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What was your sex-ed class like? Did you even have one? If you didn’t have sex education in school, you’re not alone—not every state mandates sex and HIV education, and not every state requires that the information provided be medically accurate.
It’s no wonder that when we get to the stage of life when we start thinking about making a baby, we feel more than a little confused. It’s complicated, and we often aren’t taught much when we’re young. I didn’t fully understand the reproductive systems until I got to midwifery school in my twenties!
In an effort to demystify the process of how to get pregnant, here are 10 facts about getting pregnant they didn’t teach in sex ed:
1. There are a lot of ways to make a baby (and they are all beautiful)
Sex ed tends to focus on heterosexual couples that conceive a baby through intercourse. That’s certainly one way to do it—but it’s definitely not the only way.
LGBTQ+ couples, single mothers and people with infertility concerns use assisted reproductive technologies to conceive their babies every day. And their stories are just as beautiful, powerful and moving as what we learn about in sex ed.
This article focuses on conception through intercourse, but you can learn more about the other amazing ways here: IVF, IUI, ICI, and IVI: There are so many ways to make a family.
2. Pleasure is important (and not wrong)
Despite how much women have progressed in our society, there are still some pretty strong sexist undercurrents. One of these undercurrents is around the enjoyment of sex; that women who enjoy sex are somehow wrong or dirty.
This could not be further from the truth. Women have an organ (the clitoris) that’s only purpose is to provide sexual pleasure—that’s nature’s way of saying, “get it, girl.”
Not only is it good for you to enjoy sex, but it may also help you get pregnant. The little muscle contractions that happen in the vagina and uterus when you have an orgasm may help to move sperm through the reproductive tract to help it meet the egg. And, when you have an orgasm, your body releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that can contribute to the reduction of stress (another thing that may improve your chances of conceiving).
So don’t be afraid to have fun with sex—and to reach out to your provider if it hurts or something feels off.
3. Timing is everything
There is a small window of time in which conception can happen. Essentially, once you ovulate (release the egg(s) from your ovary), the egg must meet sperm within 24 to 48 hours. How will you know you’ve ovulated? I thought you’d never ask! Here’s how to find your most fertile days.
Getting the timing just right can have a big impact on your conception journey.
4. It can take a while
Most people won’t get pregnant the first time they try to conceive—only about 25% of people who are trying to conceive will get pregnant in any given month. I know that sounds discouraging, but I actually think it’s helpful to remember—because trying to conceive is stressful, and it can be easy to start to worry that something is wrong. In fact, it’s quite normal to not get pregnant right away.
Now, there may come a time when you should seek medical advice. In women age 35 and under (who are using intercourse to get pregnant), infertility is diagnosed when pregnancy has not occurred after 12 or more months of regular, unprotected sex. For women over 35, infertility is diagnosed after six months.
And you can always talk with your provider sooner if you are worried. And if you do receive an upsetting diagnosis, remember that there are so many interventions out there that can help.
5. Lubrication choice makes a difference
Many people choose to use lubrication to make sex more comfortable (which is good; see item number 2 above). But it’s important to choose the lubrication wisely; some commonly used brands can actually make it harder to get pregnant by decreasing sperm’s ability to move into and through the reproductive tract.
6. Starting vitamins early helps
Prenatal vitamins are designed specifically to meet the needs of pregnant women and their growing babies. Though getting nutrients through food is ideal, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends prenatal vitamins to ensure that you are getting what you need. While vitamins benefit you and your baby throughout your pregnancy, they work best when started before you become pregnant. And they can help prevent certain anomalies in the developing fetus.
So, find a prenatal vitamin and start taking it at least a few months before you start trying to conceive.
7. Sperm health matters
Encourage your partner or sperm donor to consult his health practitioner to support his overall wellness, and possibly pursue sperm testing. A man can increase sperm motility and count by taking steps to keep his testicles healthy. This includes not wearing tight pants, not going into hot tubs and not keeping a phone or other wireless devices near the testicles. Men might choose to stop smoking or stop using recreational drugs, including all forms of marijuana. Though research is always evolving here, past studies have found that vitamins and supplements such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carnitine, zinc, folate, L-arginine and coenzyme Q10 may contribute to improved sperm counts.
8. Be proactive about taking care of your vagina
Trying to conceive sometimes means lots and lots of sex—and that can take a toll on your vagina, so giving it some TLC can make a big difference.
My friend in midwifery school used to say that the vagina is a rainforest. Vaginas, like rainforests, involve a complex system that generally does a phenomenal job of taking care of itself. When the system is tampered with too much, problems can arise. So, vaginal health is often about simple and gentle care.
Here are some helpful tips on vagina and vulva care:
- Avoid douching. Douching can lead to a temporary “fresh” feeling but ultimately creates an imbalance of bacteria and yeast, which can lead to infections.
- Clean your pelvic area with only mild soap and water, and no need to scrub hard or internally. Again, your vagina takes care of itself.
- When possible, choose cotton underwear because it is more breathable: Vaginas like to breathe. And spending time without any bottoms on at all is a good idea too (let’s hear it for naked sleeping!).
- Consider your pubic hair maintenance. Some women choose to shave or wax some or all of their pubic hair. Of course, this is 100% up to you. I will say that removing pubic hair can lead to infections, inflamed hair follicles and irritation, especially when you are pregnant and skin tends to be more sensitive. Also, please don’t feel that you have to do it for the sake of your provider and your upcoming pelvic exam (and later for your birth). I promise you we don’t even notice.
One more thing: Vaginal discharge is normal. It should be clear or whitish, and without a fishy odor. If you notice vaginal discharge that is gray or yellow or green, has a fishy or otherwise foul odor, or if you experience itching or discomfort, it’s important to visit a healthcare provider to see what’s going on.
9. You get to be the boss
The conception journey is very personal—and often very emotional. It can be exciting, scary, disappointing and confusing all at the same time. So check in with yourself often. Assess how you are feeling on an emotional level, and then respond. If you are feeling well, great! But if you need to pause or check in with a therapist along the way, that’s good to recognize, too.
You are the boss of your body. Full stop.
10. You don’t have to go it alone
Never feel embarrassed to ask your midwife or doctor questions about your pelvic or reproductive health. They are not embarrassed to talk about it (ahem, clearly), and you have every right to feel empowered and informed.
Scheduling a preconception checkup before trying to conceive can be incredibly helpful to ensure that you are as healthy as possible before your journey. And you can always call us with questions you have along the way.
Some of this content has been excerpted from The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama. A version of this story was originally published on Oct. 15, 2021. It has been updated.