In the 1970s, women waited until age 21, on average, to become pregnant. In 2014, that average increased to age 26. By 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that more women were having their first child between the ages of 30 to 34. Some women choose not to have children at all; a big difference from how things used to be. Why the change?
A 2016 study by The Fertility Center of Illinois found that the top reasons women choose to delay pregnancy include:
- A desire to establish financial stability: 82%
- The pursuit of life experiences and emotionally stability: 80%
- Career and professional goals: 63%
- Personal freedom: 60%
- Waiting to find the right life partner: 54%
Women have always deserved the freedom to choose when, how, and if they become mothers. Still, there’s no denying that—biologically speaking—fertility has a clock on it. Fortunately, advanced reproductive technology (ART) has given us more options for preserving our fertility than ever before. If you’ve decided to wait to have kids or are unsure if you even want them, it’s important to understand your options. Preserving your fertility now can give you the option of having a child later, should you choose to.
Address any underlying fertility issues now
Infertility is defined as the inability to get pregnant after one year of trying naturally (or six months of trying to conceive if you’re older than 35). In the U.S., about 10 percent of women ages 15-44 have difficulty getting or staying pregnant. There are many causes of infertility, including (but not limited to) the following chronic conditions:
- Endometriosis: Despite the fact that 1 in 10 women in the U.S. has endometriosis, it’s a commonly misunderstood condition. It can take up to 12 years to be diagnosed correctly and about 40 percent of women with endometriosis will experience infertility. Endometriosis causes the uterine lining to grow on the outside of the uterus, on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and pelvic wall. In some cases, it can spread to the bowel, bladder, and appendix (this is not common). This can cause blocking or scarring of the fallopian tubes, making it hard to conceive.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS): A condition that causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts on them, PCOS affects between 8–10 percent of women. The chances for infertility with PCOS are very high, largely due to an abnormal amount of testosterone and androgens (male hormones). The hormonal imbalance can cause irregular or absent periods. When you don’t ovulate, you can’t get pregnant.
- Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism: The thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat, plays a huge role in how well your body functions. It affects everything from metabolism to brain function to heart rate and blood pressure. Whether your thyroid is overactive (hypothyroidism) or underactive (hyperthyroidism), your menstrual cycles can become abnormal or disappear entirely, resulting in infertility.
- Cervical hostility: Throughout your menstrual cycle, your cervical mucus changes consistency. Before ovulation, your mucus looks and feels similar to raw egg whites, which helps move sperm safely from your vaginal canal to your fallopian tubes where it can fertilize an egg. However, when your cervix produces “hostile” cervical mucus, it can make it hard for sperm to survive. This can happen if it contains sperm antibodies, is acidic, or is thick, dry, or sticky.
- Unexplained infertility: Some cases of infertility have no identifiable cause. This is called unexplained fertility. When you don’t know what’s causing something, it’s more difficult to treat. If this is the case for you, you won’t necessarily know until you’re trying to get pregnant.
While testing your fertility can be nerve wracking, taking a proactive role is important. Thankfully, all of the above conditions, as well as most other causes of infertility, can be treated and controlled. Do this now and you’ll spend a lot less time, money, and energy when you are ready to have a baby. You should talk to your doctor if you have irregular, painful, or absent periods or if you have any other health concerns that you worry could affect your future fertility.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Aside from chronic reproductive conditions, your lifestyle can have a large impact on your fertility. Women who are obese or underweight can have hormonal imbalances that affect ovulation and, subsequently, fertility. Smoking cigarettes can cause damage to your reproductive organs, hormonal imbalances, and can make having a miscarriage more likely. While moderate alcohol consumption has no known link to infertility, heavy drinking does. All of the lifestyle choices you make now have the potential to harm your fertility down the road.
If you think you might want kids one day, it’s important to be aware of your lifestyle and make changes to help preserve your future fertility. That said, a healthy lifestyle isn’t just about getting pregnant one day.
Protect Yourself Against Sexually Transmitted Infections
Though protecting yourself against STIs is part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it warrants its own section. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection that can damage the fallopian tubes, uterus, and surrounding tissue. These STIs are often undetectable but can harm your fertility. If you’re not in a long-term, monogamous relationship, it’s important to use barrier protection like condoms. An STI today could prevent you from having kids in five years.
Freeze your eggs
Egg freezing, also known as oocyte vitrification, is a process in which you’re given hormonal injections for 10 to 14 days before having your eggs extracted from your ovaries so they can be frozen at subzero temperatures.
For many women, freezing their eggs is an option that gives them peace of mind—a sort of insurance policy that keeps the possibility of pregnancy open for years after their “prime” babymaking years have passed. However, it’s important to note that freezing your eggs does not guarantee pregnancy later on. The quality of your eggs, your uterus’ ability to host a pregnancy, and your overall health can impact conception. If you freeze your eggs in your late 20s or early 30s, have no underlying fertility issues, and have quality eggs, your chances for a future pregnancy are high. If you freeze your eggs in your 40s, the quality of your eggs has likely diminished significantly.
Egg freezing is often prohibitively expensive—it can cost about $10,000 per cycle. If you need more than one cycle to extract healthy eggs or enough eggs, you could be looking at a hefty bill. Still, for women who can afford it, freezing their eggs is a viable option.
It’s your choice if you want to have kids now, 10 years from now, or never. But fertility isn’t something you should leave to chance. Even if you choose not to freeze your eggs, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and getting any chronic conditions under control should be a top priority. If not for your future baby, then for you.