Successfully conceiving the "old-fashioned" way means timing penis-in-vagina sex so sperm can reach an egg that is waiting to be fertilized. Your best bet at getting pregnant is timing sex to help sperm reach that egg at just the right moment. But once an egg has been released (which is known as ovulation), it lives for approximately 24 hours.
Knowing how many days before and after ovulation you can get pregnant is key. Sperm can live for up to five days in the female reproductive tract under the right conditions, which means that most people will have about six days in each cycle during which they can conceive—the five days before ovulation and one day after. Read on to learn more about your chances of getting pregnant throughout your menstrual cycle.
Your Chances of Getting Pregnant on Your Period
Menstruation is triggered after an egg has been released and has not been fertilized, occurring after ovulation somewhere between day 21 and 35 in most people who menstruate. (The first day of your period is considered day one of the cycle.)
During menstruation, the inner membrane of the uterus (known as the endometrium) is shed. By the third day of your cycle, levels of progesterone and estrogen are rising and working to rebuild your endometrium. Around day four, follicle ripening begins to increase as the ovaries start preparing an egg for release.
Most people will ovulate well after their period ends, somewhere around day 14 for the average 28-day cycle—though as we know, cycle length and ovulation can vary widely from person to person and even cycle to cycle. (You can track your ovulation each cycle by charting your basal body temperature or using an ovulation predictor kit.) Because an egg is needed in order for pregnancy to occur and it's unlikely that an egg will be released during or soon after your period, there's little chance that sperm introduced during your period will result in a pregnancy.
However, it is possible to get pregnant if you have sex near the very end of your period and you ovulate very soon after your period ends. Remember: Sperm can live up to five days, so if your period ends on day seven, for instance, and you go on to ovulate on day 10, it is possible to get pregnant from sex as early as day five of that cycle.
Your chances of conceiving: Very low. While it is technically possible to get pregnant if you ovulate early and have sex at the end of your period, most people will ovulate too late in their cycle to get pregnant on their period. Despite the low chances, if you're trying to avoid pregnancy, it's still best to use contraception or abstain from penis-in-vagina sex during your period.
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Your Chances of Getting Pregnant Right After Your Period
If you're trying to get pregnant, you'll want to start having sex after your period ends for optimal chances of conceiving, says Kelly Pagidas, M.D., a fertility specialist formerly with Women & Infants Center for Reproduction and Infertility in Providence, Rhode Island.
For most people, "I recommend having sex frequently—two to three times a week, but every other day if you can—shortly after you stop menstruating to cover your window of pre-ovulation," she explains.
Here's why: Sometime after your period ends, you may notice a change in vaginal discharge. This change doesn't mean the egg has been released, but it does indicate that your body is preparing for ovulation by producing cervical mucus that offers a friendly environment for sperm. As you approach ovulation, cervical mucus will gradually change from more dry and sticky to pasty or creamy and finally to clear and stretchy, like the quality of raw egg whites. You may also notice an increase in the amount of discharge.
Remember, you can get pregnant right after your period, even if you're not yet ovulating. That's because sperm can live up to five days if it's trapped in fertile cervical mucus—so introducing sperm in the days leading up to ovulation can increase your chances of conceiving. "One study showed that people who had sex only one time during this phase, even four to five days before ovulation, still got pregnant," explains Steven R. Bayer, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Boston IVF fertility clinic in Boston.
Your chances of conceiving: Low to medium. An egg isn't technically released during this phase, but having sperm in place and sustained by fertile cervical mucus can be helpful in the event that you ovulate earlier than expected.
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Your Chances of Getting Pregnant During Ovulation
Welcome to prime time for conception! Just before and during ovulation is the best time to try to conceive because that's when an egg is released and ready to be fertilized. After ovulation, you only have about one day for the egg to be fertilized, so if you're trying to conceive, it's ideal to have sex multiple times in the several days before, during, and just after ovulation.
Given the wide range of cycle lengths even for the same person cycle to cycle, knowing when you will ovulate isn't as simple as looking at the calendar or counting cycle days. In fact, it can be near impossible to pinpoint exactly when ovulation occurs without an extremely well-timed ultrasound—and thankfully, that level of preciseness isn't necessary to conceive. But there are some physical signs that your body gives to help you such as changes in cervical mucus and basal body temperature.
Your body temperature rises about half a degree (detected by a basal body thermometer) with ovulation, but bear in mind that this increase takes place after you're already ovulating, which could be too late for conception.
"That's where ovulation test kits become so helpful," Dr. Bayer explains. These kits detect a surge in luteinizing hormone (LH) that happens about 36 hours before you ovulate. After the test kit shows a surge, Dr. Bayer recommends having sex in the next 24 to 36 hours. Since sperm can survive for several days in fertile cervical mucus, they will be ready to meet the egg once it's released.
Another good indication of fertility is a change in the consistency of your cervical mucus. "You'll see vaginal discharge that increases in amount and has the consistency of egg whites, signaling it's the perfect time to have intercourse," Dr. Bayer explains. You can test your own cervical mucus by sticking your index finger and thumb in your vagina to get a sample, then tapping your finger and thumb together. If the consistency is thin and stretches easily between two fingers, you're good to go.
Your chances of conceiving: High, especially if you have sex within 36 hours of detecting an LH surge. A released egg will live anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, but don't worry: Research shows that found that pregnancy can be achieved through having sex every one to two days leading up to ovulation, so no need to get busy every hour or even every day (unless you really want to, of course!).
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Your Chances of Getting Pregnant After Ovulation
Also known as the luteal phase, this final portion of your cycle begins after ovulation and ends at the start of your next period. During this phase, progesterone starts to rise. Your cervical mucus will dry up, which makes the vaginal tract less friendly to sperm.
It takes about six days for any fertilized eggs to travel to your uterus. If one implants in your endometrium, you'll start to see the rise in human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), the hormone measured by home pregnancy tests, about one week after implantation.
Your chances of conceiving: Low. Once the egg has been released, there is a short window of 12 to 24 hours during which it can be fertilized. After that, you will no longer be in your fertile window (unless you happen to release a second egg, which is relatively rare but possible). If you're looking to avoid pregnancy, this is the phase during which people using fertility awareness methods commonly have sex freely, but keep in mind that there's never a guarantee when it comes to avoiding pregnancy if a working ovary and sperm are involved.
Your Chances vs. Your Reality
For those trying to conceive, it's important to understand that it can take time to get pregnant—even if you get the timing just right. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), menstruating individuals in their 20s and early 30s have a 20-30% chance of getting pregnant while trying during the average cycle. If you're in your 40s, that number changes to one in 10.
Research indicates that most people aiming to get pregnant will successfully conceive within the first year of trying. However, many different factors are involved in getting pregnant, from age to medical conditions to fertility issues with either partner. If you have concerns, consult a health care provider or fertility specialist, who can talk to you about your individual situation and work on optimizing your chances of getting pregnant.
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