The desire to have children can encourage some women to make healthier lifestyle choices. They may become more conscious of the foods, beverages and drugs they put into their bodies, and may set aside time to exercise.
For women who want to optimize their fertility, taking better care of their bodies is a good first step. But what else can women do to improve their odds of having a baby?
The most important advice for a woman who wants to get pregnant is to get to know her body, specifically her menstrual cycle, said Dr. Mary Ellen Pavone, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist, and medical director of the IVF program at Northwestern Medicine’s Fertility and Reproductive Medicine in Chicago.
“It’s important to know how far apart her cycles are so she can more accurately time intercourse to try to get pregnant,” Pavone said.
Here are 12 tips that may help increase a healthy woman’s chances of becoming pregnant, assuming that neither she nor her partner have a known fertility problem.
Record menstrual cycle frequency
A woman who wants to have a baby should monitor whether the first days of her period tends to come the same number of days apart every month, which is considered being regular. Conversely, her periods may be irregular, meaning her cycle lengths vary from month to month. By tracking this information on a calendar, a woman can better predict when she might be ovulating, the time when her ovaries will release an egg every month.
A woman’s egg is fertile for only 12 to 24 hours after its release, according to the March of Dimes. However, a man’s sperm can survive in a woman’s body for about six days, notes Planned Parenthood.
Women with regular cycles generally ovulate two weeks before the arrival of their periods, Pavone said. It’s harder to predict ovulation in women with irregular cycles, but it usually occurs 12 to 16 days before the start of the woman’s next period.
There are several methods women can use to help determine their most fertile days each month.
Home ovulation-prediction kits can take some of the guesswork out of finding when a woman is ovulating. They’re good to use for this purpose, Pavone said, but she suggested reading the instructions before using the products, since each kit can be a little different.
Sold at drug stores, the kits test urine for luteinizing hormone, a substance whose levels increase each month during ovulation and cause the ovaries to release an egg. The three days right after a positive test result are the best time for couples to have sex to increase their odds of becoming pregnant, reports the American Pregnancy Association.
Other clues to ovulation include the basal body temperature method, in which a woman takes her temperature before she gets out of bed every day and charts this on a graph for at least three menstrual cycles. After a woman ovulates, her basal body temperature typically increases less than half a degree Fahrenheit (0.3 degrees Celsius). A woman is most fertile during the two to three days before this slight rise in body temperature, reports the Mayo Clinic.
A second method is tracking cervical mucus, which involves a woman regularly checking both the amount and appearance of mucus in her vagina. A study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that women who checked their cervical mucus consistently were 2.3 times more likely to get pregnant over a six-month period.
Just before ovulation when a woman is most fertile, the amount of mucus increases and it also becomes thinner, clearer and more slippery, said the March of Dimes. When cervical mucus becomes more slippery, it can help sperm make its way to the egg.
Have sex every other day during the fertile window
The “fertile window” spans a six-day interval, the five days prior to ovulation and the day of it, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. These are the days each month when a woman is most fertile.
One study found that intercourse is most likely to result in a pregnancy when it occurs two days before ovulation.
Research has shown that there hasn’t been a big difference in pregnancy rates between couples who had sex every day during the “fertile window” (37 percent) compared with couples who had sex every other day (33 percent), Pavone said. “And having sex every other day might be easier for a couple to pull off,” she added.
There are plenty of common misconceptions and old wives’ tales about conception. For example, there’s no evidence that the position a couple has sex in will influence their chances of having a baby, nor does a woman lying on her back for a certain amount of time after intercourse increase the odds of conceiving, Pavone told Live Science.
Strive for a healthy body weight
Being too heavy can reduce a woman’s odds of conceiving, but being too thin can make it even harder to have a baby.
Research has shown that a woman who is overweight (her Body Mass Index, or BMI, is greater than 35) can take twice as long to become pregnant as a woman whose BMI is considered normal, Pavone said. A woman who is underweight (her BMI is less than 19) might take four times as long to conceive, she said.
Having too much body fat produces excess estrogen, which can interfere with ovulation. Losing 5 to 10 percent of body weight before a woman starts trying to get pregnant could improve her fertility, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Women who are too thin might not be getting regular periods or could stop ovulating.
Take a prenatal vitamin
Pavone recommends that women who are attempting to conceive start taking a prenatal vitamin even before becoming pregnant. This way, a woman can find one that’s more agreeable to her system and stay on it during pregnancy, Pavone said.
Another possibility is taking a daily multivitamin, as long as it contains at least 400 micrograms (mcg) per day of folic acid, a B vitamin that’s important for preventing birth defects in a baby’s brain and spine, Pavone said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges women to take 400 mcg of folic acid every day for at least one month before getting pregnant to help prevent birth defects.
Getting a head start on folic acid supplementation is a good idea because the neural tube develops into the brain and spine three to four weeks after conception occurs, before many women realize they’re pregnant.
Eat healthy foods
Although there may not be a specific fertility-promoting diet, eating a variety of healthy foods can help prepare a woman’s body for pregnancy by giving her adequate stores of critical nutrients such as calcium, protein and iron. This means eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, dairy and healthy sources of fat.
Besides taking a supplement containing folic acid, a woman can also obtain this B vitamin from foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, fortified breads and cereals, beans, citrus fruits, and orange juice. [Related: High Cholesterol Levels May Make It Harder to Get Pregnant]
When trying to get pregnant, eat lower amounts of high-mercury fish, such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. And limit albacore (white) tuna to 6-ounces per week to reduce exposure to mercury, a toxic metal, the Food and Drug Administration recommends.
Also, go easy on caffeine: Consuming more than 500 milligrams of caffeine a day has been linked with a decrease in fertility in women. Having 1 to 2 cups of coffee, or less than 250 mg of caffeine, per day before becoming pregnant appears to have no impact on the likelihood of conception, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Cut back on strenuous workouts
Being physically active most days of the week can help a woman’s body prepare for the demands of pregnancy and labor. But getting too much exercise or doing frequent strenuous workouts could interfere with ovulation.
Doctors see a lot of menstrual disturbances in women who exercise heavily, and a lot of times these women need to cut back on their workouts if they want to become pregnant, Pavone told Live Science.
Be aware of age-related fertility declines
As women get older, their fertility decreases because of age-related changes in the ovaries that cause a decline in the quantity and quality of their eggs.
There’s a gradual fertility decline in women beginning in their 30s, a sharper decline after age 37 and a steep decline after age 40, Pavone said. These declines mean it may takes longer to become pregnant.
Kick the smoking habit
Smoking can lead to fertility problems in both women and men. Chemicals found in cigarette smoke, such as nicotine and carbon monoxide, speed up the loss rate of awoman’s eggs, said the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.
It’s also a good idea for women to stay away from secondhand smoke, which may affect their chances of becoming pregnant. Marijuana and other recreational drug use should also be avoided while trying to conceive.
Give up alcohol
It’s safest to avoid alcohol when a woman is hoping to become pregnant. Drinking alcohol at moderate (one to two drinks per day) or heavy levels (more than two drinks per day) can make it difficult for a woman to get pregnant, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Once a woman becomes pregnant, there’s no safe amount of alcohol that she can consume, Pavone said.
Create a fertility-friendly home and work environment
Frequent exposure to lawn and farm pesticides, pollutants, or chemical solvents used at work can harm a woman’s fertility. She can take steps to minimize these exposures by protecting her face with a mask or wearing protective gloves, glasses and clothing around potentially toxic materials, recommends the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Stress management is also important. Trying to get pregnant is stressful enough for many couples. Although the exact role of stress in a woman’s chances of conceiving is unclear, it makes sense for women to develop good coping strategies to help manage stress at home and at work. Find ways to relax both body and mind, whether by exercising, taking deep breaths, listening to music or doing yoga. [Related: Stay Up Late? How It Could Hurt Your Fertility]
Know when to seek help
A woman and man should consider having an infertility evaluation if the woman is 35 or older and has not become pregnant after six months of having sex regularly without using birth control, Pavone said. A 2012 study published in the journal PLOS One also concluded that for women over the age of 35, it may be appropriate to start investigation and treatment more quickly than for younger women.
Pavone also recommended that a woman who is under 35 and her partner should consult a fertility specialist if she has failed to become pregnant after one year of having unprotected intercourse on a regular basis.