You'd never know it from the giggly babies in their arms, but plenty of parents have struggled to conceive at some point. In fact, the CDC estimates that 6.7 million women in the U.S. can't get pregnant so easily. The vast majority of parents ultimately get the baby they dreamed of—and learn plenty of tips for trying to conceive along the way. Here, they share hard-earned wisdom you can use right this minute to help accelerate your journey to implantation and conception.
Carrie E. Carroll, 36, an art director in Arlington, Virginia, had a smart strategy in place for getting pregnant. At age 32, she went off of birth control one year before she planned to conceive and used that time to give her body a full tune-up. "I ate really well—lots of fruits, nuts, and greens—lowered my caffeine intake, tracked my ovulation, did yoga twice a week and ran to stay in shape," she says. But after a few months of trying to get pregnant, she had little to show for it. "I thought somehow it would be easier to conceive because I did everything by the book," she says. Feeling frustrated, she asked other women for advice. "One mom of four told me 'Try to listen more closely to your body—it gives you signs that your period is coming and that you're ovulating.'" Not exactly sure what she was supposed to look for, Carrie spent more time focusing on the mind-body element of her yoga practice and homing in on how she felt with each movement. "One afternoon a few weeks later I was driving home with my husband and I felt a little pop in my lower abdomen on one side," she says. "I knew it was not yet time for my period, as I had been tracking myself consistently, so it couldn't be a cramp." What she felt was likely mittelschmerz, the pinging sensation some women experience when an egg is released. Thinking it was the sign of ovulation, she and her husband got busy the next day. Five weeks later, her hunch was confirmed: She was pregnant—with twins! "I'm so glad I learned to listen to my body; otherwise we might have missed that perfect window for conception," Carrie says.
Having trouble conceiving can be especially puzzling if it's your second time around. Mandi Welbaum, 26, a mom blogger and editor in Troy, Ohio, struggled with secondary infertility after she had her first child at 17. Two years after her son's birth, her periods still hadn't gone back to normal but she resisted going to the doctor. "I wanted it to happen naturally, the way it did the first time, so I started tracking my temperature every morning at 5:30 a.m., monitoring cervical mucus, and recording every single little thing that felt or looked different," she says. Months passed with no luck. "I got to the point where I said 'I think we're just supposed to have one,' so I decided to get back down to my prepregnancy weight for good." That meant breaking some of her bad habits, such as eating greasy fast food several times per week. "I needed some accountability so I started Weight Watchers," Mandi explains. "It didn't fit my lifestyle, though, because I didn't like having to look up points." Then she heard about the MyFitnessPal mobile app, an online calorie counter that helps you track your diet and exercise. "Once I started using it, there wasn't one day that I would forget to enter my calorie counts in the app because my phone was always with me," she says. After five months of cutting down portions, limiting fast food, and making healthy smoothies from milk, fruit, and ice, Mandi lost 20 pounds. Within weeks she became pregnant with her second child. "At first I was excited, then I was like, 'Crap, I just lost all this weight and now I have to gain it back!'" she says with a laugh.
Eating right and exercising regularly are wise moves for every would-be mom. But for women who have a common condition that affects reproduction, getting into optimal shape can be the sought-after key to fertility. That's what helped Christy Grimste, 34, of Washington, D.C., get pregnant after being diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in her late twenties. Women with PCOS—that's roughly 10 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age—have elevated levels of male hormones, which make their cycles irregular and produce cysts on their ovaries. In Christy's case, that led to two years of trying to conceive without success. "I tried the drugs Clomid and Metformin that treat PCOS-related infertility, but neither of those worked, so our next step was going to be IVF," she says. Before that process could get off the ground, Christy and her husband were sent to live in Ankara, Turkey, for her husband's job. "I felt like my dreams of having children were going to be dashed," she says. To make matters worse, their car didn't arrive for the first three months after they got to Turkey. "I had to walk everywhere," Christy explains. "As a distraction, I downloaded a bunch of uplifting songs with a good beat to keep me moving because I hate exercising." Cruising along to Bon Jovi for about an hour a day helped her shed 15 pounds, a portion of it around her midsection, by the end of her second month abroad. She also got a period for the first time in months. "I didn't think that I needed to lose much weight because I read that the only really large women with PCOS had problems getting pregnant," she says. At 5'2" and 130 pounds before she started her walking routine, Christy had an initial body mass index of 23.8. That put her near the higher end of the normal weight range (18.5 to 24.9). But body mass index doesn't take into account weight distribution, and excess belly fat has been shown to mess with reproductive hormones. Losing weight in the right places seemed to do the trick for Christy. "The very next month we were pregnant," she says.
Being at the opposite end of the weight spectrum—too thin—can also hinder conception. Melissa Pheterson, 34, a freelance journalist in Rochester, New York, got married five years ago and gained a bit of weight after the wedding, as many brides do. "I put myself on a pretty strict diet," she says. "Instead of having ice cream and whole milk, I was eating low-fat stuff like sorbet, skim milk, and jerky." She was also exercising daily, either running or doing high-impact workouts at the gym. The regimen worked well—too well. "My healthy weight is 115 to 120, but I kept going to under 100 pounds," Melissa admits. She didn't realize just how unhealthy she was until she visited a nutritionist. "She told me, 'Unless you take steps to gain the weight back, you're not going to be able to start a family, maybe not now, maybe not ever,'" Melissa remembers. "It scared me into taking her advice." She began a meal plan that was the stuff of dreams for most women: three meals a day plus dessert—such as full-fat ice cream or pudding—at least once a day, snacks like nuts and granola, and lots of juice and whole milk. At the gym, she downshifted to lower-impact workouts like Pilates. "Being less stressed about my diet must have helped, because within three months after making these changes, I finally conceived," she says.
Amy Reiley, 39, already knew that spicing up a meal with aphrodisiac foods creates ideal conditions for procreation. She literally wrote the book on it! But when the Los Angeles-based author of Fork Me, Spoon Me: The Sensual Cookbook tried to put a bun in her oven at age 36, she couldn't find any clear recipe for success. "After a year of trying and two months of incredibly expensive tests, a specialist told me and my partner, 'You both look fine—I can't give you a reason it's not happening or any advice,'" Amy explains. Rather than dwell on her frustration over an ambiguous diagnosis, she threw herself into her work. That happened to be writing Romancing The Stove, the sequel to her first book. Lucky for her guy, she enlisted him as a recipe tester. "We were eating a diet that would absolutely encourage sexual hormone production," Amy says. "For example, we tried four different watermelon salads, which is funny because watermelon is thought to be great for men's fertility." They also got more fertility-boosting omega-3 fatty acids than usual through foods such as salmon. "Normally my partner doesn't eat any fish at all but I could slip some in the name of working on the book," she says. Amy also sampled copious amounts of fennel, which is packed with fertility-friendly plant estrogens. Shortly after finishing recipe testing, she found out she was pregnant. Amy credits the dinners not just with fueling her libido but also helping rejuvenate her relationship. "After trying for so long, my partner and I had gotten to the point that we weren't enjoying each other anymore in a romantic or sexual way at all," says Amy. "It was so wonderful to be back in that place with each other, even if we wouldn't have had a baby."
Detroit mom Lee Padgett, 43, struggled with infertility related to endometriosis for seven years, starting at age 30. "Fertility experts had told my husband and me that they would love to take our money but we would never be pregnant," she says. So she and her husband said bye-bye to birth control and hello to a fantastic job opportunity in Germany. Instantly she discovered that the European approach to mealtime was a boon for her body. "My gut always bothered me in the States but the food was so much fresher and less processed in Germany that I didn't have issues there," she says. She didn't even have to cut out guilty pleasures such as pastries to feel a difference. "If I wanted a croissant, I would have one—I just walked to the bakery where they made it a few hours before." Also changed for the better were her dining patterns. "We didn't eat heavy at night like we used to at home, and instead had a nice breakfast, a big lunch, and a very light dinner," Lee says.
When Xandra O'Neill, 30, decided to start trying to get pregnant at age 26, she realized she could start taking care of herself in "better and deeper ways." "One of the things I did was read a book called The Complete Organic Pregnancy," she explains. "It opened my eyes to toxins that could be potentially harmful for my baby or fertility." Xandra immediately became an avid label reader, eliminating phthalates, which often show up as a fragrance in beauty products, and parabens from her bathroom. "I ended up carrying a list of a dozen potentially harmful chemicals in my wallet so I could avoid them whenever I was shopping," she says. She also began making her own beauty and cleaning products from household items like baking soda. "It was so much easier than I thought it would be," she says. "In 20 minutes I have toothpaste and deodorant, or I make a cleaning solution of 50 percent water, 50 percent vinegar, with a few drops of essential lemon oil." After detoxing her home, she got the baby she'd always dreamed of; plus, she eventually launched a new full-time career as a pre-conception and pregnancy health and wellness coach. "It's easy to get overwhelmed or scared because we're exposed to toxins we can't control like car fumes," she says. "Just find a few things that you can manage and you don't have to worry so much about the things that are out of your hands."
For women who have been told that pregnancy isn't a possibility, even left-field advice seems worth trying. Daniela Spector, 47, a dentist in Great Neck, New York, was told as early as age 12 that biological kids just weren't in her cards because of PCOS. Nevertheless, she started trying to conceive when she was 24 and didn't give up until she finally succeeded at 29. Her trick? "The one thing in common that our doctors said, and we saw a few of them, is that keeping your pelvis elevated for a half an hour after sex is important so that the sperm will meet the egg." So Daniela and her husband MacGyver'd a genius solution: They taped a few pillows together and slid them under her hips pre- and post-nookie. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant with their first daughter. When trying for their second, Daniela and her husband actually designed and patented a pillow that elevated her to the optimal angle. "One portion of it is made from a harder material that doesn't compress under body weight and another portion tilts the pelvis in a position so that semen won't spill out," she explains. Doctors may be skeptical about whether postcoital positioning really matters, but Daniela says it was critical to conceiving three more kids, one of which came after Daniela was 40. "Along with taking prescription drugs, I really think it was the ovulation predictor kits and the pillow that helped me conceive," she says. "When you feel hopeless you have to leave all options on the table and find out which ones work for you."