What is IVF?
Many people have heard of couples that have trouble getting pregnant, but you may be wondering: what is IVF? IVF is an abbreviation for in-vitro fertilization, which is a type of reproductive assistance technology. If I'm losing you with those terms, another way to look at IVF is doctors working for a couple or a woman to get pregnant with the help of science.
There are a lot of different ways that science can help a woman or a couple looking to conceive biologically and IVF is just one of those ways. Other ways that a woman might get pregnant with a little helping hand from science include medicine that could help stimulate her to ovulate more frequently or even to release more eggs during ovulation to further increase the chance of conceiving. Alternatively, a doctor could inject a man's sperm directly into a woman to try to induce conception. But one of the most common ways we hear about a woman or a couple getting pregnant through science is thanks to IVF.
The National Infertility Association describes IVF in simple terms: it's when a woman's egg and a man's sperm is joined together to form a fertilized embryo in a laboratory setting. Breaking that definition of IVF down even further, we can note that:
- Any sperm, such as a donor's sperm, can be used. A woman might be choosing to become a single mother, for instance, or a male-female couple might need to use donor sperm in the event of a medical condition. IVF could also be used for surrogate pregnancies, such as when a same-sex couple chooses to have a surrogate carry a baby to term for them.
- The egg is fertilized outside of the woman's womb. The egg is then placed into the woman's womb, where the hope is that the egg will implant into the uterus, but it's not a guarantee that it will result in a full-term, live pregnancy, unfortunately.
IVF typically involves four steps for a woman or couple using the technology:
- Egg retrieval. The egg has to come out of the woman in order to be fertilized in the lab, right? The procedure to get the egg out of the woman is pretty straightforward: a small needle is injected through the vaginal wall, which is able to go all the way to the ovaries, where fluid collected will contain eggs.
- Sperm collection. Sperm from the father or a donor is collected, either by the doctor gathering sperm directly from the testes with a needle or with a sample directly from the man that is then stored. The sperm is collected on the same day as the egg and fertilization follows immediately after.
- Fertilization. The egg is fertilized directly in the lab with the sperm and monitored for egg health and activity before placing in the womb.
- Embryo transfer. After the egg is fertilized, it will be kept in the lab and monitored for a few days before the doctors deem it ready to be transferred into the woman. According to the Mayo Clinic, the actual embryo transfer will take place about two to six days after egg retrieval. The doctor uses a thin catheter inserted through the vagina and into the cervix to insert the egg into the uterus.
From start to finish, a cycle of IVF takes about two weeks and then, of course, comes the approximate two week wait to see if the pregnancy was successful. A blood test is done usually 12 days after the transfer to determine if the woman is pregnant. IVF can also be very expensive and isn't typically covered by insurance.
While IVF is considered to the most effective way for a woman to get pregnant with reproductive assistance, its success is determined by a wide variety of factors, including the age of the woman and the eggs, any genetic or underlying disorders, and lifestyle factors affecting health. Many IVF centers will report their success rates of IVF, but it's important to remember that the procedure is so different for every woman that it can be difficult to accurately say what the true success rate of IVF is. However, under the ideal conditions, it is the single most effective way for a woman to get pregnant through reproductive assistance.