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Fertility 101: getting familiar with your fertility

A woman looks at her pregnancy test with a neutral expression
Fertility is a fascinating and complex process

Planning to fall pregnant and have a baby can be a beautiful and rewarding process for many, but for some people it can be difficult.

When it comes to fertility, age is a significant factor for both sexes, but there are multiple factors that can impact the fascinating and complex process of creating new life, and these can be a little different for males and females.

Let’s take a closer look.

How does pregnancy occur?

For a pregnancy to occur, firstly, sperm needs to fertilise an egg.

An egg is released from one of the ovaries each month during ovulation.

At the same time, the lining of the womb begins to thicken and the mucus in the cervix becomes thinner so that sperm can swim through it more easily.

The egg begins to travel slowly down the fallopian tube. If a male and a female have recently had sex, the egg may be fertilised here by the male's sperm.

An egg lives for about 12 to 24 hours after it's released. For pregnancy to happen, the egg must be fertilised by a sperm within this time.

The lining of the womb is now thick enough for the egg to be implanted in it after it has been fertilised.

Pregnancy officially starts when this fertilised egg (embryo) attaches to the wall of the uterus, where it can grow into a baby over nine months.

How does ovulation (egg production) work?

Usually, only one egg is matured and ovulated each month. Multiple ovulations can increase with the use of fertility treatments and age.

When you’re born, you come into the world with all the eggs you’ll ever have, which is usually around one million. But, by puberty that number halves.

At about 20 years of age, your total egg count is reduced to approximately 250,000. By 30, most females will have around 100,000 eggs.

From puberty to menopause, some 500 eggs will reach maturity and be released from the ovary for the purposes of being fertilised.

A magnified ovum

What affects female fertility?

A female’s age is the single most important factor affecting a couple’s chances of conceiving, as egg quality and reserve starts to rapidly decline after the age of 35.

Other gynaecological issues such endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and fibroids can also cause fertility problems.

Non-gynaecological health issues may also have an impact on a female’s health and fertility. Working with your GP to address or manage these can help support your chances of conceiving. If you’re not sure about whether an existing condition can affect your fertility, talk to your GP or specialist.

What affects male fertility?

To conceive a healthy baby, men need to be able to produce a good amount of normal sperm and be able to ejaculate them during sexual intercourse.

A male’s sperm quality is also affected by his age. After the age of 40, a greater number of DNA abnormalities occur in sperm.

How are sperm produced?

Sperm are created in the testicles. You produce sperm every day, but a full sperm regeneration cycle (which is called spermatogenesis) takes about 64 days.

During spermatogenesis, your testicles make several million sperm per day — about 1,500 per second. By the end of a full sperm production cycle, you can regenerate up to 8 billion sperm.

This may seem like overkill, but you release anywhere from 20 to 300 million sperm cells in a single millilitre of semen. Your body maintains a surplus to ensure there’s a fresh supply for conception.

They travel through the male reproductive system and mix with fluid (semen) made by the prostate gland and organs called the seminal vesicles. They are then ejaculated during orgasm.

A magnified egg and sperm

What causes male fertility issues?

One in three cases of infertility are caused by problems with the male’s sperm, erections, or the tubes that the sperm move through.

It’s never too early to start looking after your sperm. If you want to be a father, it’s a good idea to stay healthy by exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, making sure you’re not overweight, quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol.

There are other health issues that can impact a male’s fertility. Working with your GP to address or manage these may improve your chances of conceiving. If you’re not sure whether a condition is affecting your fertility, talk to your GP or specialist.

How do I increase my chances of getting pregnant?

Whether you are a male or female, being as fit and healthy as you can be before you try and conceive is an important part of achieving a healthy pregnancy.

If you are a female, one of the best ways to increase your chances of getting pregnant is knowing what days you ovulate (when you’re most likely to get pregnant) and planning vaginal sex or insemination around those days.

Females are usually fertile for around seven days of every menstrual cycle: the five days before you ovulate, and the day you ovulate. You can also get pregnant a day or two after ovulation, but it's less likely.

Some people have very regular cycles, and some people’s cycles vary from month to month. Many people track their menstrual cycles and other fertility signs to help them figure out when they’re ovulating. This is called fertility awareness — some people use it to prevent pregnancy, and others use it to try to get pregnant.

If you are planning to fall pregnant, a female should start taking an oral folic acid supplement at least a month before, to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects in your baby. Folic acid supplements are available in pharmacies and supermarkets.

Talk to your GP or specialist for more information.

If you are a male, being as healthy as you can by following the steps in the dot points below can help you produce healthy sperm.

A calendar a clock and a pregnancy test

Can I get pregnant after 35?

Many couples are delaying pregnancy well into their 30s and are still delivering healthy babies, but there are some additional factors to consider.

It may take longer to get pregnant. This is because as a female ages, her eggs aren’t fertilised as easily.

You’ll have a better chance of getting pregnant if you understand your menstrual cycle. If your cycle is regular, then you can know that you probably ovulate two weeks before the start of your next cycle. So, you can work from that and work out the best time to have sex.

Also, both you and your partner should be as healthy as you can be. Apart from anything else, this really will help your chances of getting pregnant. You can both:

Woman chopping fruit on a kitchen bench

How long does it take to get pregnant?

Many people take time to fall pregnant. Doctors call it infertility if a female is not pregnant after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sex. If you’re trying to conceive and it’s been that long, it may be time to talk to your GP or healthcare provider.

If you’re over 35, you should think about seeing your GP if you’ve been trying for six months or more.

If you would like to have a child and think you or your partner may have problems with fertility due to pre-existing health conditions, talk to you GP straight away for advice.

More information

Last updated: 22 January 2021