Professor Mary Wingfield
Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Ireland
While there are lifestyle changes you can make to increase your chances of conceiving naturally, it’s important not to leave it too late in life to start trying to have a baby.
Fertility issues are far more common than people realise. In fact, figures show that one in six couples of reproductive age have problems conceiving. For many, this is devastating — and the emotional impacts can have far-reaching consequences.
“Fertility issues can affect people’s self-esteem and make them feel helpless,” says fertility expert Professor Mary Wingfield from the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Dublin.
“It can affect their work, general wellbeing and their relationships. One of the difficulties is that people experiencing fertility problems may feel as though it’s ‘their fault’ in some way, when it’s absolutely not. It’s very unfair.”
Why age is an important factor in pregnancy
Age plays a significant role in the chances of conceiving naturally. Decline in fertility varies from person to person, but, generally, fertility at the age of 35 is roughly half of what it is at the age of 25.
A 30-year-old woman trying to conceive has a 75% chance of getting pregnant naturally within a year. At 35, she has a 66% chance; and at 40 she has a 44% chance.
“Women and men are postponing pregnancy for all different reasons,” says Professor Wingfield. “This seems to be one of the biggest causes of fertility issues in the developed world because, as they get older, women’s eggs don’t work as efficiently.
The fact is you have the rest of your life to focus on houses and jobs, while the window you have to get pregnant is very narrow. And once you lose those years, you can’t get them back.
“One study shows that if you want a 90% chance of having one child, you need to start trying to conceive by the time you’re 35. If you want a 90% chance of having three children, you need to start by the time you’re 28.”
Age isn’t the only contributing factor, however. Infertility due to sperm issues makes up a quarter of all cases Professor Wingfield sees.
Obesity appears to hinder conception, as does pelvic damage caused by chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases (which can cause problems for both men and women).
How lifestyle changes increase the possibility of conception
To boost your chances of conceiving naturally, there are things you can do. Lose weight if you need to (but make sure you’re not underweight, because that can cause problems too, warns Professor Wingfield), eat a healthy, preferably Mediterranean diet, and cut out cigarettes, as smoking is thought to reduce fertility by around 50%.
But what are the alternatives if none of this works?
“See your GP to understand whether there’s anything obvious in your history, and check the woman is ovulating and free of cysts or fibroids,” says Professor Wingfield. “After that, we’re increasingly recommending fertility treatments such as IVF (in vitro fertilisation) and IUI (intrauterine insemination).”
However, the chances of having a baby via these routes depends on age (the older you are, the less successful treatment may be, while the risk of miscarriage increases) — and it can be expensive.
Ultimately, Professor Wingfield’s best advice is: don’t leave it too late.
“Fertility treatment success rates are increasing all the time,” she says. “So, you can be lucky. But the fact is you have the rest of your life to focus on houses and jobs, while the window you have to get pregnant is very narrow. And once you lose those years, you can’t get them back.”