As a society, we’re an impatient bunch, something reflected in things like same-day delivery and the never-ending stream of products promising immediate weight loss. Pregnancy is no different. The second you decide it’s time to try for a baby, you’re ready to see those two pink lines and get this pregnancy show on the road. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily work like that. If you’ve recently tossed the birth control and you’re starting to wonder how long it should take to get pregnant, here’s what to know.
- Since sex education in the U.S. focuses primarily on pregnancy prevention, many women have pretty large gaps in their knowledge of basic fertility awareness.
- Understanding your menstrual cycle can give you a leg up when you’re trying to conceive.
- For healthy couples in their 20s and early 30s, about 1 in 4 women will become pregnant in a given menstrual cycle. By age 40, that number jumps to 1 in 10 women.
- Learning more about your own cycle and following a healthy lifestyle can help you maximize your fertility.
The Ins & Outs of Getting Pregnant
With sex education in the U.S. largely focusing on pregnancy prevention and missing some pretty key information, it’s no surprise that many women are lacking basic fertility awareness. But understanding your menstrual cycle can give you a leg up when pregnancy is the goal. Plus, every woman deserves to know what’s going on in her own body month after month.
So let’s take it back to bio 101 with a basic overview of how pregnancy occurs. To become pregnant, a woman needs to ovulate. That happens when a mature egg is released from an ovary, passes through the fallopian tube, and meets sperm for fertilization. At this point, the uterine lining has thickened in anticipation of a fertilized egg. If there is no conception, however, the lining will be shed during your next period.
A few highlights:
- After ovulation, an egg lives just 12 to 24 hours—this is your window for pregnancy.
- Some women experience light spotting when they ovulate.
- Implantation of a fertilized egg typically happens 6 to 12 days after ovulation.
- Typically, just one egg is released at a time.
- Normal ovulation can be affected by all sorts of things, like stress, hormonal imbalance, travel, illness, and big swings in weight, exercise or sleeping patterns.
- An egg that isn’t fertilized disintegrates and is absorbed into the lining of the uterus.
For healthy couples in their 20s and early 30s, about 1 in 4 women will become pregnant in a given menstrual cycle. By age 40, that number jumps to 1 in 10 women (1). So where do you go if you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to conceive and you’re getting more and more worried about a potential fertility issue? While women can turn to the gynecologist they’ve (hopefully) seen annually since becoming sexually active, men don’t generally have that sort of resource. A primary care doctor is usually a good place to begin, and you may be able to get a referral to a urologist or another specialist.
Be clear that guidance from both the gynecologist and the primary care doc is discretionary, especially if you’ve been trying to conceive for less than a year. Some doctors are happy to write referrals or order fertility tests if you aren’t getting lucky after six months, while others are more inclined to advise you to wait and see what happens. The more resourceful—and educated—you are, the better. Take advantage of tools that track your cycle so you’re clear about your ovulation window. Consider at-home fertility and hormone tests. Be upfront with your doctor about your expectations, and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, either.
How to Maximize Fertility
If you aren’t ready to kick in the doctor’s door and demand answers just yet, keep in mind that getting pregnant really is a numbers game. Here’s how to play the odds:
- Have sex regularly. According to the Mayo Clinic, couples with the highest pregnancy rates have sex every day or every other day (2).
- Track your cycle. That way, you can time sex to your ovulation window. Pro tip: if you aren’t down with getting down every darn day, have sex every two to three days per week right after your period ends.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Women who are overweight or underweight are more susceptible to ovulation disorders that can make getting pregnant tricky, if not downright impossible.
- Quit smoking. Nicotine wreaks havoc on male and female fertility, and it’s hell on your health overall.
- Avoid alcohol. Heavy alcohol use is associated with decreased fertility, and experts generally recommend skipping the booze if you’re trying to conceive.
- Minimize caffeine. Limit your caffeine habit to a cup or two a day (and be aware of all those sneaky sources!).
- Exercise—but don’t overdo it. You may love/hate that spin class or boot camp, but intense exercise exceeding five hours a week is associated with a reduction in ovulation. Keep it moderate, baby!
- Focus on nutrition. Eating a healthy diet as a way of improving your health also supports your fertility health.
- Take a prenatal vitamin. Experts recommend starting a prenatal vitamin if you’re trying for a baby. In fact, earlier is better. Prenatal vitamins ensure a steady stream of key nutrients that can help support your fertility during the oh-so-critical preconception window.
The Bottom Line
Healthy couples having frequent unprotected sex can generally expect to conceive within a year. If you’re older than 35, you’ve been trying to get pregnant for six months or longer, or you have a niggling feeling that fertility issues could pose a problem, talk to your doctor sooner rather than later. In fact, it’s a good conversation to have before you start trying, just to run through all the healthy living basics that are the standard recommendations. About one in eight couples will experience infertility issues in the U.S. every year, and being proactive early in the game is never a mistake.
- Having a Baby After Age 35: How Aging Affects Fertility and Pregnancy. (2023). https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/having-a-baby-after-age-35-how-aging-affects-fertility-and-pregnancy
- How to Get Pregnant. (2021). https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/in-depth/how-to-get-pregnant/art-20047611#