Just Relax: Misconceptions about Conception

Mar 15, 2023 10:32:00 AM / by Karen Stollznow


There are many superstitions surrounding trying to conceive, some of them more far-fetched than others. Many myths involve sympathetic magic—that is, the belief that like attracts like. One such legend says women trying to conceive should mingle with pregnant women so their fertility rubs off. (I tried that one at a baby shower, but it didn’t work.) And it goes both ways: women trying to conceive should supposedly steer clear of “barren” women, lest their infertility rub off. Hugging a newborn baby is supposed to help a woman to get pregnant, as will accidentally stepping in a child’s shadow. (But it must be done by accident and not deliberately.) According to folklore, many things were thought to be signs of pregnancy too. As we know, storks have long been symbols of newborns, so seeing one in the wild was said to be an omen of pregnancy. Apparently, their power is so strong that a stork can cause a woman to become pregnant just by looking at her. Dreaming of fertile animals such as fish, rabbits, or rats is supposedly a sign of pregnancy too. Finding a double yolk in an egg means you are pregnant, and so does baking a cake that sinks in the middle.

If that last one were true, I definitely would’ve been pregnant already, I thought.

Because these urban legends about conception still persist, I decided to look into them and even try a few.

Have sex during a full moon

Many superstitions about conception involve the moon. For hundreds of years, people have figured there was a connection between the moon and menstruation, because the average length of a woman’s cycle (28 days) matches the lunar month (29.53 days). The words moon, month, and menstruation—the latter of which is often known as “monthlies,” “that time of the month,” or “moon days”—are all related etymologically. No less an authority than Charles Darwin thought the menstrual cycle was evidence that our ancestors lived on the seashore and needed to synchronize with the tides. According to the theory that the moon affects menstrual cycles, women should get their period during the new moon and then ovulate during the full moon, making this the perfect time to try to conceive. (Ovulation typically occurs about fourteen days before the start of the next menstrual period.) In contrast, some women use this moon theory to predict ovulation as a method of birth control. However, menstrual cycles vary in length among women (typically between twenty-four and thirty-eight days) and even vary in an individual woman, while period start dates fall randomly throughout the month, regardless of the phase of the moon. So it’s just coincidental that the average menstrual cycle is about the same length as the moon cycle.

Have sex every day

Some suggest having sex every day, or even multiple times every day to get pregnant. But as we’ve already seen, baby-making isn’t all fun and games; it can cause stress and lead to bedroom burnout. Furthermore, some research suggests that daily sex might decrease a man’s sperm count. Timing is the most important thing when trying to conceive, and around ovulation is the best time, but it involves some guesswork to pinpoint exactly when that will occur. Some human mating studies suggest that during ovulation, women smell better to potential partners and even become more flirtatious, signaling their high-fertility days. (It seems many animals, like cats and dogs, can detect when a woman is on her period, thanks to their keen sense of smell.) Ovulation detection for family planning is often known as timed intercourse. There are several approaches used to predict ovulation. Many women rely on ovulation predictor kits (OPKs), which check the urine to measure the surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) that precedes the release of an egg. Some people have great success using OPKs to time sexual intercourse, but there are many drawbacks associated with over-the-counter tests. For those with irregular cycles it can be difficult to know when to begin testing. The hormone surge can be brief and therefore easy to miss, so some women may need to test twice a day (or more often). It’s also possible to receive a false positive result, when having a small spike before the real one occurs, or to receive a false negative result, even though ovulation is about to occur.

OPKs can be confusing, expensive, stressful, messy, and inconvenient. (To ensure hormone levels aren’t diluted in the urine, it’s best to hold one’s pee for about four hours before testing.) By the time the test shows a positive result, ovulation may have already occurred. Or not. Though OPKs measure the hormone surge prior to ovulation, they won’t tell if you have actually ovulated. Some women experience a surge, but an egg is never released. Women have just five or six fertile days during each cycle, and eggs survive for only twelve to twenty-four hours after ovulation. If sperm is already waiting in the reproductive tract, it can pounce as soon as the egg is released. Most doctors recommend not having sex every day during the cycle, but having sex every day during the fertility window. Others suggest having sex every other day during a woman’s fertile period, several days before her estimated ovulation and several days afterward. Some researchers recommend that couples trying to conceive have sex several times per week, every week, because you don’t know exactly when ovulation happens.

Drink cough syrup

Some people believe that drinking cough syrup improves fertility by thinning out the cervical mucus, thereby making it easier for sperm to pass through to the uterus. Some cough syrups contain guaifenesin, an ingredient that thins and loosens mucus in the chest, sinuses, and nasal passages, so the theory goes that it must also thin mucus in the cervix. However, what makes cervical mucus watery is high levels of estrogen, which peak before ovulation. That fact aside, this old wives’ tale actually does have some validity to it. In rare cases, doctors recommend repurposing the medication for men who have very thick semen that does not liquefy.

Speaking of cervical mucus, some women track their vaginal discharge to predict when they will ovulate. Cervical fluid that is thin, clear, and slippery, much like raw egg white, signals that ovulation is approaching. The similarity between fertile cervical fluid and egg whites has led to another myth—that using egg white as lubricant increases a woman’s chances of getting pregnant, because it mimics cervical mucus which helps sperm reach the egg. In spite of the popularity of this method, there isn’t any scientific data to back it up, although using egg whites is risky because undercooked eggs can carry harmful bacteria.

Some women also track their saliva to figure out the best times to have sex for conception. Saliva fertility tests check for “salivary ferning,” when the saliva dries in a fern-like pattern, which can suggest that ovulation is impending. Others chart their basal body temperature (BBT) to find out when they are ovulating. This is the body’s at-rest temperature, which can be measured with a thermometer upon waking up first thing in the morning. The body’s temperature dips a bit before an egg is released, and then afterward it rises slightly and stays up for several days. Whichever methods are used for reading body signals of impending ovulation, they need to be tracked for several months for patterns to emerge. Many women use phone apps to help track their menstrual cycles, not only for fertility but also for contraception and to monitor other health effects.

Lie flat for thirty minutes after having sex

In a post-coitus scene in the movie The Big Lebowski, the character Maude lays on her back with her knees pulled in, believing this will “increase the chances of conception.” Variations of this suggestion include holding your legs over your head after sex, putting your legs in the air and “bicycling” for five minutes, or the acrobatic feat of standing on your head. This advice is based in the belief that these positions will tip the pelvis and help the sperm to reach the egg. It’s feared that sperm will rush back out of the female body once she stands up, because of the effects of gravity. However, sperm are chemically programmed to reach the egg and once they are ejaculated, most swimmers with any chance of fertilization will be well on their way. Sperm will swim up the reproductive tract with or without the help of gravity. If you stand up after sex, you might feel a trickle, but that’s just semen. The sperm immediately head north, while the seminal fluid heads south.

Make sure you have an orgasm during sex

The idea behind this fertility tip is that when a woman has an orgasm during sex, her uterine contractions suck up the sperm, transporting them closer to the egg. The bulk of the evidence tells us there is no correlation between female orgasm and conception. Sperm live in the reproductive tract for days, whether she has an orgasm or not. If female orgasms did affect conception, from an evolutionary perspective we would expect they would more commonly occur with penile penetration. (The reality is they only occur this way about 25 percent of the time.) For a woman’s orgasm to help suck up sperm, it would need to happen immediately before or during the man’s orgasm, although this is uncommon. In reality, women can achieve orgasm once or more before their partner does, or after, or not at all. The idea that a woman must orgasm to get pregnant may have its basis in the two-sperm theory that was promulgated by Hippocrates and Galen. It’s also tied in with the old-fashioned belief that sex must be for the purposes of procreation, not merely for pleasure.

Do it missionary style

Many people say that the missionary position, in which the couple lies face to face with the woman underneath the man, is the only way to conceive. The name comes from a 1920s term used by South Pacific people to describe the position promoted by Christian missionaries to replace their local “heathen” variations. (It was also once known as the “English-American position.”) Some think the missionary-style position allows for deeper penetration, bringing sperm in closer proximity to the cervix. But there is no research to back up that claim. The truth is that the actual position you do it in is inconsequential, as long as there’s penetration going on, and of course, ejaculation. Any position that gets semen near the cervix, or anywhere in the vaginal area, can lead to pregnancy. It doesn’t matter how you do it, or where you do it either.

Adopt a baby and then you’ll get pregnant

This myth reflects the irony that sometimes, if you just relax or even give up, then it’ll happen. Interestingly, everyone seems to know someone this has happened to. In fact, it happened to one of my best friends, Joe. After many years of trying to conceive, his parents finally gave up. They adopted him, and then . . . bam! They got pregnant with another son. The fact that adoption is still thought to be a solution for not being able to get pregnant might stem from the mid twentieth-century belief that infertility was a psychiatric condition for which adoption was recommended as the “cure.” Doctors believed that becoming a mother relaxed the woman, took off the stress, and therefore increased her chances of conception. But in the grand scheme of things, getting pregnant after adoption is simply a lucky coincidence.

Get really drunk and have sex in the back seat of your car

This is the stereotype of the baby conceived “in the back seat of a car,” and that irresponsible young people seem to get pregnant easily. (Younger people do get pregnant more easily, but there is a biological explanation for that.) It also includes the superstitious belief that if you overthink conception, it will fail, while, ironically, if you “just relax,” it seems to happen magically. However, getting really drunk is a really bad idea for those trying to conceive. Binge drinking, or drinking to excess, can affect people’s fertility.

Drinking too much alcohol and too often can lead to irregular cycles, cutting down the chances of conceiving each month. Heavy drinking can affect a man’s fertility too. Alternatively, the advice to not drink at all is unnecessarily extreme too. Having a glass of wine or two or the occasional couple of beers while trying to conceive won’t be harmful, and may actually help with relaxation to cope with the stress of trying to conceive.

When you’re trying to conceive, it seems like everyone has an opinion, tip, or trick, or a nugget of well-meaning advice. Many remain convinced that these things helped them to conceive, but not all of it is completely true. There are many misconceptions about conception. These fertility myths persist because they are sensational, so we’re inclined to believe them over the dull and dreary facts of reproduction.

My husband and I spent months trying to conceive naturally, using timed intercourse, and even testing out some quirky urban legends, without success. Getting pregnant can be really hard.

The most natural thing in the world isn’t.


This is an excerpt from Missed Conceptions chapter 2, “The Most Natural Thing in the World.”

Topics: Excerpt

Karen Stollznow

Written by Karen Stollznow

Dr. Karen Stollznow is the author of On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present; God Bless America; and Language Myths, Mysteries, and Magic. She has written for Psychology Today, Scientific American Mind, and The Conversation and has appeared on A Current Affair, The Anderson Cooper Show, and the History Channel's Miracles Decoded. She is currently a researcher with the Griffith Center for Social and Cultural Research and a host of Monster Talk, an award-winning science-based podcast. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and their son.

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