For some, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF)
is immediately successful. For others, the journey to parenthood can be more drawn out, with many ups and downs.
Profile: a mum with one IVF baby
Jess is 28 and her daughter Rebecca is now 12 weeks old. They live in Melbourne, Victoria.
‘Having a baby was something I’d always wanted. While I didn’t expect it to happen straight away, I never imagined we’d have trouble conceiving – those things always happen to other people.
‘It was seven months before I suspected something was up. After numerous trips back and forth to the GP and a fertility specialist, tests showed that my husband’s sperm count was poor. It was suggested that we try IVF. A couple more months went by and we had more tests done. We were told that while it was still possible to conceive naturally, our chances were pretty low. After talking about it, we decided to go straight onto IVF.
‘We were lucky to conceive on the first attempt. That’s not to say it was stress-free – anyone who’s been through the experience of infertility then IVF will tell you it’s an emotional roller-coaster of anxiety, waiting and unpleasant medical treatment that involves lots of hormone treatment. It really makes you appreciate what a miracle conception is. There are so many hurdles with IVF – you have to have good eggs, enough of them, they must be fertilised successfully, then they must implant. Those weeks dragged by, none more than the dreaded two-week wait after the embryo had been implanted. All the while we were gearing ourselves up for the worst at every stage, protecting ourselves so we wouldn’t fall too hard if things didn’t work out.
‘Pregnancy was both an exciting and an anxious time, particularly the first 12 weeks. In fact, I found it hard to believe that I was really having a baby. It was only after the 19-week scan that we started the practical things like buying furniture – even buying clothes for the baby seemed such a personal, intimate step. But feeling her move and finding out the sex made it seem more real.
‘The only complication I experienced was gestational diabetes, which I managed through diet. Other than that, I really enjoyed pregnancy, although I was glad to finish work at 32 weeks when the exhaustion kicked in.
‘Since Rebecca was born, the biggest challenge I’ve faced has been feeding, but this is an issue all mothers face and isn’t related to IVF. Otherwise I feel I’ve relaxed a lot. Most of the anxiety related to infertility and IVF has passed. I just feel so relieved that the stresses of treatment and pregnancy are gone, and now we can enjoy the baby we hoped for. I sometimes think Rebecca might be the only baby we have because we don’t know how hard it will be to get pregnant in the future. So I’m enjoying every moment right now, and feel very lucky we’ve got her.’
According to a 2011 study funded by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Jess is in the lower age range for initiating assisted reproduction treatment – the average age of women initiating treatment cycles using their own embryos is 35.8 years and the average age for women using donated embryos is 40.8 years.
At a glance
- In-vitro fertilisation (IVF) involves creating an embryo outside the woman’s uterus, then implanting the embryo inside the mother several days later. This process can be done using the parents’ own sperm and egg, or donated sperm and/or egg.
- As many as one in six women have difficulty conceiving.
- In 2009, 3.2% of children born in Australia were conceived through assisted reproduction technologies such as IVF. In New Zealand, that figure was 2.0%.
- Research has shown that families who have gone through an IVF program do just as well as other families.
In 2009, 35 000 women undertook a total of 70 541 ART treatment cycles. As a result, there were 15 943 pregnancies recorded which resulted in 12 127 live deliveries of 13 114 babies according to the Statistics Unit of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
IVF treatment can be a very stressful experience. Couples usually decide to undergo this form of assisted reproduction treatment after trying for a baby for some time. After trying to conceive without success, their frustration levels can be very high; they may have discovered that one or both of them have problems contributing to or causing their infertility. IVF may be a solution, but it is a physically and emotionally demanding process.
IVF treatment doesn’t guarantee a pregnancy. For many reasons, some parents will find that after many IVF attempts, they still can’t achieve a pregnancy. On the other hand, some people can have success with IVF on their first go.
IVF is expensive and can place parents under financial strain, adding to the stress of treatment.
IVF involves many steps, all of which must be successful:
- the mother must take hormones to stimulate the production of eggs
- healthy eggs and sperm must be collected from the parents (unless they are being donated). For the mother, and in some cases father, this requires a procedure in hospital
- the eggs and sperm must fertilise to create an embryo
- the embryo must implant inside the mother’s uterus and develop into a healthy baby.
IVF mothers can experience the same complications as other women once they’re pregnant. This can make IVF a very emotional process, full of decision-making, anxiety and difficult waiting times.
Stress and anxiety
IVF can be a stressful experience for both parents, with some women experiencing chronic stress symptoms. Research shows that women undergoing treatment for infertility have a similar level of stress as women dealing with life-threatening illnesses.
Fertility treatment can impact on a person’s sense of control, sense of normality and their plans for the future.
Parents conceiving through IVF often feel wary about becoming too excited about a pregnancy, and earlier setbacks may heighten their fears of something going wrong. After the birth, throughout their baby’s first year, they’re often especially anxious about the child’s health and safety.
Twins are more common after IVF conception. This can make both the pregnancy and the first 12 months after birth more of a challenge.
In the end, though, IVF parents develop positive, secure relationships with their children in the same way other parents do. Studies show that the anxiety tends to pass after 12 months, and that the overall adjustment to parenthood isn’t very different from parents of a similar age and background who conceived naturally.
Impact on relationships
Relationships can come under some strain because of infertility. Partners may have differences in how they cope with and communicate their feelings.
There’s no evidence that the incidence of separation or divorce is any higher for couples undergoing fertility treatment. But couples who do separate are highly likely to name infertility and its treatment as a causative factor.
This can be a challenging time. The best advice is to look after your relationship as best you can. Talk through feelings as they arise and try to share your anxieties with others.
IVF parents often face difficult questions, such as:
- Do we want more children?
- Can we fall pregnant again?
- Will we use IVF and will it work?
- Are we prepared to go through the stress again?
One of the most challenging decisions IVF parents must make is deciding what to do with unused embryos. The IVF treatment process often involves the creation of multiple embryos at the one time, and these embryos are then frozen in case the parents decide to try for future pregnancies. If a couple decides not to proceed, they must consider whether the embryos should be destroyed or donated to another couple. This decision may pose ethical questions or conflict with their spiritual beliefs.
IVF parents must decide what and how much to tell their children. What is the best age to tell them? How should they be told? If a couple conceives with donated sperm, eggs or embryos, should the children be told about their genetic origin? Some parents may also need to consider what to tell children born without assisted conception.
Those who are considering the IVF process are encouraged to seek counselling before treatment begins. Professionals in the field have developed information, resources and guidebooks to support IVF parents in their decisions about how to handle the process and what to tell their children.
Asking for help
Some IVF parents give themselves a hard time if they’re having difficulty coping with the challenges of parenting a newborn. They can feel they can’t complain, and that they should just be grateful for having the child they’ve always wanted. Many are ashamed to seek help.
But all parents, including IVF parents, should feel they can ask for help when they need it – after all, parenting is hard work, no matter how the baby was conceived! Keep in mind that all new parents have mixed feelings and experience a range of emotions about being a parent at times.
IVF and the law
Each Australian state and territory is responsible for designing and implementing separate legislation on reproductive technology. Because of this, laws and practices differ from state to state.