The most pressing questions for anyone trying to conceive concern time. Couples count the seconds, minutes, and hours. They wonder, how long does it take to get pregnant? But the question of how long it takes to conceive is something of a loaded question with a wide-ranging answer. It could take anywhere between 72 hours to a year. Maybe longer. But one thing that’s certain is, much like a pot of boiling water, conception seems to be most strained under a watchful eye.
“There are a lot of moving parts to become pregnant,” says Tanmoy Mukherjee, MD, Associate Director of the Mount Sinai Division of Reproductive Endocrinology. “When I think about it in detail, I wonder how there are so many of us.”
Fortunately, the majority of couples trying to get pregnant eventually succeed. Conception just takes, well, time. But to answer the many questions a couple has, including how long does it take to get pregnant after sex?; how long can you expect to keep trying?; and when is it time to bring a fertility specialist on board, here is what the experts say.
How Long Does It Take to Get Pregnant After Sex?
Let’s say the egg and sperm are both winners and the sex is perfectly timed around the ovulatory cycle. Even when all the parts fall into place, conception and pregnancy don’t happen immediately. In fact, it can take up to a week, Mukherjee says.
After vaginal intercourse, sperm swim — or, technically speaking, spin — up through the cervix toward the fallopian tubes. They can survive in that space for as long as 72 hours while they wait for the egg to be shuttled down the tubes from the ovaries. A more intrepid sperm might last even longer. That’s why couples looking to conceive shouldn’t wait until ovulation to have sex, Mukherjee says. Pregnancy is most likely to occur when the sperm are already hanging out in the reproductive tract when the egg is released.
After fertilization, it can take another two to three days for the egg to begin dividing, then implant in the lining of the uterus, triggering a surge of hormones. That’s when pregnancy starts.
Generally, How Long Does It Take to Conceive?
The majority of couples become pregnant within six months, says Kenan Omurtag, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. But if a couple doesn’t get pregnant within that window, there’s no reason to panic, he adds.
“The fact that they haven’t conceived is not an indictment on their ability to get pregnant,” Omurtag says.
By nature, humans aren’t the most fertile of creatures. On average, the chances of conceiving in a given ovulatory cycle hover around 20 percent, according to a review article published in The Lancet in 2002. (For perspective, the fertility rate of baboons can reach around 80 percent each cycle.) That means that 74% of couples with average fertility will become pregnant after six months, and 93 percent after one year.
If it’s been a year and you’re still not pregnant, it’s time to do a workup to rule out any potential conditions that might be making conceiving more difficult, such as irregular ovulation or low sperm count.
How Long Is Too Long to Get Pregnant?
Just because you’ve been trying to get pregnant for longer than a year doesn’t mean you’re infertile. Remember, even for people with average fertility, seven percent of couples won’t get pregnant within a year. And if you do discover a condition impacting your fertility, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need medical intervention to conceive, Mukherjee says.
When you’re trying to get pregnant, the components that matter are quality eggs, regular ovulation, healthy sperm, and a healthy uterus and fallopian tubes, Mukherjee says. If there’s a problem with two or more components, the chances are higher that a couple will need medical intervention to make a baby. But if there’s a problem with only one of those components, the chances are good that a couple will be able to get pregnant without assistance. It’ll just take more time.
For example, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a major cause of irregular periods, impacting 6 to 12 percent of women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with PCOS often take longer to get pregnant because they tend to ovulate less often. “Instead of 13 opportunities per year to conceive, you might be down to six or seven,” Mukherjee says. But in the long-term, women with PCOS conceive at the same rate as women without PCOS.
The problem is, not all couples have time. If you start trying to get pregnant at 35, you can’t afford to wait, Mukherjee says. But if you’re in your 20’s or early 30’s? It might just take patience.
What Is the Average Time to Get Pregnant By Age?
The older a couple gets, the fewer viable eggs a woman has and the lower the quality of a man’s sperm, Omurtag says. This means it could take longer to get pregnant.
In a 2017 cohort study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers followed 2,962 couples that were all trying to get pregnant. After six months, 62 percent of women between 28 and 30 years old were pregnant, but only 55.9 percent of women between 34 and 36 years old were. The same pattern held true for male partners, but the differences between age groups were less pronounced.
Although fertility begins to decline in our early 30’s, it’s our late 30’s when that decline really becomes pronounced, Omurtag says. “Thirty-eight is actually the magic number here,” he said. In the same study, only 46 percent of couples between 37 and 39 years old were pregnant after six months.
Experiencing frustration while trying to get pregnant is common, especially when considering that one in four couples struggle to do it, Omurtag says. “It’s important to be mindful of that and how prevalent it really is.” But just because you’re not pregnant after a month, or six, or even a year, doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.