Maybe you’re finally “there:” You and your partner are ready to take the leap from “Let’s avoid pregnancy” to “Let’s get pregnant, on purpose.” You probably have a plan for what will be next, whether that means “trying” a lot with your partner, looking for a fantastic sperm donor or searching for an uber-cool surrogate. But, like many people, you might be surprised to learn that making a baby is often far more difficult than deciding to make a baby, “just doing it” (like the Nike slogan) and then welcoming your child nine-or-so months later.
Do you know how many days out of a woman’s menstrual cycle it’s likely that she’ll get pregnant if she has unprotected sex? And, do you know how soon you should see a doctor if you and your partner have been trying but haven’t conceived?
Lea von Bidder, CEO and co-founder of Ava Science, Inc., the company that makes Ava, a high-tech fertility-tracking bracelet, explains that after three months of unsuccessfully attempting to conceive, many couples are concerned.
But conception isn’t guaranteed—or instantaneous. In fact, U.S. medical guidelines say that women trying to get pregnant should consult a doctor if:
An average menstrual cycle lasts 24 to 35 days, according to von Bidder. The length of a woman’s cycle also typically fluctuates from cycle to cycle.
Ovulation, or when an egg is released from an ovary and travels down the fallopian tube, happens somewhere in the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Here’s where the magic happens. Sperm enters egg and there you have it: The single cell blueprint for your future baby.
A woman’s fertility window, or the time in her cycle when she’s most fertile, includes the five days before she ovulates, as well as the ovulation day, von Bidder said. While a woman is fertile on days one, two and three of this time window, her fertility is highest on days four, five and six.
Sounds simple, right? Nail down the days of the month that you or your partner will be most fertile and then make it your mission to conceive?
Unfortunately, methods like the basal body temperature method let a woman know that she’s ovulated after it’s happened, rather than before, von Bidder said. And since the cycle lengths vary from month to month, having past ovulation information isn’t necessarily helpful for determining at what point a woman will ovulate during her next cycle.
Frustration with existing ovulation tracking methods that were “very imprecise, old-fashioned and inconvenient,” led von Bidder and her collaborators to develop the Ava bracelet.
The Ava bracelet, an ovulation tracking device that’s designed to be worn at night, syncs up with an app the next morning.
It measures resting pulse rate, skin temperature, sleep quality and duration, breathing rate and heat loss. The bracelet also measures a woman’s heart rate variability ratio (or variation in the time interval between heartbeats), perfusion (the process of supplying blood to body tissues) and body movement. Lastly, it measures bioimpedance, which “provides information about the skin, including hydration and sweating patterns,” according to Ava’s website.
“We need these nine parameters to make our product as accurate as possible,” said von Bidder. The result is a clinically tested, FDA registered medical device that detects an average of 5.3 fertile days per cycle (with 89 percent accuracy), according to the product’s website.
In you’re thinking “If Ava can tell when someone’s fertile, it should be able to tell me when I’m not fertile, so I must be able to use it as a contraceptive device,” think again.
“The [product’s] algorithm is not trained on detecting every single day that is potentially fertile…There is room for error,” said von Bidder.
The company’s working on making it possible for women to use the device as a form of contraception, but von Bidder said that clinical trials need to be conducted for that specific purpose first.
The device also hasn’t been tested on women with “highly irregular cycles,” those with such conditions as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or women who are taking fertility medicines, according to von Bidder. Through future clinical trials, including one that is currently underway, the company hopes to demonstrate that the device can also provide accurate results to women in these groups.
“Male infertility is pretty underappreciated,” while “clinical [male] infertility rates are going up,” said Greg Sommer, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Sandstone Diagnostics, Inc. That company makes Trak, an at-home male fertility testing system.
The testing system allows you to check your sperm count from the comfort of your own home. At-home testing is an attractive option, because fertility issues are “still kind of a taboo subject,” said Sommer.
The testing process is simple:
The classification of sperm count into three tiers makes Trak superior to other at-home testing systems for men, which often just classify sperm counts as low or normal, said Sommer.
“Male fertility is not really a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question,” said Sommer.
While the product has undergone “extensive consumer testing” in order to show that it’s “just as accurate as a lab test,” it’s not meant to serve as a substitute for a complete clinical evaluation, Sommer noted. And, the product doesn’t measure other factors, like sperm motility and morphology – or shape – that affect fertility.
One goal with the product is to get men engaged in their own reproductive health, said Sommer, who also writes articles for DontCookYourBalls.com, an associated website that addresses men’s sexual and reproductive health.
Trak is “a tool meant to be used early on in the fertility journey,” Sommer said. Early awareness of any fertility issues can lead to a better outcome.
“Time is not on your side,” he said.
Sommer envisions a world where his product is even given as a wedding present, especially since it had preventative and wellness applications outside of the fertility landscape. He described fertility as a “biomarker of men’s overall health,” adding that some infertility-increasing lifestyle habits are also linked to cardiovascular and other diseases.
A group of researchers recently developed a smartphone app and accessory detects sperm count and motility with approximately 98 percent accuracy. However, the team’s device is just in the prototyping stage of development, according to Hadi Shafiee. Shafiee is an assistant professor of medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
The smartphone accessory and accompanying app is not commercially available yet and the team doesn’t know how much it will cost once it becomes available, Shafiee said.
As you travel on your fertility journey, you may find it to be very different than what our culture has taught us to expect. With so much focus on contraception, most people don’t understand that conception can be challenging.
“In Hollywood movies, everyone gets pregnant, all of the time,” said von Bidder.
Still, tools like Ava and Trak are available to provide you with crucial information intended to help you make smart decisions about how to reach your goal of having a baby.
Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]