You have probably heard the saying, “Timing is everything”. In the case of conception it is not EVERYTHING, but it is certainly one of the biggest factors in achieving pregnancy. Unfortunately, until we try to become pregnant too many Americans (male and female) have little knowledge of the female ovulatory cycle. We all know that the typical time between periods is about 28 days and many women know that the magical “28-day cycle” is just an average. We are woefully uneducated, however, of most facts past this basic knowledge. The lack of education leads to unplanned pregnancies and missed opportunities for conception.
This post is going to cover some of the basics about the female cycle, timing conception, and resources you can use to further educate yourself. Let’s start first with the basics of the female fertility cycle. The American Pregnancy Association offers a great breakdown of the ovulatory cycle. Basically, there are two phases to a woman’s cycle – the follicular phase and the luteal phase. The follicular phase is the time prior to ovulation when the follicles are growing with the goal of releasing a mature egg during ovulation. As this maturation process occurs, several hormones are at work in the body. As the hormone levels rise, they trigger a release of LH (Luteinizing hormone), which tells the biggest follicle to release a single mature egg in a process called ovulation1. Once ovulation has occurred, usually around day 14 of a woman’s cycle, the luteal phase begins. The luteal phase lasts approximately 14 days, during which time the endometrium builds up to support a possible baby. At the end of the luteal phase, if conception has occurred, mama likely receives a positive on a pregnancy test2. If conception has not been achieved, a woman’s period arrives as the built up endometrium sheds and a new cycle begins.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the cycle, let’s talk about timing conception for just a moment. In order to achieve pregnancy, intercourse is necessary in the days leading up to and including the day of ovulation (more on this in just a moment). Remember that the Mayo Clinic notes that around 14 days into a typical 28-day cycle ovulation is likely to occur (day 21 of a 35 day cycle, day 16 of a 30 day cycle, etc). There are many signs that ovulation is approaching that make timing a little easier so that if you can’t rely on that magic 28-day cycle you aren’t completely in the dark. For example, cervical mucus takes on an eggwhite texture (seriously, think about what an eggwhite looks like) and a positive on an ovulation predictor test is likely to occur. The general recommendation from the University of Maryland Medical Center is to have intercourse every other day in the week leading up to ovulation (usually when you start seeing these signs), the day of ovulation, and then one or two more times after ovulation to “cover your bases”.
There are many more factors to conception than just understanding the cycle and timing intercourse optimally, but a woman’s cycle can give a couple and their healthcare provider a lot of information. Every woman has a slightly different cycle. Some have longer follicular phases, some have longer luteal phases, some have longer follicular and luteal phases. These can all be normal, or they can suggest the presence of a problem that may prevent conception or make conception more difficult3. For example, a long cycle can be a sign of ovulatory dysfunction or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. One of the best ways to help your healthcare provider and to understand your cycle is to “chart”. Be sure to look for an upcoming post on this topic. Charting is fairly easy and a great way to get a handle on your own body rather than just relying on the generic 28-day cycle timing.
I encourage you to educate yourself, your friends, and your family members. Understanding the fertility cycle provides lots of keys that can prove to be important for many reasons. Below I have provided some additional resources on conception and fertility. There are a lot of other resources out there so please be sure to check the accuracy of your resources. Remember that anyone can post a website or write a book. You want to search for sources written by medical doctors, include reputable references, and contains information that you can verify from other sources as well.
- American Pregnancy Association
- Mayo Clinic
- Fertility Friend – terrific for keeping track of cycles
- Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health
- The Mother of All Pregnancy Books
- Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy
1 In the case of multiple babies during gestation (fraternal twins, triplets, etc.) more than one mature egg is released and subsequently fertilized.
2 Occasionally, a woman’s pregnancy is not detected by over-the-counter pregnancy tests.
3 The Mayo Clinic has a nice summary of what is considered “normal” for a woman’s cycle.
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