About 1 in 8 women have trouble getting pregnant, experts estimate. If you’re ready to start or add to your family and have tried all other fertility options, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is often your next option for having a biological baby.
IVF is a medical procedure in which a woman’s egg is fertilized with sperm, resulting in an embryo. Then, the embryo is either frozen or transferred to the woman’s uterus, which will hopefully result in pregnancy.
You may have several emotions as you prepare for, start, and complete an IVF cycle. Anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are common as you make a substantial financial and physical investment for a chance at getting pregnant.
Not to mention the hormones. Around two weeks of regular shots can heighten your emotions and make your body feel completely out of whack.
It makes sense then that the 30 days leading up to your IVF cycle are critical for ensuring your body is healthy, strong, and fully prepared for the intensive medical process.
This is your guide to giving yourself and your partner the best chance possible at having a baby through IVF. With this advice, you’ll not only survive your IVF cycle, but thrive throughout.
Prepare to surprise yourself with your own strength.
There are various stages of a single IVF cycle. It’s possible to need more than one cycle to get pregnant. Here’s a breakdown of the stages, including the duration of each:
- Preparation (two to four weeks before start of cycle). Make the realistic lifestyle changes outlined in this guide to ensure optimal health. Your doctor may help regulate your menstrual cycle to align with the start of your scheduled IVF cycle, hormones, and ovaries.
- Stage 1 (1 day). Day one of your IVF cycle is the first day of your period closest to scheduled treatment. Yes, starting your period is a good thing here!
- Stage 2 (3 to 12 days). Begin taking fertility drugs for the purpose of stimulating, or waking up, your ovaries. This prepares them for increased egg production.
- Stage 3 (36 hours). A single injection of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is given to stimulate the release of the developed eggs. It’s nicknamed the “pregnancy hormone.” Exactly 36 hours after the injection, you’ll undergo a procedure to retrieve, or harvest, the eggs.
- Stage 4 (1 day). Your partner (or donor) will have already provided sperm or will do so while you’re undergoing retrieval. Either way, the fresh eggs will be fertilized within hours. This is when you’ll begin taking progesterone, which helps prepare your uterus to maintain the viability of the pregnancy and reduce chance of miscarriage.
- Stage 5 (5 days). Less than a week after retrieval, your viable embryo will be transferred to your uterus in a noninvasive procedure.
- Stage 6 (9 to 12 days). You’ll be tested to ensure the embryo has safely implanted in the uterus, which will trigger your body’s release of pregnancy hormones.
Below, we cover the lifestyle changes that’ll give your body the best support for pregnancy during your IVF cycle.
During an IVF cycle, focus on eating healthy, balanced meals. Don’t make any major or significant changes during this time, like going gluten-free if you weren’t already.
Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a reproductive endocrinologist, recommends a Mediterranean-style diet to her patients. Its plant-based, colorful foundation should provide the positive nutrition your body needs.
Research shows that a Mediterranean diet may improve the IVF success rate among non-obese women who are less than 35 years old. While the study was small, eating a healthy diet during the weeks leading up to the cycle certainly doesn’t hurt.
Since diet also impacts sperm health, encourage your partner to stick to the Mediterranean diet with you.
Try it: The Mediterranean diet
- Fill up on fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Choose lean proteins, like fish and poultry.
- Eat whole grains, like quinoa, farro, and whole-grain pasta.
- Add in legumes, including beans, chickpeas, and lentils.
- Switch to low-fat dairy products.
- Eat healthy fats, such as avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
- Avoid red meat, sugar, refined grains, and other highly processed foods.
- Cut out salt. Flavor food with herbs and spices instead.
Many women avoid or stop exercising during their IVF cycle because they fear hitting the mat could harm the pending pregnancy.
But Dr. Eyvazzadeh recommends you keep doing what you’ve been doing, especially if you already have a consistent fitness regimen. She tells her patients who have a healthy body mass index (BMI), have been exercising, and have a thick uterine lining to keep exercising.
Eyvazzadeh does, however, recommend all women undergoing IVF reduce their running to no more than 15 miles per week.
“Running is more disruptive to our fertility than any other form of exercise,” she says, explaining that it can have adverse effects on the thickening of the lining and shift blood away from the uterus to other organs and muscles when the reproductive system needs it most.
If you’re an avid runner, safely replace your long runs with:
- light jogging
- the elliptical
Consider tossing or avoiding some household items made with endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These interfere with reproductive health and prenatal development.
The Endocrine Society has said these listed chemicals cause “significant concern to human health.” Dr. Eyvazzadeh recommends a review of the products you use most and substituting with more natural alternatives.
Chemicals to avoid and where they’re found
- nail polish
Parabens, triclosan, and benzophenone
BPA and other phenols
- food-packaging materials
Brominated flame retardants
- yoga mats
- stain-resistant materials
- nonstick cooking tools
- art clay
- medication coatings
- cosmetics with fragrance
As you prepare to start your IVF cycle, review your entire medication list with your fertility doctor. Make sure to list even the most seemingly benign drugs, including:
- a daily allergy pill
- acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil)
- any prescriptions
- over-the-counter (OTC) supplements
These medications could potentially:
- interfere with fertility drugs
- yield negative effects on hormone regulation
- reduce overall efficacy of treatment
The medications below pose specific concerns in particular. Your doctor may be able to prescribe alternatives during your cycle and even during pregnancy.
Medications to flag to your fertility doctor
- prescription and OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Midol), and naproxen (Aleve)
- medications for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, like antidepressants
- steroids, like those to treat asthma or lupus
- antiseizure medications
- thyroid medications
- skin products, especially those containing estrogen or progesterone
- chemotherapy drugs
There are a few natural supplements you can take to support a new pregnancy.
Start a prenatal vitamin in the 30 days (or even several months) before your IVF cycle begins to increase your folic acid. This vitamin is critically important, as it protects against brain and spinal birth defects in developing fetuses. Prenatal vitamins can even help your partner boost their sperm health.
Dr. Eyvazzadeh also recommends fish oil, which can support embryonic development. If you vitamin D levels are low, start taking vitamin D supplements before your IVF cycle. Low levels of vitamin D in the mother have been linked to autism.
Remember that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements for quality and purity like they do for drugs. Always review supplements with your doctor before introducing them to your protocol.
You can also check labels for an NSF International certification. This means the supplement has been certified as safe by leading, independent evaluation organizations.
Supplements to start before your IVF cycle
- prenatal vitamin
- fish oil
- vitamin D, if your levels are low
Sleep and fertility are closely connected. Getting the right amount can support your IVF cycle.
A 2013 study found that the pregnancy rate for those who sleep seven to eight hours each night was significantly higher than those who slept for shorter or longer durations.
Dr. Eyvazzadeh notes that melatonin, a hormone that regulates both sleep and reproduction, peaks between 9 p.m. and midnight. This makes 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. the ideal time to fall asleep.
Here are a few ways to make healthy sleep part of your routine:
- Cool your bedroom to 60 to 67ºF (15 to 19ºC), recommends the National Sleep Foundation.
- Take a warm shower or soak in a hot bath just before bed.
- Diffuse lavender in your bedroom (or use in the shower).
- Avoid caffeine four to six hours before bedtime.
- Stop eating two to three hours before bedtime.
- Listen to soft, slow music to relax, like symphonic pieces.
- Limit screen time for at least 30 minutes before bed. This includes phones, TVs, and computers.
- Do gentle stretches before bedtime.
One of the great ironies of infertility is that there’s nothing straightforward or easy about the sex that should be responsible for making these babies!
In the three to four days before a sperm retrieval, men should avoid ejaculation, manually or vaginally, says Dr. Eyvazzadeh. She notes couples want the “whole pot full” of the very best sperm when it comes time to collect, as opposed to sourcing “what’s left” from a post-ejaculate sample.
That doesn’t mean total abstinence from sex, though. She says couples can engage in amorous contact, or what she likes to call “outercourse.” So, as long as the man isn’t ejaculating during that prime sperm development window, feel free to mess around.
She also recommends couples keep penetration shallow and avoid deep vaginal intercourse, as this can irritate the cervix.
You may want a drink after carrying the emotional burden of IVF. If so, there’s good news from Dr. Eyvazzadeh. She says it’s possible to drink in moderation. But beware that a couple drinks during the week could have negative effects on the outcome of the IVF cycle.
Also, you may not respond well to the alcohol on top of the fertility drugs. It may leave you feeling miserable.
A 2011 study found that live birth rates were 21 percent lower in women who consumed more than four drinks in a week and 21 percent lower when both partners consumed more than four drinks in a week.
Of course, once you’ve completed the embryo transfer, you should abstain from drinking any alcohol at all.
For as unpredictable as an IVF cycle can be, one thing’s a certainty: myriad physical symptoms. Every woman and every cycle are different, so there’s no sure way to know which side effect you’ll experience on any given day of any given cycle.
Here are some ways to manage or even beat the side effects of fertility drugs.
Bleeding or spotting
- Call your doctor immediately if this occurs during the cycle.
- Light bleeding or spotting after an egg retrieval is normal. Heavy bleeding is not.
- Do not use tampons.
Dr. Eyvazzadeh advises her patients to “expect the worst period of their life after an IVF cycle, because the hormones used not only help the eggs to grow, but also thicken the lining.” She cautions that this isn’t everyone’s experience, but if it’s yours, don’t worry, and take pain meds as needed.
GI and digestive issues
There are plenty of OTC options available to treat digestive issues. Try taking:
- a stool softener
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking in more fluids can relieve bloating. If water is getting tiresome, hydrate yourself with:
- coconut water
- low-sugar electrolyte drinks or tablets
But first, talk to your doctor to make sure OTC anti-nausea drugs are safe for you.
Headache and pain
Some OTC remedies for pain relief include:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- ibuprofen (Motrin)
- heating pads
Before taking an OTC drug, confirm with your doctor the right dosage.
Exhaustion and fatigue
- Get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
- Try taking 30- to 45-minute naps during the day.
- Don’t overcommit or overbook yourself. Take it easy!
Stress and anxiety
- Practice a slow, restorative breathing regimen.
- Use the FertiCalm app for support and healthy ways to cope.
- Use the Headspace app for meditation.
- Practice yoga. Here’s our definitive guide.
- Continue your exercise regimen.
- Stick to any established routines and schedules.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Take warm showers or baths.
- Visit a therapist.
- Have sex to release feel-good hormones.
- Wear light, breathable clothing.
- Stay in air-conditioned spaces.
- Add a fan to your bedside or desk.
- Stay hydrated with cool water.
- Avoid smoking, spicy foods, and caffeine.
- Practice deep-breathing exercises.
- Do low-impact exercises like swimming, walking, or yoga.
Preparing for and getting through IVF will likely be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. It can be made easier if you don’t let it control the next 28 or so days.
There’s a lot to be said for mind over matter and making the most of uncomfortable, painful, and inconvenient situations. This is one of them.
Do yourself a favor and start taking care of yourself early and often. Doing so will help you better manage, and even avoid, some of the pain points of an IVF cycle. Here are some tips:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Get plenty of sleep, and treat yourself to naps.
- Stock up on your favorite snacks.
- Socialize with friends.
- Go on a date with your partner.
- Do yoga or other gentle exercises.
- Meditate. Here are some how-to videos and poses to try.
- Take a long, hot bath.
- Get a massage.
- Get a pedicure or manicure.
- Read a book.
- Take a vacation day.
- Go to a movie.
- Buy yourself flowers.
- Journal and track your thoughts and feelings.
- Get a haircut or blowout.
- Have your makeup done.
- Schedule a photoshoot to remember this time.
He may not carry the brunt of the IVF cycle, but your husband or partner is an equally important cog in this wheel. Very soon, he’ll give the most important sperm sample of his life.
His diet, sleep patterns, and self-care are important, too. Here are five ways your male partner can support your IVF efforts and ensure you’re both in this together:
- Drink less. A 2011 study found men who drank beer daily contributed to the reduced success of the cycle. Not smoking — weed or tobacco — helps, too.
- Sleep more. Not getting enough sleep (at least seven to eight hours per night) can affect testosterone levels and sperm quality.
- Wear underwear... or don’t. A 2016 study found no significant difference in semen quality in the boxers vs. briefs debate.
- Eat well and exercise. Lower BMI and overall nutrition can improve the quality of sperm collected during IVF.
- Be supportive. The most important thing your partner can do is be there for you. Turn to them to talk, listen, snuggle, get help with shots, be proactive about pain medication, manage appointments, and pick up the slack. In short: to be the loving, supportive person you fell in love with.
Brandi Koskie is the founder of Banter Strategy, where she serves as a content strategist and health journalist for dynamic clients. She's got a wanderlust spirit, believes in the power of kindness, and works and plays in the foothills of Denver with her family.