When it comes to getting a laugh or getting pregnant, the same adage is true — timing is everything. The ability to conceive is predicated on a number of factors, including the sexual health and maturity of both partners. Once a male enters puberty, his fertility remains relatively stable, and he maintains the ability to father children into old age. A woman’s fertility is a much more delicate condition that ebbs and flows with her monthly cycle.
The process of conception seems to be relatively simple, but in reality requires a complex set of conditions to occur at the same time. The woman’s ovaries release a mature egg cell once each month during a process called ovulation. The egg travels from the ovaries to the uterus via the fallopian tubes. Sperm is introduced into the cervix either through intercourse or by artificial insemination. The sperm travels through the cervix into the fallopian tube where it encounters the egg. If a sperm cell penetrates the egg, it becomes fertilized and attaches to the uterine lining, and pregnancy occurs. If the egg is not fertilized, the uterine lining is sloughed off and passes out of the woman’s body along with the unfertilized egg as part of her monthly menstrual flow.
The average menstrual cycle can range from 21 to 35 days but typically lasts an average of 28 days. The period of time prior to ovulation may fluctuate from woman to woman, but time frame between ovulation to the onset of the menstrual period is usually 14 days for all women. The period of time surrounding ovulation, approximately 14 days prior to the start of her period, is the time when a woman is most fertile and most likely to get pregnant.
Sperm can survive in a woman’s body for up to five days, but an unfertilized egg will only remain viable for around 24 hours, according to the University of Arizona Campus Health Service. This provides a time frame of approximately six days during the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle when she is most likely to conceive.
Fertility awareness, sometimes referred to as natural family planning, uses observations of a woman’s natural bodily functions to determine optimum periods of fertility when she is most likely to become pregnant. Some women prefer to use fertility awareness as a means of drug-free, hormone-free and device-free birth control. It involves awareness of the length of her normal monthly cycle along with recording her basal body temperature and measuring her cervical mucus. This combination of processes helps determine her approximate time of ovulation. If she wishes to get pregnant, she should engage in sexual intercourse during this time frame. If she wishes to avoid pregnancy, she should abstain from sexual intercourse during this time frame.
The Mayo Clinic advises couples who wish to get pregnant to engage in sexual intercourse at least two to three times per week, and to increase the frequency of intercourse to daily around the time of ovulation. Couples should prepare for pregnancy by pursuing healthy lifestyle choices such as starting a regular exercise routine, eating a healthy diet and quitting smoking. Women should take dietary supplements that include folic acid to improve fetal development and reduce the risk of spina bifida. Couples who do not conceive after one year of actively trying may wish to consult their primary care physician, urologist or gynecologist to check for possible medical complications.