If you're among the hundreds of thousands of U.S. couples trying to get pregnant this year, experts say there are some lifestyle choices that could improve your odds.
Some are fairly obvious: Maintain a healthy weight and don't smoke. "Good health during pregnancy starts with being healthy before you get pregnant," said Dr. Ranit Mishori, of Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington.
Others are more surprising, such as avoiding exposure to certain environmental chemicals, including some ultraviolet filters commonly used in sunscreen. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health recently discovered that men with high exposure to the UV filters benzophenone-2 (BP-2) and 4OH-BP had a 30 percent reduction in their ability to reproduce. There was no similar effect in women.
Dr. Sandra Carson, an obstetrician and reproductive endocrinologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said her most important advice for a woman who wants to start a family is to see her doctor for an assessment of current health.
"Make sure all her immunizations are up to date. Make sure she's on folic acid. Make sure she knows about ovulation and when to have sex to maximize her chances, and she knows about good health in general," Carson said.
Here are some other tips:
1. Timing of intercourse -- but not position -- can affect fertility
"Every day or every other day during your fertile period is best," Mishori said. "And you should know when your fertile period is. But you don't have to put a pillow under your hips or hold your legs up for half an hour. That's a myth." You also don't have to abstain during nonfertile times unless the male partner has a low sperm count. In that case, Carson said, the couple may have to restrict intercourse to the two days right before ovulation. "You can buy a test kit to learn when you're ovulating," Carson said.
2Taking a folic acid supplement both before and during pregnancy is importantExperts say it helps prevent defects in the development of the fetal brain and spinal cord. That development takes place in the first three to four weeks of pregnancy, so doctors recommend starting a supplement -- or a prenatal multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid -- at least a month before conception.
3Avoiding cigarette smoke -- her own and her partner's -- is imperativeThis might help a woman get pregnant both now and long-term (because smoking has been linked to earlier menopause) and also protect the unborn child. Some studies show that women who smoke and those exposed to secondhand smoke have a greater likelihood of being infertile. Smoking by the male partner hurts in another way: It harms his semen.
is a little trickier
Some studies have shown detrimental effects on fertility as well as on the developing fetus, but others have shown that a little wine may actually enhance fertility. "I tell women, if you don't have to drink, don't," Mishori said. "If you must drink, don't have more than two drinks a day."
5High levels of caffeine need to be curtailed
More than five cups of coffee a day may impede fertility and increase the risk of miscarriage, Mishori said. "But one or two cups a day may be OK." As for diet, "there are all kinds of myths," Mishori said. "Low fat, low carbohydrate, antioxidants, vitamin-this or vitamin-that. None has any good evidence. Don't buy supplements that promise to increase your fertility. A well-balanced diet is the way to proceed, whether or not you're intending to get pregnant." One thing everyone agrees on is the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. "For those who are either very over- or underweight, their fertility is lowered," Mishori said.
6Taking a vacation is a myth
If you've heard that the way to get pregnant is to relax and take a vacation,you may be disappointed. "The way to get pregnant is to have sex," Carson said. "Going on vacation only helps if you have more sex." Reducing stress doesn't work either. "Stress can impair fertility," Carson explained, "because it can stop ovulation. But relieving stress doesn't necessarily restore it."