How to get pregnant: refresher course

We all learned in school about where babies come from and how they’re made, but it doesn’t hurt to have a quick re-cap lesson... A biology lesson on how to get pregnant

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How to get pregnant

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Getting pregnant is a particular science!

Baby girls are born with around two million eggs in their ovaries. By the time we reach puberty there are as few as 200,000 left. Of these, only 400-500 eggs mature and are released between puberty and the menopause.

Every month around 20 eggs in one of our ovaries begin to ripen. The biggest and most mature is released – that’s called ovulation – by one of the ovaries and travels down one of the two Fallopian tubes towards the womb. The ovaries take it in turn to ovulate each month.

On its journey down the Fallopian tube, if the egg meets sperm and one sperm manages to break through the membrane around the egg, it will fertilise and become an embryo. That embryo then continues travelling along the tube and into the womb, dropping into its soft, thickened lining and implants.  

If all of this happens successfully, the embryo will divide and grow into a human baby – your baby. And that’s how to get pregnant!

The right time to try getting pregnant

Every month you have a fertile ‘window’ – a few days when you can become pregnant. This is when your ovary releases an egg, or you ovulate.

In the days around ovulation, your body changes. This is because there are four hormones controlling and triggering ovulation, and they also affect other parts of you to give your body the best chance of getting pregnant.

Most experts would say that the best way to get pregnant is to have sex regularly, every three or so days. But if you can spot the changes your body makes around the time of ovulation, you’ll know when you’re at your most fertile.

What changes and when

Most women have periods that last around 28 days. Around the 10th day you might notice a moist white or cloudy discharge. After a couple of days this will become clearer, wetter and stretchier. This wetter mucus tells you you’re in your most fertile time.

It’s easy for sperm to swim through this mucus and around this time you’ll ovulate. Some women also feel a pain in their side called a mittelschmerz (or middle pain) when they ovulate. Sperm can live for several days – some experts say up to seven – so even if you have sex before you ovulate your partner’s sperm can still be in your body waiting for your egg to arrive.

You’ll see this mucus for about three days, and then it will become less sticky for another two days, and then go back to being dry.

As each woman’s cycle is slightly different these timings won’t be exactly the same for everyone. The main thing for you is to watch for the signs in your own body so that you understand what it’s doing and when.

If the egg is fertilised, you’ll miss your period and might begin to notice signs of being pregnant – tender breasts and a bloated feeling. If it doesn’t fertilise, your period will arrive and your body will already be getting ready to ovulate again in a few days time.

Other ways to spot when you’re at your most fertile

Taking your temperature
Immediately after you ovulate, your body temperature also rises by a tiny amount – it can be just 0.2°C – and it stays that way for the rest of your period. Tracking temperature changes over a few months can help you to work out if and when you are ovulating.

It’s best to use a digital thermometer because they’re more accurate, and you can get a copy of a temperature chart from your surgery, family planning clinic or you can download one from FertilityUK.

If you want to try this method, it’s best to get advice from your GP or practise nurse beforehand, as you have to get the timing and the method exactly right for this to work.

Ovulation kits
These help you to spot that you’re about to ovulate up to 36 hours before you actually do. The kits pick up the increase in the hormone LH (luteinizing hormone) that happens a few days before the egg is released – in fact it’s this hormone that triggers the release of the egg. We always have a small amount in our urine, but around ovulation it increases enormously.

Those few hours before you ovulate are when you’re at your most fertile.

Each kit has enough tests so that you can have a few tries each month. This is because we all have different cycle lengths. So if your cycle is 28 days you should start testing on say day 10 and continue for a few days.  But if you have a 35-day cycle, you may not start testing until day 14 and you may have to test for more days.

Each kit is slightly different and comes with full instructions. They’re said to be 99% accurate, and they can highlight when LH has increased, but what they don’t tell you is whether you’ve actually released an egg. They’re available from pharmacies.

The role your man plays

While you produce an egg once a month, your partner makes new sperm all the time.

Sperm look like tiny tadpoles with a head and a strong tail to help them swim. They come from the testicles into the penis via the vas deferens tubes. When you have sex and your partner ejaculates he produces about two-thirds of a teaspoonful of fluid. This contains around 300 million sperm.  Almost a quarter of these will be abnormal.

Once they’re inside your body, the sperm have a tough journey through the cervix, up to the top of the uterus (or womb) and down the Fallopian tube. The speed that sperm can swim at depends on the mucus within your body – vaginal mucus is slightly acidic which slows them down, while the mucus in your womb is more alkaline and easier for them to swim in.

They swim up through the womb and chose a tube to swim down. Once they’ve made their choice they have to find the egg. Of the original 300 million sperm, only a few hundred will actually reach the egg, and just one will break through the egg’s tough outer membrane in order to fertilise it. It’s no wonder that getting pregnant can take time.

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