Professor Joyce Harper
Professor in Human Genetics and Embryology, University College London
Give new life the best chance – by sorting out your old one, says professor Joyce Harper from the University College, London.
The reality surrounding fertility and pregnancy must be made clearer
Practically every week it seems that you can read about pop stars or celebrities in their 40s who have had a baby. “No wonder people are in denial about their chances of getting pregnant or that think that medical advances will solve all their problems,” says Joyce Harper, professor in human genetics and embryology at University College, London.
“But the reality is that at the age of 45 your chances of having a baby – even with IVF – are virtually zero. Yes, fertility treatment advances all the time, but even the best fertility treatment cannot guarantee a successful pregnancy,” she says.
Sex education needs to begin including fertility education
Fertility myths abound because sex education in schools hasn’t caught up with the times, professor Harper believes: “Young people today don’t generally get married in their 20s and don’t generally have children before their 30s and education needs to catch up with this,” she says, explaining that the focus needs to expand beyond avoiding an unwanted pregnancy or an sexually transmitted infection. “People feel very torn about sex education: they think it encourages sex. But the data suggests the opposite: that if you teach kids well, and they know what the issues are, they think much more carefully and make much more informed choices.”
While education catches up and to plug the knowledge gap, the British Fertility Society is launching online fertility education resources for young adults and parents, as well as healthcare professionals and teachers. The aim, says professor Harper, “is to put reproductive health on everyone’s agenda so that couples are able to make informed choices, and are equipped to take responsibility for their own fertility”.
So what are the top tips for getting pregnant?
Top of the list is to have a happy sex life, with enough sex! Having sex every two or three days throughout the month gives you the best chance of conceiving. Also, try to avoid ovulation kits and charts, which can cause unnecessary anxiety.
- Be a healthy weight: A healthy weight is a body mass index (BMI) of between 20 and 25. Being overweight or underweight can affect your chances of conceiving. Too much or too little body fat can make periods irregular or stop them completely, which can affect your ability to conceive.
- Eat well: Eating a balanced diet is key to achieving a healthy weight, and keeping in good health. Good choices include green, leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage and lettuce. Women wanting to get pregnant should also take a folic acid supplement. Diets that are very high or low in protein, sugar and fat should be avoided. In men, adequate zinc levels are associated with sperm health. Men should be able to get all the zinc they need from everyday foods such as: meat; shellfish; dairy foods – such as cheese; bread and cereal products – such as wheat germ.
- Alcohol and smoking: All UK senior doctors recommend that if you’re pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. Drinking alcohol excessively can affect the quality of a man’s sperm, so men should also restrict their alcohol intake to no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, which should be spread evenly over three days or more.
Smoking, including passive smoking, may reduce fertility in women. Smoking is also thought to be linked to poorer quality sperm.
(If you need help with giving up, visit NHS website LiveWell to find your nearest source of help).
- Check your medicines: If you are taking any medicine or supplement – whether prescribed or shop-bought – check with your pharmacist or GP before trying to get pregnant to check that they are safe for you and your developing baby. A number of prescription, over-the-counter, and recreational drugs will also interfere with male and female fertility. Get advice if you are taking painkillers such as ibuprofen or aspirin over a long period or in high doses, or if you have conditions such as cancer, mental health problems or fluid retention. Illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine can also seriously affect fertility.