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Understanding your fertility is important because falling pregnant isn’t always easy. If you’re having problems, you’re not alone. One in six Australian couples will have difficulty having a baby.
Ingredients for a healthy pregnancy
If you’re trying and not getting pregnant, it could mean there’s a problem with one of these key ingredients:
- healthy eggs (in women)
- healthy sperm (in men)
- fallopian tubes with no blockages so sperm can reach the egg
- good quality sperm to fertilise the egg
- a healthy embryo that can implant in the uterus.
How female reproductive organs work
The female reproductive organs are located on the inside of the body:
- a vagina
- a cervix
- a uterus
- fallopian tubes
They work together to help a woman menstruate (have their period), conceive (get pregnant) and carry a baby to term.
Your vagina is a tube-like structure connecting your internal reproductive organs with your external genitalia. The vagina is flexible and stretches when giving birth.
The cervix is between your vagina and uterus. It secretes mucus (known as cervical mucus) that helps, or sometimes stops, sperm from fertilising an egg. The cervix is also very flexible and expands in childbirth.
Sometimes referred to as the womb, your uterus is a muscular organ made up of three layers:
- outer layer (peritoneum)
- middle layer (myometrium)
- inner lining (endometrium).
When an egg is released from your ovaries, it can take several days for it to reach your uterus. Once the egg is fertilised, it implants into the endometrium (inner lining) and develops in the uterus through pregnancy.
Most women have 2 ovaries (left and right). Ovaries store your egg follicles. Each month, a follicle matures and releases an egg into the fallopian tubes. Your eggs are made before you’re even born and start to decrease straight away. You are born with about 2 million eggs, and have about 400,000 left by the time you have your first period.
The ovaries also produce oestrogen and progesterone (hormones crucial for reproduction and pregnancy).
Your fallopian tubes
Fallopian tubes connect your ovaries to your uterus. They have 20-25 finger-like structures on their ends – a bit like tentacles. These tentacles hover above the ovaries and collect the egg that is released from your ovaries. Fertilisation of the egg by the sperm happens in the fallopian tubes. If your tubes are blocked, you may struggle to get pregnant naturally without some help.
How male reproductive organs work
Most of the male reproductive system is on the outside of the body. External male reproductive organs:
Internal reproductive organs:
- vas deferens
Penis, scrotum and testicles
The penis is the organ used during sex. Semen ejaculates from the end of the penis when orgasm occurs. Semen is a natural fluid produced by the male reproductive system that can contain sperm.
The scrotum is the pouch of skin located beneath the penis which contains the testicles (or testes). The testes produce sperm (which can fertilise an egg) and testosterone (a hormone crucial for reproduction).
When sperm are released from the testes, they are immature and can’t fertilise an egg. From the testes, sperm pass slowly through the coiled channels of the epididymis, where they mature and become ready to fertilise an egg.
Once sperm is mature, it moves into the vas deferens. Vas deferens is a tube connecting the epididymis to the pelvic cavity.
The urethra is a tube running from the bottom of the bladder to the end of the penis. From the pelvic cavity, sperm moves to the urethra to prepare for ejaculation. When the penis is erect during sex, urine is blocked from the urethra, so only semen is ejaculated.
How pregnancy works
Once an egg has been released from the ovaries, it travels down the fallopian tubes towards the uterus. As it travels, it produces an enzyme (a natural substance) to attract sperm.
Although men release millions of sperm when they ejaculate, only a few hundred will make it from the cervix, up into the uterus and into the correct fallopian tube (on the side the egg has been released that month). Only one sperm can then make its way through the egg’s tough coating to begin fertilisation.
The fertilised egg then continues down the fallopian tube to the uterus. It implants into the inner lining (endometrium) and officially becomes an embryo.
What is ovulation?
Each month, your body has a menstrual cycle where an egg is released from the ovaries. Ovulation is when the egg is released. Ovulation occurs (on average) 14 days before the start of your period. It’s normal for women to ovulate (release the egg from the ovaries) anywhere from 12-18 days before their period starts.
How to tell when you ovulate
To tell when you are due to ovulate, work out the length of your menstrual cycle. You can do this by counting the days from the first day of your period up to, but not including, the first day of your next period. The average menstrual cycle is about 28 days, but it’s perfectly normal for your cycle to be anywhere from 24-34 days.
Other ways to tell you are ovulating:
- buy an ovulation kit from a pharmacy or supermarket and test your urine or saliva
- check your cervical mucus.
Just before ovulation, your mucus becomes clear and slippery, like an egg white. This creates the best environment for sperm to travel through the cervix – it’s your body’s natural way of telling you it’s the best time to try and get pregnant.
After ovulation, your cervical mucus changes again, becoming thicker with a white or yellow colouring, making it harder for the sperm to get through to the cervix.
Your fertile window
Your fertile window is the time during your menstrual cycle when pregnancy is possible. Technically, this is only about 6 days per cycle – on the first day of ovulation and during the five days leading up to your ovulation.
If you have sex 6 or more days before ovulation, the chances of falling pregnant are close to 0%. If you have sex 5 days before ovulation, your chance of pregnancy increases to 10%. The chances steadily rise until the 2 days before ovulation and the day of ovulation.
When is the best time to conceive?
To boost the chance of natural conception, its best to have sex at least every 2 days during your fertile window.If you’re not sure when you ovulate or when your fertile window is, (for example if you have irregular periods), try to have sex every 2-3 days.
- Women’s guide to getting the timing right