Does stress impact on fertility?

 Photo: Getty Images

Sandi Givens and her husband tried to conceive for three and a half years. Despite trying a number of different natural approaches, they had no success.

"After about three years, we had some fertility tests done and were diagnosed with unexplained infertility," says Givens.

"I was really upset, feeling like someone had taken all my power away. I now had no option other than IVF, which was still not guaranteed to work."

Despite her initial disappointment, Givens and her husband decided to do a natural cycle of IVF.

"I knew there was a low success rate, but truly put it down to 'if it's meant to be, it will be'," she says.

Before starting her first IVF cycle, Givens had to wait for her period so she could book in an egg scan. It was only then she realised she hadn't had a period for six or seven weeks.

"I went and bought yet another home test, even though my husband thought I was nuts, and, voila, there was that beautiful pink cross staring at me," she says.

"Needless to say I was ecstatic, shocked and fulfilled all at the same time."

It was a similar situation for Carly Davies. She and her husband already had a child, but were hoping for a second.  


However, after four years of trying, when her husband turned 50, Davies acknowledged that the likelihood of conception was pretty remote.

"Initially, we didn't want to completely give up, but six months ago I decided it wasn't meant to be, and resigned myself to having just one child," she says.

Davies made plans to go back to the doctors to start on birth control again. Shortly afterwards, she started feeilng sick, but put it down to stress from work.

"Then one night, I had a few wines with the neighbours, ate some spicy food and, as soon as I went to bed, I was so sick. I thought that it was odd, so checked the calendar and realised I was a few days late and thought ... maybe!"

When the test came back positive, Davies admits to being shocked, excited and a little scared.

"I was a little worried about my husband's reaction, as we've a lot going on in our lives and are both a little older than we'd have hoped to be having a second child," she says.

But her worries were quickly put to rest by her husband's ecstatic response at the news.

So does she think stress impacted on her falling pregnant?

"For me, I think stress plays a huge part," she says. "Everyone tells you to stop stressing and that it will happen, but when you're in it, that's very hard to do, especially for my personality type."

"When we were trying for our first child, it was much the same situation. We'd been trying for four years, and then decided to stop. We went on a weekend away with friends and that's when it happened!"

Researchers at the University of Louisville this year found that stress does impact on a woman's ability to fall pregnant. In a study of 400 women, those who reported feeling more stressed during their ovulatory window were approximately 40 per cent less likely to conceive during that month than other less stressful months.

That's a finding echoed by Professor Steve Robson, the incoming president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).

"Trying for a baby and facing disappointment can be very stressful for a couple, and this often makes things worse," he says.

"Stress can affect a woman's cycle and make it more difficult to time things – and, over time, men commonly find it more difficult to perform when required."

Prof Robson notes that there have been many times when he's seen couples who have been trying for a pregnancy and nothing seems to be working. 

"They even reach the point of resigning themselves to childlessness and stopping treatment and then, to their complete surprise, they become pregnant," he says.

"I'm sure that when they relax and focus on other goals in life, things happen."

Despite this, Prof Robson acknowledges that it's difficult to simply relax when you want to conceive.

"It's true that the more couples focus on stress, the more it tends to magnify itself, but it's not realistic to expect couples to have a complete sea change," he says.

Rather than trying to remove stress, Prof Robson recommends learning how to cope with it more effectively.

"Professional help is invaluable, and I'm a big fan of mindfulness in this setting as it can be a powerful thing," he says.

In addition to this, Prof Robson says that leading a healthy lifestyle is also key.  

"Busy lives means it's challenging to maintain a healthy balance of diet and exercise, but this are so important. Couples who are healthy often want to make love more often, and when it's not solely focused on 'making a baby', it keeps the desire burning."

But what does he recommend for couples who, despite trying for some time, are still unable to conceive?

"Don't waste time, and get medical advice straight away," he says.

"If you think your family doctor is being dismissive, or if you've a gut feeling that something might be wrong, trust your instincts and get referred to somebody with experience in fertility."

"Basic checks are very easy to do, and low-tech help with timing can do the trick," he says.