“Where do babies come from?” is a question that can make anyone blush, because we all know from a relatively young age exactly how babies get here.
That is, until we grow up and realize many couples have trouble making a baby the old fashioned way. Wanting to have a child and not being able to get pregnant is heartbreaking, but luckily, parents who aren’t able to conceive on their own now have a decidedly modern option: using medical technology to help them get pregnant.
Any process that involves a woman’s egg or embryos (fertilized eggs) being handled falls under the umbrella term assisted reproductive technology (ART). In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly 73,000 babies were born in the United States with the help of ART. The most common type of ART is in vitro fertilization, commonly known as IVF. During IVF a woman’s eggs are removed from her body and fertilized in a lab. Once they've started to grow, the embryos are returned to the woman’s uterus or frozen for use in the future.
Of course, that’s a very basic overview of a process that is long and complicated. The details of how IVF works will vary depending on the ages and health of the hopeful parents, so only a doctor can tell you exactly what the process would entail for you.
Getting pregnant is the easy part, and there’s almost always a good chance for success there. But live birth is really what every father wants.
However, there are some common IVF experiences that no one talks about. With more and more hopeful parents seeking the help of assisted reproduction to start or grow their families, it’s important that people know what the IVF process entails, and that means all of it—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
HealthyWay spoke with parents and doctors about IVF so that you can be better prepared to consider whether IVF should be part of your family-building journey.
1. It’s no guarantee.
Many people think that once you start the process of IVF it’s only a matter of time until they'll be holding a little bundle of joy. Unfortunately that isn’t the case.
“IVF does not give you a 100 percent chance for pregnancy,” says Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, an OB-GYN and fertility expert from San Ramon, California.
The chances of pregnancy will depend on the age of a woman’s eggs and many other factors particular to a couple, but on average, only 37 percent of assisted reproduction cycles for women under 35 result in live births. The chances of success decrease with age.
Success rates also vary between clinics, so it’s important to discuss this with whatever fertility specialist or clinic you choose. Be sure to ask about live birth rates rather than just pregnancy rates.
“Oddly enough to me, I assumed those meant the same thing,” says Alan Gore, a father from Kansas who went through IVF with his wife at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine. Unfortunately, miscarriage means that conception don’t always result in bringing baby home.
“Having gone through it all, getting pregnant is the easy part, and there’s almost always a good chance for success there. But live birth is really what every father wants.”
2. It takes a long time.
A woman’s cycle is normally about 28 days long, but an IVF cycle can take much longer than that.
“People don’t realize the sheer amount of time it takes,” says a mother who has had two children through IVF.
Once a family has decided on IVF, the woman must call the fertility clinic on the first day of her period, according to Shahin Ghadir, MD, a founding partner of the Southern California Reproductive Center in Los Angeles.
It takes approximately four to six weeks to prepare the lining of the uterus before the embryo can be put into the uterus.
On day two or three the woman must visit the clinic for blood work and an ultrasound. At that appointment she’ll be given a prescription for birth control, which she usually takes for about two weeks.
Then come the shots. Typically a woman will give herself a shot every day for 10 to 12 days. Those shots are a hormonal stimulant designed to help her body produce more mature eggs.
The eggs are then retrieved and fertilized.
The embryos grow for one week in the lab before being sent for genetic testing (if the couple chooses), which takes another week. Then, the woman usually waits until the next month for the embryos to be implanted in her uterus, which hopefully leads to pregnancy.
“Basically it takes about six weeks from the start of the menstrual cycle to know how many genetically normal embryos a patient has,” Ghadir tells HealthyWay. “The following month, it takes approximately four to six weeks to prepare the lining of the uterus before the embryo can be put into the uterus and 10 days later we know if the patient is pregnant or not.”
For eager parents, that’s a very long time.
3. IVF can take a toll on your mental health.
Dealing with infertility and undergoing IVF are hugely stressful events, so it’s no wonder that depression and anxiety are commonly reported among parents—particularly mothers—who are undergoing IVF.
“New mental health issues may arise, or preexisting mental health issues may become more severe or worsen during IVF treatment,” says Dr. Aaron Styer, founding partner and co-medical director of Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Boston. Styer advises that patients make their mental health a priority.
“Emotional support and open and honest dialogue about the stressors of infertility should be established. This can be with each other, with close family or friends, support groups, or with therapists.”
4. You might need it after conceiving naturally.
Many people think if they’ve conceived without assistance once that it will happen again. But that isn’t always the case.
The thought of undergoing a workup for secondary infertility and undergoing fertility treatment can be quite a challenge.
Secondary infertility is when a woman who has already delivered one or more children isn’t able to get pregnant again naturally.
“Most people are surprised when they are not able to conceive on their own after having been able to in the past,” says Dr. Sunny Jun, an OB-GYN and reproductive endocrinologist in San Francisco. “This can still be quite frustrating and anxiety provoking for them.”
Secondary infertility can be caused by age and health changes, or it can be unexplained. For people facing secondary infertility, the decision whether to pursue IVF can be a tough one.
“Once you have one or more children, the thought of undergoing a workup for secondary infertility and undergoing fertility treatment can be quite a challenge,” Jun says.
5. You might end up with too much of a good thing.
The goal for anyone undergoing IVF is to have plenty of healthy embryos to choose from. More healthy embryos means more chances to implant those embryos and a greater likelihood of becoming pregnant and giving birth.
Sometimes patients have too much of a good thing, though, and wind up with a greater number of healthy embryos than they need. In this case, communication is key.
“Talk to your doctor about options if you end up making more embryos, like donating to other families who would love to use embryos to grow their families.” says Eyvazzadeh.
That’s right, embryos can be donated to other families who are unable to conceive using their own embryos via a process called embryo adoption. That would mean that you and your partner would have genetic children who don’t live with you and that your children would have full biological siblings who aren’t being raised with them.
If embryo adoption isn’t for you, embryos can also be donated to science or destroyed. Just be sure that you and your partner (if you have one) are on the same page about what you’ll do with extra embryos before beginning the IVF process.
6. You’ll be left feeling like a teenager.
All the hormone shots involved with IVF mean that you’ll have lots more hormones than normal coursing through your body. That might leave you irritable, bloated, or even turned on.
“As you're hormonal, you may feel like you want to have sex,” Eyvazzadeh explains. However, during certain points in the IVF process, it’s important to abstain, so be sure to talk with your doctor about what’s okay and what isn’t—and don’t be afraid to get creative with other options for adult fun.
7. You might want to think about IVF before you’re ready to have kids.
The quality of women’s eggs decreases with time, which can make it harder to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term. Dr. Eric Surrey, a reproductive endocrinologist in Colorado, says that his patients often wish that they had thought about their fertility sooner.
We often hear from patients in their mid thirties who are struggling with fertility and they say ‘why didn't anyone tell me it would be so hard to have a baby?’
“It's not a bad idea for women in their mid twenties to already be thinking about their fertility even though [having a baby] may be the last thing on their mind,” he tells HealthyWay. “We often hear from patients in their mid thirties who are struggling with fertility and they say ‘why didn't anyone tell me it would be so hard to have a baby?’”
According to Surrey, simple tests can help women know if they may have trouble conceiving later in life.
8. It’s more common than you think.
About one in eight couples have trouble getting pregnant.
“More people are probably getting IVF than you realize,” Surrey says.
I connected with others who could absolutely relate.
Breaking down the stigma around IVF has become a passion for Jennifer "Jay" Palumbo, a mom of two from Brooklyn, New York, who blogs at The Two Week Wait.
“The more I spoke out about it and shared my story, the more I connected with others who could absolutely relate,” she says. “People say, ‘You're not alone,’ but you still feel that way until you meet all the others like you.”
9. Sometimes you just have to laugh at everything.
Palumbo’s IVF experience was full of nerve-wracking moments, but despite that, she she shares that laughter was essential to getting through the process.
“For me, humor was everything,” she says. “I remember being at a diner once while going through an IVF cycle and the waitress asked me how I wanted my eggs. I answered, ‘Fertilized and implanted!’ It cracked me up and took away the power and pain of what I was going through.”
10. IVF affects the dads too.
Although it’s true that women have to deal with most of the medical procedures associated with IVF, the whole process can be draining for hopeful dads as well.
Men are dealing with some of the same emotions women are, grieving over pregnancy loss, the emotional anxiety over the idea that all this might not work.
“The emotional aspect for men is something that gets broadly ignored,” says TJ Farnsworth, of Houston, Texas, a dad by IVF and founder of Aspire Fertility.
“I wanted to ‘fix it’ and just make things better for my wife, but that wasn’t helpful. At the same time, men are dealing with some of the same emotions women are, grieving over pregnancy loss, the emotional anxiety over the idea that all this might not work.”
11. You won’t relax when you get the positive pregnancy test.
Having a positive pregnancy test is without a doubt a joyous moment for couples who have gone through IVF. However, that test won’t be the end of your worry.
“There is no relaxing,” says Gore, one of the dads we spoke to. “The only ... relief is when the baby cries after delivery. Until that moment, every day is a fear of the unknown.”
12. It’s all worth it in the end.
Okay, this one people probably will tell you. Although the process of IVF is scary, expensive, and emotionally draining, it is all worth it to have the family you've been waiting for.
“The years of making every effort, expending every resource, draining that 401(k), sleepless nights, and stress-filled work days all seem to fade away once the baby’s eyes open and make contact with yours,” Gore says. “A completely new definition of love is written in your heart.”