Trying to conceive

How are babies made?

From ovulation to ejaculation, these are all the different steps that need to happen to make a baby.

How are babies made?

Photo: iStockPhoto

We all know the basics of making a baby. You have sex, then the sperm travels a long way to meet an egg. And boom—you have a baby. Right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Knowing the mechanics of how you get pregnant can be helpful when it comes to understanding your fertility. So here is exactly what happens.

It starts with ovulation

Without ovulation, you will not be able to conceive a child naturally. Ovulation is the process that releases a mature egg from a woman's ovary into one of the fallopian tubes so it can be fertilized. Ovulation is prompted by a series of hormonal changes.

A couple of days before ovulation, one follicle in the ovary becomes the dominant follicle and it carries the oocyte (an immature egg cell) for that month, explains Sara Twogood, an OB/GYN and assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynaecology at the USC Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. The dominant follicle isn’t identified until a couple of days before ovulation then matures until ovulation, she adds.

You will experience a spike in luteinizing hormone, the egg cell undergoes changes, then 36 hours after the LH surge, the oocyte will be released from the ovary, which is what we call ovulation.

Since each woman’s menstrual cycle differs in length, the exact time of ovulation varies. Most women ovulate about 14 days before their period. But things like stress or illness can affect your hormones and in turn influence when you ovulate.

This is why many women use ovulation tests to predict when they’re ovulating. Tracking your basal body temperature or examining your cervical mucus can also clue you in to when it’s prime baby-making time.

Woman tracking periods by using menstrual calendar app on phone grinvalds / Getty Images

Then you need sperm

An egg by itself isn’t going to produce a baby. It needs to have a rendezvous with a man’s sperm.

It’s estimated that men make 1,500 sperm every second of every day! You don’t need to be a mathematician to know that’s a lot of sperm.

But it takes 72 days for a single sperm to mature. Each starts as a germ cell that, when nourished by "nurse cells" in the testicle, become sperm. When it finally grows a tail, it can swim out into the epididymis (the duct behind the testes). Here, the sperm will brush up on its swimming skills and hang out until it leaves the body through ejaculation.

When men ejaculate, they can release anywhere from 40 million to one billion sperm! While that number seems high, very few make it to the egg.

The vagina is a very acidic and deadly environment for these little guys (many die within minutes of arriving)—and that’s just the beginning of a long and tedious journey for them. The sperm must swim through the cervix to get to the uterus and eventually find their way to the fallopian tube. There is no GPS, so by this point many sperm have swum in the wrong direction or have just run out of energy.

Once the sperm finds the fallopian tube, it’s all about timing.


If the egg meets the sperm

If the sperm is lucky, a woman would have just ovulated and an egg will be on its way soon. But this waiting game is one with an expiration date. Sperm can stay alive for 72 hours, perhaps a bit more, in the female reproductive system, says Twogood. But after ovulation, an egg only lives for 24 hours at most. So it really is a race against time for the sperm and the egg to meet. And your odds of getting pregnant each month are 25 to 35 percent if you are under 35 years of age.

When a sperm does finally meet the egg, it’s time to get down to business. “There is an activation that helps the sperm penetrate the outer protective layer of the egg, and enzymes are released that remove the extraneous parts of the sperm so the chromosomes can join with those of the egg,” says Twogood.

Once the sperm and egg connect, the zona pellucida (the external surface of the egg) undergoes a reaction, which makes it impossible for other sperm to attach and penetrate the egg, explains Twogood.

In a perfect world, the sperm makes it to the fallopian tube, waits for the egg and fertilizes it inside the uterus. However, in rare cases the fertilized egg implants somewhere other than the uterus. When this happens, an ectopic pregnancy can form. This typically happens inside the fallopian tube and is not a viable pregnancy. If not dealt with immediately, it can be life-threatening. According to the Mayo Clinic, the first sign of an ectopic pregnancy is pelvic pain. You should also watch out for light vaginal bleeding, an urge to have a bowel movement and shoulder pain. If your tube ruptures, the pelvic pain will get worse and you may experience light-headedness and even faint.

If the egg is never fertilized, the lining of the uterus is shed and you get your period. Contrary to what some people believe, sperm doesn’t come out when you get your period—they die off and get absorbed by the body.

egg and sperm model Irina Shatilova / Getty Images

A baby is made

Each sperm carries a different chromosome—an X or Y. While a man can’t control which sperm will make it to the egg, he will ultimately decide the sex of the baby because all unfertilized eggs carry an X chromosome. If the egg meets with a sperm that is also carrying an X chromosome, little Julie will be here in nine months. If the egg meets with a sperm carrying a Y chromosome, get ready for a little Jake.

X and Y Adrienne Bresnahan / Getty Images

Can you increase your odds of getting pregnant?

You may wonder if there are any positions that are better than others for increasing your chances of conceiving. Ejaculation inside the vagina is necessary to make a baby, but it doesn’t actually matter which position makes that happen, explains Twogood. Some people think lying on your back for several minutes after getting busy will act like a speed pass for the sperm to get to its destination. That’s not true, says Twogood.

It’s also not true that a woman needs to have an orgasm to get pregnant. "It's theorized that the contractions of the cervix and the uterus may help facilitate the movement of the sperm," says Twogood. But there has never been any research to back up this belief. So, in the end, do what feels right for you and your partner. With the right timing, you could have a baby in nine months!

Couple cuddling in the bed South_agency / Getty Images


More details: understanding your ovulation window

Typically occurring about 14 days before your next period, the timing and length of ovulation differs among women. What to watch for? A subtle twinge in your lower abdomen and changes in your cervical mucus are telltale signs.

The best practice? Regular intimacy during the five days leading up to ovulation and on the day itself. No need to watch the clock; it's more about frequency during this window.

Baby planning concept. Close up view photo of calendar with marked day on calendar and hand written text ovulation InspirationGP / Getty Images

Choosing the right lubricant

You might not have realised that your choice of lubricant can play a pivotal role in your journey toward parenthood. Some lubes can slow down those little swimmers, making the quest to reach the egg that much harder. The smart move? Go for a lubricant that's clearly labelled 'fertility-friendly'.

Unlike their standard counterparts, these specially formulated lubes create the optimal swimming conditions for sperm, increasing their chances of reaching the end zone. This seemingly small choice might just give your journey to parenthood a welcome boost.

Womens hands hold intimate grease and a red heart shape on a pink background Irina Shatilova / Getty Images

Embracing healthy lifestyle habits

When you're hoping to conceive, the condition of your body is a big player in the game. The importance of a balanced diet can't be overstated; providing your body with a variety of nutrients is key. Couple this with a consistent exercise regimen to keep your body active. Maintaining a healthy body weight will also ensure better hormonal balance. Add to that the importance of steering clear of nicotine and moderating alcohol—these are all your allies in getting your body baby-ready.

A mentally and physically healthier you often also means a more predictable menstrual cycle, a boon when you're trying to pinpoint that all-important fertility window.

woman running in a race Deby Suchaeri / Getty Images


Reducing stress levels

We all know managing stress is easier said than done. But when you're aiming for parenthood, it becomes crucial. It's a crafty little thing, stress. It loves to mess with your hormones, creating a domino effect that can disrupt your menstrual cycle and ovulation timing.

So, why not infuse your routine with a few zen moments? Yoga, meditation, or a tranquil walk in nature could do the trick. These calming activities can help keep stress in check, fostering a more conception-friendly environment. Whichever way you lean, these serene activities can help pave the way for a more baby-ready environment in body and mind. It's all about finding your calm amidst the chaos. So take a deep breath, and remember—you've got this.

woman doing yoga FreshSplash / Getty Images

Scheduling a doctor's visit

If you're finding that the road to conception is a bit bumpier than expected, see a doc to help rule out any medical hurdles that could be slowing your progress. Scheduling a visit can provide a valuable opportunity to understand and address potential issues. Your appointment could involve a thorough physical check-up or maybe a few blood tests to paint a clearer picture of your health.

Don't underestimate the value of an old-fashioned chat with a good doctor. It's the perfect time to discuss any worries or questions you might have about conception. Remember, knowledge is power, and every bit of insight brings you closer to your goals of starting your own family.

woman Speaking To The doctor FatCamera / Getty Images
This article was originally published on Nov 22, 2018

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