances of conceiving because more sperm will stay in the vagina and near the cervix. However, millions of sperm are released when a man ejaculates, so there should be plenty hanging around even if you do stand up straight after sex.
Is it safe to use lube when trying to conceive?
There’s conflicting evidence when it comes to lube and getting pregnant. There is some evidence that suggests that both water and oil-based lubricants may damage sperm and limit their ability to travel to the uterus to fertilise the egg. This is the case for homemade lubes, too (think olive oil). Your best bet for adding lubrication when trying to get pregnant would be to look out for lubes that are marketed as being 'fertility friendly'.
How can I reduce my stress levels when trying to conceive?
Evidence suggests that high stress levels in either or both partners may contribute to decreased fertility levels. So, if you're trying to conceive, it's a good idea to try to lower your stress levels a bit. There are some practices and daily habits that can help with this, such as moderate exercise, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep. You might also want to practise some yoga or try journaling (writing down your thoughts and feelings, basically).
That said, try not to worry too much about how stressed you are or aren't. Many people who lead busy, averagely stressful lives have healthy pregnancies and babies, so don't beat yourself up if you're not in the position to put your feet up for nine months (that'll be most of us, then).
Should I avoid peeing after intercourse when trying to conceive?
Peeing after sex makes no difference to whether or not you will get pregnant. If you're prone to UTIs and usually pee after sex, you can still do so without affecting your chances of conceiving. This is because the fastest sperm will already have travelled up through the cervix by the time you get up to go to the toilet.
How do I make sex more fun when trying to conceive?
If measuring your basal temperature, tracking your ovulation cycle and ensuring you DTD every two-three days is taking the fun out of this whole baby-making thing, you’re not alone. The pressure to have so much sex can be exhausting for you and your partner and if you’re starting to feel it, don’t be afraid to mix things up a little bit:
Take a break from having sex at specific times, plan a date night to up the romance, or just take a break from having sex all together.
Don’t forget it takes most women almost a year to conceive, and it’s common for it to take longer.
How long should I wait between pregnancies?
A study released in 2018 showed that the ideal gap between giving birth and getting pregnant again is 12 to 18 months. This is six months sooner than the current World Health Organisation's official guidelines of 18 to 24 months.
Researchers have found that women do not need to wait until 18-24 months after having a baby before getting pregnant and giving birth again and that 12-18 months is a sufficient amount of time.
The World Health Organisation's official guidelines recommend women wait a year and a half to two years before trying to conceive again, but the recent study has shown that the health risks for women who conceive after just 12-18 months are no greater than those for women who conceive after 18-24 months.
It remains the case, however, that pregnancies following a gap of less than 12 months do carry a higher risk of premature births, smaller babies, and infant and mother mortality. The researchers leading the study, which looked at nearly 150,000 births, said the findings will hopefully be “reassuring” for older women who are planning their families.