When I decided to try one last time to have a baby, I realized that I needed to be completely prepared for the process of pregnancy over 40. At the time, I thought that primarily meant being physically prepared. Two years later and watching my baby daughter sleep, I realize there is so much more than the physical preparation although that is critically important. Getting pregnant over 40 also requires significant mental and emotional strength. Let’s take a look at ways that women can effectively prepare themselves for conception physically, mentally and emotionally.
Part One: It’s Physical, Baby!
To say that women over 40 need to focus on getting super healthy prior to trying to conceive is an understatement. Your body is the vessel that makes conception possible and you need to give it the best chance for success by being at peak health which includes several key components:
- physical condition
- optimal weight
- illness avoidance
- disease avoidance
There is no one size fits all for getting in good physical condition; but it is a critical component in conceiving over age 40. Not only do our bodies tend to decline as we age, but we also contribute to this natural physiological response by the choices we make. Your body makes the difference in conceiving and carrying a baby so being in great condition is one of the best investments you can make in your personal fertility. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, we should be exercising between 3 and 5 times a week for 20-60 minutes each time and using large muscle group activity such as walking/jogging, cycling or swimming. To determine if you are working out at the right intensity, the ACSM recommends the “talk test”. If you can carry on a conversation without being out of breath, you are at about the right level of intensity. In addition to cardiovascular condition, it is also important to build strength through a muscle strengthening component of your conditioning. This will pay big dividends down the road when you are pregnant and your body must support upwards of 30 additional pounds of weight. Walk, jog, swim, stroll, dance, skate – whatever you enjoy doing. Just get out, get moving and do it! Always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Mom told you to eat your greens and she was right! You literally are what you eat so you want to be as healthy and wholesome as possible as you prepare your body for making and growing your baby. If you follow these basic guidelines, you’ll build a healthy place to make a baby:
- Take a good prenatal vitamin containing folic acid. Ask your doctor what vitamin he recommends.
- Eat fresh fruits and vegetables that are minimally prepared. They retain more of their nutrients and fiber this way. Be sure to get plenty of yellow, green, orange and blue fruits and vegetables daily. Wash them thoroughly
- Get enough calcium. Eat/drink low fat yogurt, milk, cheese (even ice cream on occasion) to strengthen bones and facilitate microscopic cell processes in your body.
- Focus on lean protein. Just think about everything that has to develop in your body to support conceiving and carrying a healthy child. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and they will help form the placenta, umbilical cord, and your baby’s musculature.
- Look for whole grains. A slice of white bread isn’t going to kill you, but a slice of whole grain bread will provide more nutrients and fiber to help you build a healthy body for your baby to grow in.
- Don’t freak out about fat. Some fats are essential to survival. I am not an advocate of fat being evil. Everything in moderation. Stick to primarily healthy fats like olive, fish and canola oil and don’t beat yourself up if you have butter on your toast.
This is one area that many people tend to ignore in the fitness spectrum. Women trying to conceive should ignore this at their peril! Any woman who is 9 months pregnant can tell you that extreme flexibility is required to do many normal daily tasks like putting on shoes or getting into bed. Activities like yoga are excellent not only to improve flexibility but also encourage relaxation. Some research suggests that stretching in general may have positive impacts on the lymphatic system. So, take a few minutes each week and improve your flexibility.
I always cringe a bit when I see a particular celebrity who is struggling with her well televised infertility. In one episode of her show, her doctor tells her that she needs to gain some weight to improve her chances of conception. I caught a glimpse of her on tv last week and she was even thinner than before. While many women struggle on the other end of the spectrum with being too heavy, it can be just as impactful to be too thin. Check with your doctor to see what she thinks you should weigh for optimal conception.
Illness and Disease Avoidance
One of the first things a physician will do when you are getting ready to start trying to conceive is order a battery of tests including tests for measles and chicken pox. Now is a good time to be sure that you are staying away from kids with chicken pox or measles, anyone with shingles or basically anyone who is sick. Even if you had chicken pox as a kid, you can still get it again as an adult and it would certainly set you back in your quest for conception. Even the latest version of the flu will weaken you. Will it hinder your ability to conceive? Probably not, but why add a weakening variable? Wash your hands a lot, avoid people who are sick and stay away from kids who are experiencing childhood illnesses.
Your doctor will likely also test you for sexually transmitted diseases, so be sure that you are practicing safe sex at all times as well.
The Bottom Line
In a world where so much can be out of your fertility control, why not take charge of the things that you can impact like your physical health and well being. This is something that can give you a leg up in your quest to have a baby. Now that we have explored physical health, let’s take a look at preparing emotionally for conception.
Part 2: Getting Your Head in the Game: Preparing Emotionally for Conception
A second key component to preparing yourself for conception, particularly those of us working to get pregnant over 40, is mental preparation.
Learn as much as you can
Some women don’t need to be reminded to read up on the process of conception. They already have books and magazines about pregnancy and are fully aware of the process and its ups and downs. Most women, however, aren’t as prepared as they should be. For example, women over 40 have a significantly reduced probability of getting pregnant and a significantly increased probability of having a miscarriage. It is important to understand the statistics and the odds before you see your doctor. This will help you be prepared for what will sound like grim news. When I began trying to conceive at age 43, my reproductive endocrinologist wanted to walk me through a series of charts with bad news. Basically, he told me that I had less than a 3% chance of conceiving. Fortunately, I had already done my homework and knew what he was going to say. It wasn’t a shock to me. I explained that I understood the odds and wanted to know what the next steps were. Read up so you don’t get caught off guard.
Learn about testing, fertility and what could happen in the process.
We generally don’t go into situations fully versed in what could go wrong. In fact, its better in most cases not to go to the worst case scenario. In conception over 40, I think it is very important to be educated about what could happen and what you can do about it. Anyone going through infertility treatments will tell you that it can be complicated and grueling. If you know about this in advance as a possibility, it makes it easier to deal with if it happens.
Establish a system at the beginning.
Getting pregnant over age 40 is often similar to a complex business project. There is tracking your cycle, medical appointments, blood tests, procedures and medications all of which generally have to happen at precise times in the month. Do yourself a favor and figure out a tracking system that works for you. Use a planner, a notebook, your PC, your phone, whatever works best for you. Establish this system and record everything in it. You will find it an invaluable resource to help you keep track of test results, your cycle, expenses, appointments, information you learn and contacts that you make. I found that I kept my planner with me at all times because it gave me all the answers I needed when my doctor’s office called or I learned something new and needed to see my previous test results. I also pulled it out and took notes on every phone call and doctor’s visit. It is so easy to forget something and equally easy to write notes in your system so that you can’t forget.
Keeping it All Together.
Use what you learn about the process of getting pregnant as well as the possibilities of what can happen during the process to keep yourself strong mentally. If you wind up having to go through infertility treatments, it can take a long time and you will need to be physically and mentally strong to go through its ups and downs.
Part 3: Stabilizing the Roller Coaster of Emotions
This section takes a look at your emotional health during the conception process and what you can do to help keep yourself strong emotionally as you prepare to conceive.
A big part of reproduction is hormones. Ask any woman how she is impacted by her monthly hormonal fluctuations and multiply that by 10 when you factor in the stress of trying to conceive. What used to be playful and fun now becomes a task that a couple must complete at just the right time. Many couples report that sex becomes mechanical and sterile when they have to do it on queue. For couples battling infertility, the stress is further multiplied when hormone injections and other interventions are involved. All of these factors add up to emotional STRESS. It is important to be aware of the potential stress ahead of time and prepare to keep yourself emotionally healthy.
Establish a close support system
If you are married, this will almost certainly include your husband; but it’s a good idea to go beyond him for support. In fact, he should establish support apart from you as well. There will be times when you just feel down and don’t want to bring your spouse down. You need to have a friend or family member who understands your situation and who you can count on to listen and be supportive. Many couples (or singles for that matters) don’t want to tell too many people that they are trying to conceive because the constant barrage of well meaning “are you pregnant yet?” can become exhausting and demoralizing if you’re struggling with infertility. Keep your support system to a small trusted group.
Think about what you need for support and let your friends/family know
Everyone is different and needs a different type of support. Some people want friends to check in and ask them how they are doing. Other people, like me, prefer to be left alone but need someone there when they reach out. Think about what you need and let your friends/family know specifically how they can best support you. I recommend having a conversation outlining what they can do to help you. For me, that meant letting friends know that I would keep them posted on progress but didn’t want them asking me about it. They love me and were fine with that. When I needed them, I asked and they were there. One mistake I made was being in a geographic position where none of my friends or family were local. I went through some very difficult times without a hug or a hand to hold. If you can do it, be sure to have people geographically close as you work to conceive your child.
Give yourself a break
Take time for yourself each day to unwind and relax. Draw a bubble bath, take a walk in the park, meet a friend for coffee, get a facial – whatever helps you de-stress. Stress has lots of negative effects on our bodies and certainly doesn’t facilitate conception. I actually walked away from my career because I knew the stress level was too high and I needed every advantage to conceive at age 44.
Check out on-line support
There are many online support communities that provide an excellent forum for connecting with others in your position. Join a few forums or look on twitter or facebook for groups that might fill a need.
Keep a healthy perspective
It is easy to get so completely engrossed in conception that it almost becomes your identity. This is not healthy. In fact, I stopped visiting certain forums where many of the women could see no goodness or happiness in their lives due to infertility. I understand the heartache of wanting a child and not being able to conceive. I also understand the devastation of miscarriage. I have experienced both and know that we need to experience the sadness and emotion that go with those situations. Then we need to pick ourselves up and move forward. It is critically important to put time and energy into other areas of your life. Experience love and joy each day. Think about and talk about something besides trying to conceive.
Putting it all together
Some women conceive right away with no problems. For other women like me, it takes years or even decades. Give yourself every advantage as you start trying to conceive. Get in great physical condition. Learn all you can about fertility and prepare mentally for the process. Finally, take care of yourself emotionally. Remember to live each day to the fullest and experience a rich life that includes joy and happiness outside of trying to get pregnant over 40.