Making wishes

15th February 2008 at 00:00
Being infertile or having trouble conceiving can be hard to cope with, especially when you're surrounded by children. There is hope though, as Hannah Frankel explains.

Nine months from now, thousands of so-called "Valentine's babies" will be born, but for those who experience fertility problems, the most romantic day of the year can trigger a sense of loss bordering on grief.

Juliet Rean, a primary teacher from Wiltshire, knows all about the highs and lows involved in trying for a baby.

Like an estimated one in seven couples in the UK, she and her husband had difficulty conceiving. For three "hellish" years, Juliet had intrusive scans, blood tests and treatments to discover what was going wrong, while all the time pushing for NHS funding that never materialised. Finally, her efforts were rewarded when she fell pregnant with twins who are now five years old.

But when they tried again last year, they were less lucky. "The second lot of treatment went badly wrong," says Juliet, 38. "The drugs I was on prompted a temporary menopause for three months, and it was hard to carry on working with all the symptoms associated with that."

She then injected drugs for 10 days to boost her system, before having her eggs removed, fertilised and put back. After all that time, stress and money, the treatment failed.

"Even with the twins, it's no easier to come to terms with," says Juliet.

"I hadn't been through the heartache of an unsuccessful treatment before and I still don't think I've totally come to terms with it."

Throughout 11 years of tests and treatments, Juliet continued to teach. There is no legal right to time off for fertility treatment, although it could be seen as unlawful sex discrimination if a woman is refused leave.

Juliet found her headteacher and colleagues supportive during her first treatment, meaning she took as little extra time off as possible. When she had her second treatment at a new school, she only confided in the headteacher, who couldn't understand her decision to try for another baby.

Teaching is a particularly difficult profession to be in when facing fertility problems. You are constantly working with children and parents, and yet are unable to fill that maternal or paternal role yourself.

"It's a female dominated profession so there are always pregnant colleagues around," says Juliet. "If you're having fertility problems, then you notice pregnant women everywhere."

Diane Arnold, a fertility nurse, has worked on Infertility Network's helpline for four years. She receives many calls from women who plan their sex life around ovulation with military precision, making the act itself quite mundane.

"Trying for a baby can be all-consuming and sex can quickly become a chore rather than something pleasurable," she says.

"I recommend that couples have sex every three days to lessen the stress around the middle of the month."

Improve your chances

- Do not wait for your most fertile time before having sex - you are likely to misjudge it and a long period of abstinence can reduce sperm quality. Instead, have sex about twice a week to ensure sperm (which remain active for up to four days after sex) are available most of the time.

- Stock up on nutrients. A survey in 2003 showed that 74 per cent of women are not getting enough.

- Maintain a healthy lifestyle and diet for three to six months before conception. Being overweight or underweight may affect fertility.

- Stop smoking - men who smoke tend to have lower sperm counts or abnormal sperm. Women increase their chances of miscarriage.

- Reduce alcohol: Men who drink heavily have lower sperm counts, while alcohol can affect a baby's physical and mental health.

- Reduce stress. It may not help conception, but it will help you cope with infertility.

Cost of treatment

Juliet's first attempt to fall pregnant cost about pound;3,000. Including drugs, treatment and travel expenses to a private clinic in London, second time round, it came to approximately pound;5,500.

"I know someone who had to sell her flat to pay for treatment," says Juliet, who was unwilling to join the five-year NHS waiting list because her fertility would have dropped significantly by then.

"It's not easy on a teacher's salary. We could only manage because a family member died and left us some money. If it wasn't for that, we'd have needed a big bank loan."

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