Improving your chances of getting pregnant

You can improve your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy by following the steps on this page.

Folic acid

Take a 400 microgram (400mcg) supplement of folic acid every day while you're trying to get pregnant, and up until you're 12 weeks pregnant. 

Folic acid reduces the risk of your baby having a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida.

A neural tube defect is when the foetus' spinal cord (part of the body's nervous system) doesn't form normally.

Women with epilepsydiabetes and other medical conditions are advised to take a 5 milligram (5mg) supplement.

You can get folic acid tablets at pharmacies, or talk to your GP about getting a prescription.

Don't worry if you get pregnant unexpectedly and weren't taking folic acid supplements. Start taking them as soon as you find out, until you're past the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Read more about healthy diet in pregnancy and foods to avoid when you're pregnant.

Stopping smoking

Smoking during pregnancy has been linked to a variety of health problems, including:

  • premature birth
  • low birth weight
  • sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – also known as cot death
  • miscarriage
  • breathing problems or wheezing in the first six months of life

Quitting can be hard, no matter how much you want to, but support is available.

The NHS Pregnancy Smoking Helpline on 0800 169 9169 offers free help, support and advice on stopping smoking when you're pregnant.

It's open from 12pm to 9pm every day, and a specially trained person will talk to you. They can send you a free information pack and give you details of your local NHS Stop Smoking service.

Smoke from other people's cigarettes can damage your baby, so ask your partner, friends and family not to smoke near you.

Read more about smoking and pregnancy.

Cutting out alcohol

Don't drink alcohol if you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Alcohol can be passed to your unborn baby. The Chief Medical Officers recommend that the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all.

Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to your baby, and the more you drink the greater the risk.

Find out about alcohol and pregnancyalcohol units and tips for cutting down.

Keeping to a healthy weight

If you're overweight, you may have problems getting pregnant, and fertility treatment is less likely to work.

Being overweight – having a BMI over 25 – or obese – having a BMI over 30 – also raises the risk of some pregnancy problems, such as high blood pressure, blood clots, miscarriage and gestational diabetes.

Before you get pregnant you can use a BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your BMI. However, this may not be accurate once you're pregnant, so consult your midwife or doctor.

Having a healthy diet and getting moderate exercise are advised in pregnancy, and it's important not to gain too much weight. You can keep to a healthy weight by eating a balanced diet and getting exercise.

Vaccinations and infections

Some infections, such as rubella (german measles), can harm your baby if you catch them in pregnancy.

Most people in the UK are immune to rubella thanks to the uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination.

If you haven't had two doses of the MMR vaccine or you're not sure if you have, ask your GP practice to check your vaccination history.

If you haven't had both doses or there's no record available, you can have the vaccinations at your GP practice.

You should avoid getting pregnant for one month after having the MMR vaccination, which means you'll need a reliable method of contraception.

Find out about infections during pregnancy that can harm your baby and what you can do to reduce your risk of getting them, including cytomegalovirus (CMV), parvovirus (slapped cheek syndrome) and toxoplasmosis.

If you have a long-term condition

If you have a long-term condition, such as epilepsy or diabetes, it could affect the decisions you make about your pregnancy – for example, where you might want to give birth.

While there is usually no reason why you shouldn't have a smooth pregnancy and a healthy baby, some health conditions do need careful management to minimise risks to both you and your baby.

Before you get pregnant, have a discussion with your specialist or GP about getting pregnant. If you're taking medication for a condition, don't stop taking it without consulting your doctor.

Testing for sickle cell and thalassaemia

Sickle cell disease (SCD) and thalassaemia are inherited blood disorders that mainly affect people whose ancestors come from Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, India, Pakistan, south and southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Pregnant women in Scotland are offered screening tests for these disorders, but you don't have to wait until you're pregnant before you have a test.

If you or your partner are concerned you may be a carrier for one of these disorders, perhaps because someone in your family has a blood disorder or is a carrier, it's a good idea to get tested before starting a family.

You can ask for a free blood test from either your GP or a local sickle cell and thalassaemia centre.

Read more about screening for sickle cell and thalassaemia in pregnancy

More about having a healthy pregnancy

Antenatal care 

Vitamins and supplements that you should take or avoid, such as taking folic acid and avoiding vitamin A.

You can also get information and advice from:

  • your doctor
  • a community family planning (contraceptive) clinic
  • a pharmacist
  • FPA

When you can get pregnant

Getting pregnant (conception) happens when a man’s sperm fertilises a woman’s egg. For some women, this happens quickly, but for others it can take longer. Out of every 100 couples trying for a baby, 80 to 90 will get pregnant within one year. The rest will take longer, or may need help to conceive.

To understand conception and pregnancy, it helps to know about the male and female sexual organs, and to understand how a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle and periods work.

The menstrual cycle is counted from the first day of a woman’s period (day one). Some time after her period she will ovulate, and then around 12-14 days after this she'll have her next period. The average cycle takes 28 days, but shorter or longer cycles are normal.

The best time to get pregnant

You're most likely to get pregnant if you have sex within a day or so of ovulation (releasing an egg from the ovary). This is usually about 14 days after the first day of your last period, if your cycle is around 28 days long.

An egg lives for about 12-24 hours after being released. For pregnancy to happen, the egg must be fertilised by a sperm within this time. If you want to get pregnant, having sex every couple of days will mean there are always sperm waiting in the fallopian tubes to meet the egg when it is released.

Sperm can live for up to seven days inside a woman's body. So if you've had sex in the days before ovulation, the sperm will have had time to travel up the fallopian tubes to "wait" for the egg to be released. It's difficult to know exactly when ovulation happens, unless you are practising natural family planning, or fertility awareness. 

The male sexual organs

The penis is made of erectile tissue. This tissue acts like a sponge and, when it becomes filled with blood, the penis becomes hard and erect. Men have two testes (testicles), which are glands where sperm are made and stored. The testes are contained in a bag of skin that hangs outside the body, called the scrotum.

The scrotum helps to keep the testes at a constant temperature, just below the temperature of the rest of the body. This is necessary for the sperm to be produced. When it's warm, the scrotum hangs down, away from the body, to help keep the testes cool. When it's cold, the scrotum draws up, closer to the body for warmth.

Two tubes, called the vas deferens, carry sperm from the testes to the prostate and other glands. These glands add secretions that are ejaculated along with the sperm. The urethra is a tube that runs down the length of the penis from the bladder, through the prostate gland to an opening at the tip of the penis. Sperm travel down this tube to be ejaculated.

The female sexual organs

A woman's reproductive system is made up of both external and internal organs. These are found in what is usually referred to as the pelvic area, the part of the body below the belly button.

The external organs are known as the vulva. This includes the opening of the vagina, the inner and outer lips (labia) and the clitoris.

The woman’s internal organs are made up of:

The pelvis: this is the bony structure around the hip area, which the baby will pass through when he or she is born.

Womb or uterus: the womb is about the size and shape of a small, upside-down pear. It is made of muscle and grows in size as the baby grows within it.

Fallopian tubes: these lead from the ovaries to the womb. Eggs are released from the ovaries into the fallopian tubes each month, and this is where fertilisation takes place. 

Ovaries: there are two ovaries, each about the size of an almond; they produce the eggs, or ova. 

Cervix: this is the neck of the womb. It is normally almost closed, with just a small opening through which blood passes during the monthly period. During labour, the cervix dilates (opens) to let the baby move from the uterus into the vagina.

Vagina: the vagina is a tube about three inches (8cm) long, which leads from the cervix down to the vulva, where it opens between the legs. The vagina is very elastic, so it can easily stretch around a man’s penis, or around a baby during labour.

The woman’s monthly cycle

The video below shows what happens during the menstrual cycle. Ovulation occurs each month when an egg is released from one of the ovaries. Occasionally, more than one egg is released, usually within 24 hours of the first egg. At the same time, the lining of the womb begins to thicken and the mucus in the cervix becomes thinner, so that sperm can swim through it more easily.

The egg begins to travel slowly down the fallopian tube. If a man and a woman have recently had sex, the egg may be fertilised here by the man's sperm. The lining of the womb is now thick enough for the egg to be implanted in it after it has been fertilised.

If the egg is not fertilised, it passes out of the body during the woman's monthly period, along with the lining of the womb, which is also shed. The egg is so small that it cannot be seen. 

Pregnancy hormones

Hormones are chemicals that circulate in the blood of both men and women. They carry messages to different parts of the body, regulating certain activities and causing certain changes to take place. The female hormones, which include oestrogen and progesterone, control many of the events of a woman's monthly cycle, such as the release of the egg from the ovary and the thickening of the womb lining.

During pregnancy, your hormone levels change. As soon as you have conceived, the amount of oestrogen and progesterone in your blood increases. This causes the womb lining to build up, the blood supply to your womb and breasts to increase, and the muscles of your womb to relax to make room for the growing baby.

The increased hormone levels can affect how you feel. You may have mood swings, feel tearful or be easily irritated. For a while, you may feel that you can't control your emotions, but these symptoms should ease after the first three months of your pregnancy. 

Read more about what happens in pregnancy week by week

Will it be a boy or a girl?

Both the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg play a part in determining the gender of a baby. Every normal human cell contains 46 chromosomes (23 pairs), except for the male sperm and female eggs. They contain 23 chromosomes each. When a sperm fertilises an egg, the 23 chromosomes from the father join with the 23 from the mother, making 46 in total.

X and Y chromosomes

Chromosomes are tiny threadlike structures that each carry about 2,000 genes. Genes determine a baby’s inherited characteristics, such as hair and eye colour, blood group, height and build.

A fertilised egg contains one sex chromosome from its mother and one from its father. The sex chromosome from the mother’s egg is always the same and is known as the X chromosome, but the sex chromosome from the father’s sperm may be an X or a Y chromosome.

If the egg is fertilised by a sperm containing an X chromosome, the baby will be a girl (XX). If the sperm contains a Y chromosome, the baby will be a boy (XY).

Find out about early signs of pregnancy, and where to get help if you're having problems getting pregnant.

If you’ve decided to have a baby, you and your partner should make sure you’re both as healthy as possible. This includes eating a healthy balanced dietstopping smoking and, for the woman, taking a folic acid supplement. You should also know about the risks of alcohol in pregnancy.