The first thing that comes to mind when you think of getting pregnant may not be IVF, but you might find yourself here because trying the “old-fashioned way” hasn’t been working, or because you have specific challenges that make IVF your first go-to for growing your family. No matter what your reasons for turning to IVF are, facing the process can bring about a lot of complicated feelings and confusion: Are you going to have to give yourself shots? How exactly do they get the eggs out of your body? Will it hurt? Most importantly, will it work?
IVF stands for in vitro fertilization, and the process involves taking eggs—either your own or a donor’s—out of your body to be fertilized in a lab setting with either your partner’s sperm or donated sperm. One or more of these resulting embryos will then be placed in your uterus and hopefully, pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg implants into your uterus.
That’s the gist of it, but let’s break down the IVF process step-by-step.
Making a Game Plan for IVF
Before starting any medical procedures, you will have a consultation with your fertility doctor to discuss your treatment. You’ll have your blood drawn to make sure your hormone levels are within a normal range and you don’t have any infections or medical conditions that could cause issues with your cycle.
Next, you will meet with a nurse to go over your medications and appointments. These medications are called “stims” because you’ll be taking them to stimulate your body to release more mature eggs than you normally would in a regular menstrual cycle. If the thought of giving yourself shots worries you, you aren’t alone. The good news is, you will have plenty of time to practice and your fertility facility can help train either you or your partner on how to do the injections.
The fertility team will guide you through the process and keep you on a schedule to help your eggs along so they are ready to be harvested, then fertilized, then implanted.
How Long is the IVF Process?
IVF is a combination of several procedures and how long the process will take really depends on your own individual situation and how your body responds to the treatment. For instance, some women respond differently to the medications than others, some may have less eggs to begin with, some women may need to go through a few cycles before they are ready for a transplant, and still others may have to go through the process of working with a donor for eggs or sperm. Overall, however, the Mayo Clinic explains that a full IVF cycle takes about 3 weeks.
Stimulating Your Ovaries
The stimulation process can last a week to ten days. Normally, your body only releases one egg (and sometimes, two, which is how fraternal twins occur!) per cycle. Your body naturally prepares an egg to reach full maturity to get it ready to be released at ovulation. During IVF, however, the medicine you take will cause your body to prepare more mature eggs than it normally would. These medications are usually injections and you may be giving these to yourself two times a day.
You’ll also be visiting the clinic a lot during this time, allowing your team to monitor how your ovaries are doing. Be warned—the injections may cause bloating, hormone swings, and weight gain, but don’t panic, because it is temporary.
Retrieving the Eggs
Once the eggs are ready to be harvested, your doctor will have you do a trigger shot to fully mature up the eggs. This is to get them as mature as possible within the ovaries, but not enough that they release on their own. The IVF egg retrieval is carefully timed from your trigger shot, about 36 hours apart.
The retrieval itself involves same-day surgery. Luckily, you’ll be asleep for it. The doctor will insert a needle through your vagina and carefully suction out the eggs from your ovaries one-by-one, retrieving as many as possible. It may be a good idea to take the rest of the day off to rest because you might have some cramping and bloating afterward.
Egg Meets Sperm
Right after retrieval, the eggs that were fully mature will be combined with either your partner’s or a donor’s sperm in the embryology lab. The eggs will fertilize and grow to become embryos. This usually takes three to six days and you’ll be updated daily on how the embryos are developing. Any embryos you won’t use for this cycle can be frozen for a later time.
The embryo transfer itself is surprisingly a quick and easy procedure, but can be an emotional one, especially if you’ve been waiting a long time to get pregnant. Unlike the retrieval, you will be awake for it. There’s very little discomfort, but you might be given medication to help your uterus relax.
A small tube will be inserted through your vagina, and the embryos will be gently pushed through just past your cervix into your uterus. You may be able to watch this happen on a screen although all you’ll see is a small blip of light since you’re dealing with something microscopic. When it’s done, you will rest in the clinic for a bit before being sent home. It’s advised that you rest as much as possible the day of, and the day following the procedure.
The Waiting Game Begins
Without the flurry of medical procedures, doctor’s visits, and medications to keep track of, you will find yourself much less busy then you were a week ago. Which is unfortunate, because now, all you have to do is wait to see if the IVF was successful.
After the transfer, you may be on bed rest. Each doctor is different in whether or not they want you on bed rest, or if you are to resume normal activities. Either way, now is the time to focus on yourself and the things that make you happy and relaxed as you wait for your pregnancy test. Your embryo, or embryos, are hopefully beginning to implant into the lining of your uterus.
As difficult as it may be to avoid, it’s recommended that you do not take any early at-home pregnancy tests, as the results may not be accurate and it can make for a very anxious time. Instead, your doctor will schedule a blood test that will check if pregnancy has occurred, so you’ll have a definite answer.
If you end up with a positive test, you will probably have your first ultrasound a few weeks later to confirm pregnancy. If your test ends up being negative, the cycle didn’t work and that could have been for a variety of reasons. Both situations can bring about a lot of conflicting emotions and they’re all valid and normal.
IVF as a journey to parenthood can be a challenging one, and keep in mind, there is no one “right” way to become a mother, just like there is no “right” way to feel when you do become a mother.