After sitting through your junior high sex ed classes, you may have walked away expecting any sexual encounter to result in a baby. It’s true that one round of sex can certainly be enough to conceive, but getting pregnant when you’re trying to conceive often doesn’t happen on the first try.
“Many people think that they’ll get pregnant the first time they ever have sex,” says Jennifer Wu, MD, ob-gyn at Lenox Hill Hospital. “But actually, it does need to be timed to ovulation.”
Before you’re planning for a baby, your menstrual cycle is mostly just the annoying thing that causes period cramps and bloating. Once you’re trying to conceive, though, watching the calendar of your cycle takes on a whole new meaning and hawk-eyed attention to detail. That’s because the egg released during ovulation must be present for conception to happen.
“The egg only hangs around for 24 hours, waiting for the sperm,” says Dr. Wu. “You do have to make sure you’re having sex at the right time, but even when you are having sex at the right time, you don’t necessarily get pregnant.”
Having sex during ovulation and not getting pregnant doesn’t necessarily mean anything’s wrong, though. Conception is never a guaranteed thing and may take several, um, attempts. How long you wait to discuss fertility issues with your doctor depends largely on your age, as a general rule.
Infertility is defined as not being able to get pregnant after a year of trying, according to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, which means taking several months is normal, healthy, and even expected.
Patients in their twenties and early thirties could wait a year before checking in with the doctor, suggests Dr. Wu. A doctor might be able to help you optimize your chances of getting pregnant by helping you understand your menstrual cycle, recommend using ovulation prediction kits, and doing testing and radiology studies to screen for medical reasons that could be impacting your odds of conceiving.
Women who are 35 or older, however, should see their doctors sooner. If there is a medical issue affecting your ability to conceive, your doctor wants to help you find it so you don’t waste too much time.
Infertility affects about 6 percent of women ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These medical factors could affect fertility, according to Dr. Wu.
Blocked tubes (which could be due to endometriosis)
Problem with the lining of the uterus
Issues with the man’s sperm
Your doctor can help you and your partner determine when to start medical testing and/or explore other procedures, such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF). But for young, otherwise healthy patients, you may just need more time to try for a baby. “I mainly tell patients who are young, ‘Just have fun, have sex, and you can always come back to me in six months if you’re not pregnant,’” says Dr. Wu.
Infertility. Washington, DC: U.S. Office on Women’s Health. (Accessed on January 10, 2021 at https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/infertility.)
Infertility FAQs. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. (Accessed on January 10, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/index.htm.)