What every man (and woman) should know about conception

Written by Dr Alex Polyakov
09 Apr

From avoiding wearing tight pants to having intercourse every day, there are many myths and misconceptions about what men can do to improve their fertility. So if you’re trying for a baby now, or planning a family in the future, you should know the facts about how the male reproductive system works and your chances of conception.


Continuous production of sperm

Unlike women who are born with all of the eggs they’ll ever have, men continue to produce sperm throughout their lifetime.
Sperm production starts in the testes, where the hormone testosterone is produced. An average of 100 million sperm is produced every day in healthy young men, with an average of 50 million sperm produced per ejaculate. The entire process of sperm production and maturation takes just under three months.
Even in a healthy fertile man sperm count fluctuates all the time – it can vary from 10 million per ml to 80million per ml. Because of this continuous production of sperm, if a major disruption to a man’s health occurs, such as a serious illness, it could have a negative impact on sperm quality. This is why we generally repeat a semen analysis test after three months to confirm the result. Some men who return abnormal results in their first semen analysis test will actually return a normal result when they are tested again.

Enjoy your sex life 

Some couples worry that having sex every day will reduce the man’s sperm count, or they focus on only having sex when the woman is ovulating. In fact, this can often throw conception off track as its common to miss the fertile window if sex is limited to only when you think you’re ovulating. 
The best time to conceive is generally during the 11th to the 17th day of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Sperm can survive in a woman’s fallopian tubes for 48-72 hours. Most fertility specialists will recommend intercourse every two to three days during this period. With this is mind, it’s best to enjoy your sex life together and have sex as often as you like, paying special attention to the few days before ovulation.

Your health and lifestyle matters too 

Reduce alcohol intake

While moderate alcohol consumption is not proven to have any effect on sperm quality, the long-term effects of excessive alcohol consumption could include erectile dysfunction, reduced libido and subnormal sperm production. As with many things in life, moderation is the key.

Quit smoking

Various studies suggest that smoking worsens sperm production, motility (ability to swim) and morphology (shape). If you’re a smoker making every effort to quit is a good idea for your health and fertility. Smoking has been shown to increase the chance of cancer in your future children, so next time you light up – think of the children!

Avoid recreational drugs & steroids

Some drugs, such as marijuana can decrease sperm density and motility, and increase the number of abnormal sperm. Cocaine can impair erectile function by suppressing the hormone that produces testosterone, causing impotence. If you’re a recreational user, stop!

Ensure you’re a healthy weight

A low or high Body Mass Index (BMI) can affect sperm concentration and count. Eating healthy and maintaining a healthy BMI is important. If you’re overweight, try to reduce the weight as obesity may be linked with infertility.

Reduce exposure to extreme heat

The testicles produce the best quality sperm when they are a few degrees below normal body temperature. Working in hot temperatures, or simply relaxing in a hot bath or sauna frequently, can increase testicular temperature - resulting in abnormal sperm count and quality. It’s best to avoid taking long hot baths on a regular basis!  Where possible, avoid exposing the testicles to high temperatures on a regular basis.
As doctors, we encourage men and women to do what they can to maintain a healthy lifestyle, for their own benefit and that of their current and future children.

Your age can matter, but not to the same extent

The persistence of this idea is probably in part due to those frequent stories about older celebrity dads. Obviously there are plenty of men who parent children in their 60s – and even older; but that’s not to say that male fertility isn’t affected by age. Studies show that there’s a decline in a man’s fertility levels, particularly the quality of the sperm, once he reaches 40.

When should we seek medical advice?

It’s equally important for the male partner as it is the female partner to have a medical check as part of preconception planning. There may be medical history in your family or other conditions, such as a serious illness, which can affect your fertility.

The most important step in checking male fertility is a semen analysis, a simple and straightforward test which is critical in understanding any underlying cause to why a couple may be having trouble conceiving.

If you and your partner have been trying to conceive for a year without any success, we recommend you seek advice from your GP or a fertility specialist. 

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Related Articles

Conceiving in your 40s, what are the chances?

I was recently asked to comment in a Sun Herald article on 26th August (also published online here: Sydney Morning Herald) on Collette Dinnigan, who pregnant at the age of 46, has called on women not to leave it too long to try for a baby.

It is always news when a high profile personality such as Ms Dinnigan, has a child, particularly when the personality in question is a bit older.  The difficulty is that these occasions, while very happy for the people involved, give a misleading picture of the actual likelihood of conception in these circumstances.  Remember that high profile personalities such as Ms Dinnigan, are human beings who quite rightly value their privacy and so very rarely (quite understandably) talk to the press when things aren’t going so well.  It was therefore, a particularly courageous action of Ms Dinnigan, while celebrating her own happiness, to so publicly, point out the difficulties that may face other women, seeking the same fulfilment.

What then, are the issues for women in their forties who are planning to have a child?

The main difficulty is that conceiving is simply harder at that age and, even once a woman does conceive, the risk of miscarriage is higher.  Surprisingly, although we have very good data about the effects of age on IVF conception (more shortly), we don’t have very good statistics about the effects of age on conceiving naturally. The limited available data about natural conception comes from old population studies or studies of unique populations, such as the Hutterites of North America, who do not use contraception.  Interestingly these data, such as they are, seem to be entirely consistent with the more modern and abundant IVF data.  Generally, in one year of trying, 75% of women under 30 years and 66% of 35-year-old women but only 44% of 40-year-old women will achieve a live baby naturally.

The main explanation for this, is that women are born with a finite number of eggs, and from that moment onwards, the number of eggs is declining all the time, until women go through their menopause at around 50-51.  Nonetheless, women in their 40s do still ovulate each month.  What is it about their eggs that cause all these problems?

A common misunderstanding with some women is that the fact she looks and feels young, and leads a healthy lifestyle, means that her eggs will be healthier. I regularly see women who have taken enormous care with their fitness and their health.  The rest of their body is in great shape, completely fit and ready to carry that longed-for pregnancy.  Sadly, despite this, the eggs still can’t do it.  The effects of time are remorseless and, sadly, there is no wonder drug to fix it.

Scientists have shown that eggs from older women are more likely to have an abnormal makeup making pregnancy less likely, miscarriage more common and increasing the risk of Down Syndrome, a condition where a child is born with an extra chromosome number 21.

Nor is IVF a cure for this problem. For women, in their early 40s, IVF is still a good thing to try and gives significantly higher success rates than trying naturally.    However, IVF success rates fall sharply after the age of 40 and by the time a woman is 45 are close to zero.

So, what’s the good news?  Well despite all of the above, many women do conceive in their forties, either by IVF, or naturally, and have very happy healthy families.  It is obviously better to have your family earlier, if you can, but all hope is not lost, just because you’re past 40.  Conception and early miscarriage are the big problems but, if you do conceive and get past the first few weeks, by far the most likely outcome will be a healthy child.  While the risk of Down Syndrome is increased, most of the other problems that affect young children are not increased by being conceived a later maternal age.

Finally, many women worry that by having their children later, their long term health and emotional development may be affected.  On the contrary, we now know that the children of older mums grow up to be as healthy and bright as any other child.

Dr Alex Polyakov
09 Apr

Snapshot of Fertility in Australia

There have been a number of happy and high profile stories in the press recently about older celebrities giving birth to healthy children. Stories like this used to be extraordinary, but they certainly seem to be on the increase. While this trend is supported by data that shows the fertility rate and numbers of births are increasing for women over 30 and especially for women in their early 40s, women and couples should understand the risks associated with having children later in life.  IVF Australia, Melbourne IVF and Queensland Fertility Group, have teamed up to create their latest infographic - “Fertility and Age in Australia” which explores some of these issues.
 Fertility in Australia infographic

Dr Alex Polyakov
09 Apr

Paternity, Maternity, Equality

Conceiving a baby in a same sex relationship

IVFAustralia, and its partner clinics Melbourne IVF, Queensland Fertility Group and TasIVF, are proud supporters of ‘rainbow families’. IVFAustralia were an Official Supporter of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year, and we’ve seen the number of same sex couples accessing our donor program double in the last year.
In 2011, a survey of 3,835 LGBT people found 33% of women and 11% of men had children1 - but close to 40% reported wanting to have children or have more children. This so-called ‘gayby’ boom is thanks to changes in community attitudes and laws, including better access to Assisted Reproductive Treatments for lesbian and single women.
So, if you’re hoping to experience the joy of starting a family within a gay or lesbian relationship, what do you need to consider?

How long will it take to conceive?

Generally speaking, we’d expect a healthy woman with no fertility issues to fall pregnant through IVF or Artificial Insemination within six months. You can prepare for pregnancy by improving your diet, doing regular exercise and other lifestyle factors.
When you access the donor program there are a few extra decisions you need to make.
Do you choose a known donor, or an anonymous donor? In a lesbian relationship, do you want to implant an embryo with eggs from one mother into the other? Should you store some sperm from the same donor for later, in case you’d like a related sibling? For two dads, the process of finding a surrogate can also be complex.

How do we choose a donor?

Our fertility clinics offer access to both Australian and US* donor sperm. The access fee for US donor sperm is higher, but the waiting list is also shorter as there is a shortage of local donors (gay men, we’d love to hear from you!)
When you’re using donor sperm or eggs, there are a few legal, emotional and ethical factors to consider and a counsellor will help you work through these concerns so you can make the best decisions for your family’s future.

Are there any legal issues?

Each state has different laws about parental recognition and access, so it’s worth seeking specialist advice before you start.
For example, in Victoria, the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act (2008) removed discrimination against lesbian and single women with regard to fertility treatment, recognised parenting status for non-birth mothers and also effectively legalised ‘altruistic’ surrogacy. It also recognises lesbian couples as equal parents of their child or children as long as they were in a de facto relationship.

What else should we be prepared for?

30 years of research2 has shown that the children of same-sex parented families do just as well as the children of heterosexual parents socially, educationally, physically and emotionally.

The issues your children will face as they get older are just the same as the issues facing any children conceived using donor sperm or eggs: Where did I come from? Should I contact my donor? You need to be prepared for these questions at some point.
In the meantime, we hope we can help you fulfil your dream of having a baby, and that you will experience the joys of pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

What should be my next steps?

If you would like to learn more about the fertility treatments available for same-sex couples in your regions, visit one of our websites. 

 * IVFAustralia and Queensland Fertility Group patients only.

1 Leonard et al. (2012) Private Lives 2: The Second National Survey of the Health and Wellbeing of GLBT Australians, The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Melbourne
2Rainbow Families Council of Victoria (2010) Rainbow Families and the Law, RFC, Melbourne, http://www.rainbowfamilies.org 

Dr Alex Polyakov
09 Apr

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