What You Need to Know About Ovulation

Trying to conceive? Read this first.

By Toni Gasparis
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Trying to get pregnant is hard. While the prospect of infertility feels stigmatized, it's not as taboo as you think. In fact, 6.1 million women in the United States — about 10 percent — have problems conceiving or carrying to term. If you are looking to start a family, you need to become an expert in one very important thing — your body. According to OB/GYN Dr. Lakeisha Richardson, understanding your natural cycle and how ovulation works are key components to conceiving successfully. Check out her tips so that you're armed with all the facts before getting started.

What is Ovulation? 

To understand how to get pregnant, it is important to know how the female body works. A woman's cycle (also known as a menstrual cycle) is a monthly occurrence that preps the body for pregnancy. The first day of the cycle begins with a woman's period and ends right before her next period. On average, the cycle lasts 28 days, but it can last up to 38 days. After a period ends, the body preps for the release of an egg. The process of an egg being released from an ovary is known as ovulation. Once ovulation has occurred, sperm can fertilize the egg and a woman can get pregnant. 

Where to Get Started 

Three months before you want to try getting pregnant you should begin taking prenatal vitamins. These vitamins contain both DHA and folic acid which will help with your baby's development as soon as you become pregnant. In order to ensure your baby is healthy from the beginning, experts, including Dr. Richardson, recommend being proactive with vitamins. 

Additionally, you should consult with your gynecologist and tell him or her that you want to begin trying to conceive. Your doctor can make more specific recommendations to you, including getting off certain medications that might affect your ability to ovulate.

What to Know About Birth Control 

If you want to become pregnant you will want to get off your current method of birth control to make conception possible. Dr. Richardson advises that while you can get off birth control relatively quickly, your method of birth control may not make ovulation return immediately. 

If you are on the pill, you cannot stop taking it on the day you decide you want to start trying. You must complete your current monthly pack and then discontinue use. In the case of pills, ovulation returns immediately with your next cycle. 

For implanted birth control devices or injections you will need to make an appointment with your gynecologist to end usage. Once your implanted device is removed, a normal ovulation cycle can return in two or three months. If you have birth control injections, ovulation may take a lot longer to return — perhaps several months to a year. This is important to know in terms of family planning so you understand how long it will take for you to be fertile, says Dr. Richardson. 

While potentially obvious, it is worth noting that when you do begin to have sex with the intention of conceiving, all methods of birth control should be stopped. This includes, but is not limited to, oral contraception, IUDs, male and female condoms, and spermicides. 

Detecting Ovulation 

There are physical symptoms that let you know when you are about to begin ovulating:

  • Vaginal discharge becomes thin.
  • Pain or discomfort can be felt on the right or left side of your lower abdomen — this is the ovary getting ready to release the egg. 
  • Basal body temperature rises by a few degrees. Your temperature will be above 98.6°F.

If you don't want to look for those symptoms, there are a ton of apps that can do the work for you. Just download an app to your phone and input all your information to get monthly ovulation alerts. Dr. Richardson recommends using an at-home ovulation kit to detect your fertile window. These can be found at a local pharmacy and are very easy to use. 

The Best Times to Have Sex 

Many women have come to believe that the 14th day of their cycle is the magic number to conceive. "This is a myth," Dr. Richardson explains, "it is a theoretical number. Everyone's ovulation date is different based on the length of their cycle and their own body." Most cycles are 28 days, in which case day 14 could be an accurate prediction, but every woman's body is different and cycles can fluctuate. To make sure you don't miss your window, you should have sex with your partner between days 10 and 20 of your cycle (starting to count from the day your period starts).

But don't have sex every day, Dr. Richardson warns. A man needs 24 hours for his sperm count to reach normal levels, so sex every other day will ensure maximum effectiveness. Plus, the sperm will stay in your system for 72 hours so there is a significant amount of time during your breaks for sperm to penetrate an egg. 

While you won't be using a condom, some couples prefer to still have lubrication during sex. Make sure that the lubricant you use is fertility-friendly, as some have harsh chemicals that can affect sperm and decrease the chance of pregnancy. 

A Factor That Can Impact Fertility

All this technical talk around making a baby can make the process sound mechanical instead of romantic. But it is very important to keep sex loving, fun, and even spontaneous amidst all the calendar planning. When women are stressed — whether it's work, personal problems, or the frustration of trying to conceive — it can decrease the chances of ovulation. This is because cortisol, known as the stress hormone, has a negative effect on the body and can make you miss a period or even prevent ovulation. 

Dr. Richardson advises, even if it's difficult, to try your best not to get stressed. Make sure that you are taking precautions to de-stress, remain calm, and remember to keep sex pleasurable and fun.

When to Seek Help 

Dr. Richardson says that women are not considered infertile until they've tried (and failed) to get pregnant after a year of consistent trying. If you fall into this category, you will want to make an appointment with your gynecologist right away to discuss options and next steps. Dr. Richardson recommends testing the male first for a normal sperm count as this is the cheapest and least invasive process. If nothing is wrong with the sperm, she then recommends testing the female for anatomical issues like blocked tubes or problems with the ovaries. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the last resort if nothing else seems to work. While Dr. Richardson's recommendations are standard in the field, you should make an appointment directly with your gynecologist to talk about a plan that is specific to your needs and medical history. 

Related: 

What to Expect from a Gynecologist Visit (at Every Age and Stage)

How a Woman Might Not Know She’s Pregnant

What You Can (and Can’t) Eat During Pregnancy

Article written by Toni Gasparis