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What is In Vitro Fertilization?

Last updated April 09, 2021

  • In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a form of fertility treatment (assisted reproductive technology or ART).
  • IVF is a medical procedure in which a woman’s eggs are surgically removed and fertilized with sperm within a laboratory and then returned to the uterus to establish a pregnancy.
  • IVF can help women who are struggling to get pregnant carry a pregnancy or have a biological child with the assistance of a gestational carrier.
  • IVF success rates depend on a variety of factors, including a woman’s age, egg and embryo quality, ovarian reserve, sperm quality and more.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is undoubtedly one of the most amazing technologies of modern-day medicine, and one that quite literally makes miracles happen. Assisted reproductive technology (ART), including IVF, is responsible for about 78,000 births per year in the U.S., which translates to nearly 2 percent of the annual births. This means that, since the first IVF baby was born in 1978, millions of couples who otherwise could not have biological children of their own — including same-sex couples and women with issues in their reproductive systems — have been able to successfully conceive.

 

How Does IVF Work?

So what is in vitro fertilization, exactly? In vitro is a Latin phrase that means “within the glass,” indicating that it is a process that occurs outside of a living organism. In the case of IVF, the glass refers to a Petrie dish in a lab, where fertilization of the egg occurs. In essence, the procedure allows a woman to become pregnant through manual fertilization. IVF mimics the natural process through various steps, which takes about eight weeks from beginning to transfer.

  • Step 1: Ovarian Stimulation – In the beginning phases of IVF, follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH) or a combination of FSH and luteinizing hormone (LH) are administered at high doses in order to stimulate the ovaries and produce more than one egg. Typically, this is done via self-injections over roughly a two-week period, with the goal of producing 10 to 15 eggs, depending on the age of the woman.
  • Step 2: Egg and Sperm Retrieval– To retrieve the eggs, the patient is placed under IV sedation, typically in an outpatient surgery setting. Egg retrieval  is performed using an ultrasound-guided needle inserted through the vagina. On the same day, the male partner or sperm donor provides a sperm sample through masturbation. The eggs and sperm are evaluated in the lab.
  • Step 3: Fertilization – In the lab, the eggs are stripped of surrounding cells and prepared for fertilization in a Petrie dish. There, they are either incubated with thousands of sperm and naturally fertilized or injected with a single sperm cell by a technician,  using a needle. After this point, the resulting embryos may be screened for genetic abnormalities or frozen for use at a later date.
  • Step 4: Transfer – If the patient intends to begin the pregnancy process right away, the embryos can then be transferred into her own uterus or the uterus of a gestational carrier (surrogate). Embryo transfer occurs via catheter three to five days after fertilization. To increase odds of pregnancy, doctors often implant multiple embryos at once, which is why twins and triplets are more likely to develop during IVF than in a natural pregnancy. However, this practice is becoming less common as single pregnancies are safer for the mother and baby.
  • Step 5: Pregnancy – About two weeks after transfer, the woman can take a pregnancy test. Typically, two pregnancy tests are needed over a few weeks’ period before the fertility clinic transfers care to the patient’s OB/GYN.

 

Who Can Get In Vitro Fertilization?

As amazing as the technology is, IVF is not a suitable solution for everyone. A woman has to have some of the important reproductive organs in good condition — primarily, the uterus and ovaries — for in vitro fertilization to be successful. However, IVF circumvents the fallopian tubes and lets doctors work with more eggs and sperm than in a natural cycle, raising the odds of pregnancy for people with egg and sperm issues. While you should speak to your doctor about your specific scenario, you may be a good candidate for IVF if you have one of the following conditions:

  • Damaged fallopian tubes, such as blocked, damaged or missing fallopian tubes
  • Endometriosis, which can cause tubal blockage and other structural issues and lead to chronic inflammation
  • Male sperm issues, including decreased sperm count and sperm motility
  • Ovulation disorders, including premature ovarian failure or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Diminished ovarian reserve (DOR), meaning a diminished quantity and quality of eggs that occurs naturally with age, especially in women older than 35
  • Prolonged or unexplained infertility with no clear cause

 

Does It Work?

IVF success rates vary, depending on a variety of factors — including age, egg and embryo quality, ovarian reserve, sperm quality and more — so estimating the likelihood of success for each woman or a couple requires medical evaluation. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) IVF Success Estimator can give you an approximate idea of their chances, based on your unique situation. Your physician is best equipped to help you determine whether or not IVF is a solution that is likely to work for you. Things like staying at a healthy weight and taking fertility-focused supplements may support your odds of a successful pregnancy via IVF. 

Is In Vitro Right for You?

If you are struggling from any of the aforementioned conditions and have been trying to have a baby for longer than six months, it may be time to speak to your doctor about IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies that may help you get pregnant. As always, please reach out to us with your questions. We are always here to help.

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