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Fertility Facts
Debunking old wives’ tales about pregnancy
By Anna Lockhart

Stop exercising. Take cough syrup. Make sure to raise your legs in the air after intercourse, and sleep on your right side if you want to give birth to a girl. Oh, if your hands are dry during pregnancy, you’re having a boy. Soft hands? It’s a girl. Huh? Even with a world of information at our fingertips, old wives’ tales and myths about conception and fertility live on.

Many times, women ask their doctors some rather surprising questions about fertility, and that’s usually because they’ve been reading the vast and seemingly contradictory advice found online, says Rachel Kramer, MD, an Ob/Gyn at Virtua Medical Group in Moorestown.

“Women never used to ask me, ‘Am I fertile?’” she says. “The only way to know if you are fertile is to try, but fertility is so in the public eye as a subject now.”

Kramer and Jason Franasiak, MD, lead physician of Reproductive Medical Associates of New Jersey in Marlton, tackle some commonly held myths – and truths – about getting pregnant.

 

MYTH OR FACT? Being on the pill too long will delay pregnancy.

No, says Kramer. A daily dose birth-control pill is not effective for very long, she says. “That’s why if you miss even a day you can get pregnant.”

However, some brands of oral contraception stay in your system longer than others. This is a factor because the pill works by stopping ovulation. It has to leave the system for the cycle to start up again.

“But it doesn’t mess with your fertility itself,” she adds.

 

MYTH OR FACT? Position matters.

Will standing up during intercourse decrease the chance of pregnancy? Should you stand on your head afterwards to help you get pregnant?

Again, no. “Some couples think that remaining supine after intercourse helps with sperm transport, but there is no scientific foundation for this,” says Franasiak.

Headstand or no headstand, sperm deposited in the vagina can make their way to a single egg in the fallopian tube within 15 minutes. Sperm are strong swimmers, he explains. That’s why when you’re trying not to get pregnant, it’s still possible.

 

MYTH OR FACT? Lubricant hurts your chances of getting pregnant.

Some say lubricants limit the movement of sperm. Others say it has no affect. The answer to this one is less clear cut.

Kramer points to a 2012 study that showed women in their 30s using lubrication had no problems getting pregnant but, she says, there needs to be better randomized studies to know conclusively. “If you aren’t having any other issues and use a moderate amount of lubricant, it will probably be ok,” she says. However, if a couple is already struggling with low sperm count, she generally recommends they lay off the store-bought lubes.

One myth that turns out to be true? Saliva, a natural lubricant, in fact, is a sperm killer, says Kramer. Studies have shown that in infertile couples, large amounts of saliva can impair sperm movement. But for couples without fertility worries, it’s unlikely to cause problems.

 

MYTH OR FACT? The more sex you have, the more likely you’ll get pregnant.

Generations grew up hearing that having sex every other day is an optimal strategy for getting pregnant. Others look to hockey great Wayne Gretsky’s approach to life when trying to get pregnant: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Once again, the facts really aren’t that clear.

Having intercourse every 1-2 days during the entire fertile window (the 6 days before ovulation begins) yields the highest pregnancy rates, says Franasiak.

True to the old wives’ tales, sperm does not have a long shelf life. In fact, that’s why you should time sex with ovulation, he notes. Once a woman has ovulated, if sperm doesn’t reach the cervix within 24 hours, she will probably have to wait until the next cycle to try for conception.

 

MYTH OR FACT? You can affect the gender of the baby during conception

Sorry, but no, says Kramer.

“Whether you have a boy or a girl depends on the sperm, whether it’s X or Y sperm. Some men make more Xs than Ys. That’s why if you have a couple that has three boys, it’s unlikely the next baby will be a girl.”

Another myth is that male sperm “swim” faster than female sperm – also debunked, she adds.

 

MYTH OR FACT? Women over 35 are too old to have a child.

We all know women over 35 who have healthy children, but there may be some truth to this myth. A woman’s age does play a role in her ability to get pregnant, especially if she’s trying for a first child.

“For women under 35, I tell them to just try for a year before considering any fertility treatment,” says Kramer.

If a woman is over 35 and having trouble, she should seek out a fertility specialist because time is an issue. That’s because each woman is born with a set number of eggs. Every time you ovulate, one is released, she explains. As you get older, you have fewer and fewer eggs, plus the eggs you have aren’t as easily fertilized by sperm. Also, certain complications are more likely with pregnancy later in life, including premature birth and birth defects.

Kramer wishes more women realized that if they want to delay pregnancy it’s always a good idea to take actions, such as egg retrieval and freezing, when you’re under 35.

“I tell women to try and think ahead, even though I know that’s a conundrum,” she says. “If you can think ahead to the next five years at age 32, that’s much better than waiting until you are over 35 to freeze your eggs.”

 

Myth or Fact: Fertility is a women’s issue.

A firm no. Many couples having trouble conceiving don’t realize the man’s contribution can be the reason the woman is not getting pregnant.

About a third of all infertility cases are due to male fertility issues. These can range from low sperm count or sperm abnormalities to hormonal imbalances or problems related to reproductive anatomy. Other factors can include illness, injuries, chronic health problems and lifestyle choices, such as drinking and marijuana use.

Men should be aware of their own fertility health, especially if they’re having trouble with erection or issues with ejaculation, says Franasiak.

“If he has any history of excessive heat exposure to the genitals or genital trauma, serious injury or genital infection, it may be worthwhile to see a reproductive specialist who will likely order a semen analysis,” he says.

An analysis will show the number of sperm in semen, whether they are normal and how well they move around. Many of the issues related to male fertility can be treated, he notes.

 

MYTH OR FACT? You’re too stressed to get pregnant.

That’s a tough one. Stress itself can’t cause infertility, but it can stop ovulation.

“It’s a gray area, we don’t really know what happens,” says Kramer. “For men, stress doesn’t affect their sperm count. For women, if you’re stressed, it can mean you don’t ovulate, and if you don’t ovulate, you can’t conceive.”

Other conditions, like obesity, anorexia and hypothyroidism can also stress the system, causing ovulation to stop, she says.

In general, a healthy diet, enough sleep and exercise can improve natural fertility. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs can help too. But even when you don’t feel stressed, your body may seemingly have a will of its own.

“A lot of times when women are trying to conceive and waiting to see whether they are pregnant, that causes stress, which can definitely exacerbate things,” she says.

Just remember, infertility can cause stress but stress can’t cause infertility.

“That’s why we tell people to try to relax, go have a glass of wine or a beer,” says Kramer. “And to try not to think about it too much.”

November 2019
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