It Takes Longer to Get Pregnant Than Most Think

Isabella Bridie DeLeo
·5 mins read

The most pressing question for couples who are trying to conceive is about time: How long does it take to get pregnant? It turns out this is something of a loaded question with a wide-ranging answer: From 72 hours to a year. Maybe longer. One thing is for sure, like a pot of boiling water, conception seems to be most strained under a watchful eye.

“There are a lot of moving parts to become pregnant,” said Dr. Tanmoy Mukherjee, the Associate Director of the Mount Sinai Division of Reproductive Endocrinology. “When I think about it in detail, I wonder how there are so many of us.”

Fortunately, most couples seeking to get pregnant do eventually succeed. It just takes time. But for how long can you expect to keep trying? And when is it time to bring a fertility specialist on board?

How Long Does It Take to Get Pregnant After Sex?

Let’s say the egg and sperm are both winners and the sex is perfectly timed around her ovulatory cycle. Even when all the parts fall into place, pregnancy doesn’t happen immediately. In fact, it can take up to a week, said Mukherjee. After intercourse, sperm swim — or, technically-speaking, spin — up through a woman’s cervix towards her fallopian tubes. They can survive there for up to 72 hours while they wait for the egg to be shuttled down the tubes from the ovaries. A more intrepid sperm might even last longer. That’s why you don’t want to wait until ovulation to have sex, Mukherjee said. Pregnancy is most likely to occur when the sperm are already hanging out in a woman’s reproductive tract when her egg is released.

After fertilization, it can take another 2-3 days for the fertilized egg to begin dividing, then implant in the lining of a woman’s uterus, triggering a surge of hormones. That’s when pregnancy starts.

How Long It Takes to Get Pregnant Generally?

The majority of couples become pregnant within six months, said Kenan Omurtag, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. But if a couple doesn’t get pregnant within that window, there’s no reason to panic, he added.

“The fact that they haven’t conceived is not an indictment on their ability to get pregnant,” Omurtag said.

By nature, humans aren’t the most fertile of creatures. On average, the chances of conceiving in a given ovulatory cycle hover around 20%, according to a review article published in The Lancet in 2002. (For perspective, the fertility rate of baboons can reach around 80% each cycle.) That means that 74% of couples with average fertility will become pregnant after six months, and 93% after one year. If it’s been a year and you’re still not pregnant, it’s time to do a workup to rule out any potential conditions that might be making conceiving more difficult — like irregular ovulation or low sperm count, Omurtag said.

How Long Is Too Long to Get Pregnant

Just because you’ve been trying for longer than a year doesn’t mean you’re infertile. Remember — even for people with average fertility, 7 percent of couples won’t get pregnant within a year. And if you do discover that there’s a condition impacting your fertility, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need medical intervention, Mukherjee said.

When you’re trying to get pregnant, the components that matter are quality eggs, regular ovulation, healthy sperm, and a healthy uterus and fallopian tubes, Mukerjee said. If there’s a problem with two or more components, the chances are higher a couple will need medical intervention. But if there’s a problem with only one of those components, the chances are good that a couple will be able to get pregnant without assistance — it’ll just take more time.

For example, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a major cause of irregular periods, impacting 6 to 12 percent of women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women with PCOS often take longer to get pregnant, because they tend to ovulate less often. “Instead of 13 opportunities per year to conceive, you might be down to 6 or 7,” Mukherjee said. But in the long-term, women with PCOS conceive at the same rate as women without PCOS.

The problem is, not all couples have time. If you start trying at 35, you can’t afford to wait, Mukherjee said. But if you’re in your 20’s or early 30’s? It might just take patience.

Average Time to Get Pregnant For Older Adults

The older a couple gets, the fewer viable eggs a woman has and the lower quality a man’s sperm, Omurtag said. This means it could take longer to get pregnant. In a 2017 cohort study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers followed 2,962 couples, all trying to get pregnant. After six months, 62 percent of women between 28 and 30 years old were pregnant, but only 55.9 percent of women between 34 and 36 years old were. The same pattern held true for male partners, but the differences between age groups were less pronounced.

Although fertility begins to decline in our early 30’s, it’s our late 30’s when that decline really becomes pronounced, Omurtag said. “Thirty-eight is actually the magic number here,” he said. In the same study, only 46 percent of couples between 37 and 39 years old were pregnant after 6 months.

Experiencing frustration while trying to get pregnant is common. One in four couples struggle to get pregnant, Omurtag said. “It’s important to be mindful of that and how prevalent it really is,” he said. But just because you’re not pregnant after a month, or six, or even a year, doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.

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