Article updated September 2019
Timing sex correctly is critical to getting pregnant. If you don’t have sex on the handful of days that you’re fertile each month, sadly, you won’t get pregnant.
But figuring out when those fertile days are isn’t always easy. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and the best time to get pregnant may not be when you think it is!
In this article, I’ll be looking at some of the myths and facts around the best time to get pregnant, and how to ensure you get your timing right!
Let’s start with the basics
Before diving into the facts around the best time to get pregnant, let’s start off with the basics.
As you undoubtedly already know, in order to get pregnant, a sperm from the male partner needs to meet with an egg from the female partner, so that fertilisation can take place and a new life can begin. But as a species, humans aren’t particularly fertile and as a result, this pivotal event often ends up being a game of chance.
Your fertile time each month all comes down to the lifespan of both the sperm and the egg.
Men produce sperm continuously. For this reason, as long as a man’s sperm are fit and healthy, he is always fertile and able to get a woman pregnant at any time.
In contrast however, women produce an egg only once every menstrual cycle. Even if two eggs are produced (which can result in twins), the eggs are released within 24 hours of each other – not days or weeks apart. So not surprisingly, it’s this event that receives so much focus when it comes to trying to get pregnant.
The process of releasing an egg from one of your ovaries is known as ovulation. After the egg is released at ovulation, it doesn’t hang around for long. In fact it lives for just 12 – 24 hours. If it isn’t fertilised by a sperm within this short timeframe, the egg will die and be reabsorbed by your body. Once your egg has died, there’s no further chance for getting pregnant until the next menstrual cycle.
Luckily however, sperm have a bit more staying power! They can survive in the female body for 5 to 7 days – but only in the right environmental conditions. Nature has ensured that this optimal environment is provided during the days just prior to ovulation. At any other time in the menstrual cycle, sperm will not survive for longer than a couple of hours and they’ll never get the opportunity to fertilise the egg.
When is the best time to get pregnant?
So what does this all mean?
These precious few days of sperm and egg survival combine to form your ‘fertile window’. And it’s during this fertile window, and ONLY during this time, that sex can result in pregnancy.
The fertile window is a maximum of 6 days long – composed of the 5 days leading up to ovulation and the day of ovulation itself. In practice however, the fertile window is typically shorter than this – often just 2 – 3 days long.
So the best time to have sex to get pregnant is during the 2 – 3 days leading up to ovulation – the time when sperm are most likely to survive. Ideally, you want to have sperm ‘ready and waiting’ in your reproductive tract, so that they can do their thing as soon as your egg is released at ovulation (remember that sperm can live for several days inside your body).
Because the egg survives for a maximum of only 24 hours, any sex you have after ovulation day will NOT result in pregnancy. And actually, even having intercourse on the day of ovulation itself can sometimes be too late – research has shown that ovulation day is typically a less fertile day.
So when exactly is ovulation?
So when exactly is ovulation? This is where it gets a bit tricky. The reason? There’s no single answer that’s accurate for everyone. Ovulation (and therefore the fertile window) can occur on different days for different women, and often on different days within the same woman!
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there that can easily put you wrong. Here are 3 of the most common myths around the timing of ovulation:
Myth 1: Ovulation occurs on Day 14
Although many textbooks and websites will have you believe that ovulation always occurs on Day 14 of the menstrual cycle, this is NOT the case. In fact it’s thought that ovulation occurs on Day 14 in only 13.5% of menstrual cycles!
While ovulation certainly occurs around this time for some women, there can be enormous variation. One excellent American study (1) looked at a total of 696 menstrual cycles from a group of 213 women. In this study group, ovulation occurred as early as Day 8 of the menstrual cycle and as late as Day 60! (it’s important to be aware however, that if ovulation occurs beyond Day 25 of your menstrual cycle it’s usually due to stress or some kind of hormonal imbalance).
Myth 2: Ovulation occurs 14 days before your next period starts
You may have heard that ovulation will occur 14 days before your next period is due and that this is the best time to get pregnant. However, this advice relies on the assumption that the second phase of your menstrual cycle (the luteal phase) is 14 days long. But again this is NOT always the case.
The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle is the number of days between your day of ovulation and the start of your next period. We’re often told that the luteal phase is exactly 14 days long. But in reality it varies in length from woman to woman. A normal luteal phase can be anywhere from 10 to 16 days long.
So if you’re doing the maths to figure out when you ovulate, counting back 14 days from your expected next period doesn’t always work. If your luteal phase is longer or shorter than 14 days, your calculation is going to be wrong. The easiest way to figure out the length of your luteal phase is by learning fertility awareness and charting your fertility (see more on this below).
Myth 3: Ovulation occurs mid-cycle
Again, this myth is based on the assumption that all women have a 28 day menstrual cycle and that ovulation always occurs on Day 14. If this were the case, ovulation would indeed be mid-cycle.
In reality however, normal menstrual cycles can vary from 21 to 35 days in length. In fact menstrual cycles of exactly 28 days occur just 13% of the time!(2) And as discussed above, the day of ovulation can also vary.
So if you had a menstrual cycle length of 35 days for example and you ovulated on Day 24, the description of ovulation being ‘mid-cycle’ is hardly appropriate!
Think you know when you ovulate?
Many women feel confident that they ‘just know’ when ovulation is occurring. For some, it’s because they experience ‘mittelschmerz’ (one sided pelvic pain around the time of ovulation) or they notice other signs such as sore breasts or an increased libido. For others there’s just a ‘gut sense’ that they are ovulating.
While feeling in tune with your body can help you time sex correctly, it isn’t a fail proof method. Over the years, I’ve met numerous women in my clinic who were confident they knew when they were ovulating, and certain they’d been timing sex correctly. But after learning fertility awareness and charting their fertility (see below), they soon discovered that in fact they weren’t ovulating when they thought they were and had missed valuable opportunities to conceive.
And research backs this up. One study found that only 12.7% of trying-to-conceive women estimated their day of ovulation correctly and only 27% predicted it for when they were actually most fertile! (3)
Another recent study found similar results, with only 13% of women, being able to correctly identify their fertile window. And this was despite the fact that a THIRD of these women reported that they monitor their ovulation! (4)
So while this method works reliably for some, it’s easy to get it wrong. And unfortunately this can lead to an unnecessary delay in getting pregnant.
Best time to get pregnant – how to figure it out!
So at this point you’re probably wondering how on earth you’re supposed to figure out the best time to get pregnant, especially if you have irregular cycles! But don’t worry – it’s easier than it sounds.
Identifying your fertile days is easy when you learn the Fertility Awareness Method. Not only will you discover your best time to get pregnant each cycle, but you’ll also discover a wealth of valuable information about your fertility health too!
The fertility awareness method is based on the observation of scientifically proven fertility signs that all women experience during their menstrual cycles. These fertility signs are recorded on a specially designed fertility chart, either on paper or in a digital format on your computer or device.
Once you learn how to correctly interpret this information, you’ll gain an intimate understanding of what’s happening with your fertility each menstrual cycle and you’ll know whether or not you’re fertile on any given day.
What about ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) or fertility apps?
Many couples choose to use ovulation predictor kits (OPKs) or fertility apps to help them work out the best time to get pregnant.
Ovulation predictor kits are designed to test urine or saliva and they work by detecting the changes in certain hormone levels that occur just prior to ovulation. In contrast, fertility apps or ovulation calculators rely on the input of your menstrual cycle statistics (and sometimes your fertility signs).
Although these options can be useful if you’re trying to get pregnant, they are NOT fool proof and have a number of pitfalls. To find out more, check out the following articles:
One final tip…
Contrary to popular belief, your day of PEAK fertility – the day that sex is most likely to result in pregnancy – is usually NOT the day of ovulation. Research shows that peak fertility can occur as early as 3 days before ovulation day, with conception chances significantly reduced by the time the egg is actually released (and it’s interesting to note that ovulation predictor kits often give a positive result AFTER the day of peak fertility has passed!)
By learning the fertility awareness method however, you’ll be able to identify your day or days of peak fertility every cycle, regardless of when they occur.
The best time to get pregnant each menstrual cycle is during the fertile window – the days leading up to and ending on the day of ovulation. The length of this fertile window is typically just 3 days or less and its timing can vary significantly from woman to woman and from cycle to cycle.
Despite what you may have heard, ovulation does NOT always occur on Day 14, ‘mid-cycle’ or 14 days prior to your next period, and for many couples this is NOT the best time to get pregnant.
Learning to identify the days that are fertile for YOU, and having sex on these days, can dramatically improve your chances of conception and speed up the time it takes to get pregnant. And one of the best (and scientifically proven) ways to achieve this is to learn the fertility awareness method and begin charting your fertility.
If you’re interested in doing this, check out the Fast Track to Pregnancy™ Program for further information.
Hilgers TW, Prebil AM, Hilgers SK, Daly KD: The Occurrence of Ovulation at the Mid-Cycle. Int Rev Nat Fam Plan 4:227, 1980
Vollman RF: The Menstrual Cycle. Philadelphia, PA. WB Saunders Co., 1977 (3) Zinaman M, Johnson S, Ellis J, Ledger W.
Accuracy of perception of ovulation day in women trying to conceive. Curr Med Res Opin 2012 May; 28(5):749-54.