We often think of infertility as an issue for first-time parents, but for some, the fertility challenges don’t begin until they’re trying for their second (or third or fourth) time around. Secondary infertility—the inability to become pregnant, or carry to term, after already having given birth to one or more children—can be just as devastating for those in its wake, especially because most parents assume if they got pregnant once, they can certainly do it again.
But not every pregnancy is the same, and often there can be a big difference between them in terms of the process and the experience as a whole. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 3 million couples in the U.S. face secondary infertility.
The challenges of getting pregnant, especially if you were able to have a child before, can be extremely confusing, heartbreaking, isolating and painful. But as these statistics prove, it’s a struggle that many are facing, and one that you should not feel ashamed of. Educating yourself and establishing the right support network can make all the difference. Here are 5 tips on how to cope with secondary infertility.
Don’t be afraid to seek medical assistance
There are many different reasons parents experience secondary infertility, but age often plays an important role. If you are under 35 and have been trying to conceive for a year, you can and should seek medical assistance. Women over 35 should ask for help if they have been trying for six months. A specialist like a reproductive endocrinologist can help pinpoint risk factors like hormone levels, fallopian tube damage, endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian conditions and ovulation disorders.
Check your partner’s fertility, too
Sperm quality and quantity can change over the years, and according to the National Infertility Association, upwards of one-third of fertility issues are related to male factors. New at-home testing kits such as the options from Legacy make getting an in-depth look at sperm quality even easier.
Try an integrated approach
There are many other complementary options to Western medicine, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutritional therapy and supplementation, exercise and meditation that can assist you on your fertility journey. Whether you prefer to tackle secondary infertility with a conventional approach, a more holistic approach or both, there are a variety of treatments for you to explore. Talk to your OB-GYN for recommendations of complementary medicine providers.
Accept all of your emotions
The emotional ups and downs around conceiving can cause anger, grief, hopelessness, depression, jealousy, fear and anxiety. Recent research in 2018 has shown that the stress and anxiety levels of women dealing with infertility are often equivalent to those dealing with cancer, HIV or heart disease. Unfortunately, many couples that experience secondary infertility receive less social support than those dealing with primary infertility—or those other health conditions.
It can be a private battle. Too often, the pain of their infertility is minimized or criticized by others for having already successfully started a family. They’re told that they should feel grateful for what they have. This causes feelings of guilt and isolation. Of course a couple can be extremely grateful for their child and still long to grow their family. It can be beneficial to speak to someone whom you feel connected to. Communicating pain eases the emotional burden of needing to contain it all. Seeking out a therapist or a support group can give you a broader outlook and some useful tools to deal with these difficult emotions.
Take care of yourself
We live in a busy world, and it’s not uncommon to push ourselves past our limits in both our careers and personal endeavors. Secondary infertility can be an opportunity to shift your perspective and honor yourself in a way you may not usually have time to—to examine and reassess your lifestyle and priorities.
According to Dr. Alice Domar, Executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and the Director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF, women who participate in mind/body programs, in conjunction with medical treatment, experience better results than those seeking medical treatment only.
Factors such as nutrition, exercise, meditation, spending time in nature and rest are essential for your wellbeing and self-care and can also help jumpstart your fertility. So take time for yourself. Enlist others. The support of yourself and others will set the ground for a richer, more positive experience. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but for many it takes a village to have one.
A version of this post originally appeared on June 27, 2016. It has been updated.