We need to put less pressure on women about fertility – not more.
One of Australia’s most high-profile couples, The Biggest Loser coaches Michelle Bridges and Steve “Commando” Willis, made a very exciting announcement last week: they’re expecting their first child together.
Bridges, 44, is 18 weeks pregnant and due to give birth before Christmas. In an interview with Who magazine, the 12 Week Body Transformation founder said she feels “very lucky” about conceiving naturally at an age where it can be difficult.
“But I also feel all of my years and all of Steve’s years of looking after ourselves and taking care of our health and our bodies, it just goes to show. For someone my age, for it to happen so quickly, it’s obviously got to do with good health,” she said.
Bridges is clearly elated with her pregnancy, as she rightly should be. Pregnancy is always a big deal, especially for a woman over the age of 40 — unfortunately, at this age the chances of natural conception are lower than five per cent.
However, in an interview with The Glow journalist Tracey Spicer — who experienced fertility problems in her thirties and eventually had children through IVF — said she felt it was “a bit irresponsible” for the popular fitness guru to suggest health and fertility over the age of 40 were so closely linked.
“[The comment is] so wrong and so judgemental, it makes women feel worse when they’re trying to fall pregnant. I’ve got nothing against Michelle, and I’m all about supporting all women, but it’s a bit wrong,” the 47-year-old Sky News anchor said.
“Having fertility issues is incredibly difficult and it takes over your life. We don’t talk about it enough, that’s why I talk about it at any given opportunity. I felt like I wanted to abduct children from prams in the street, you really become obsessed with it and, you know, there is a lot of judgement around fertility issues.”
Obstetrician, gynaecologist and fertility specialist Dr Joseph Sgroi says he wouldn’t necessarily disagree with Bridges’ comments, but agrees they might inadvertently put undue pressure on some women — especially as Bridges, like many lifestyle gurus, has such a big profile and her comments receive widespread media coverage.
“My only fear would be that some women who are 44 and are desperately trying to conceive, and who are actually fit and healthy, might feel somewhat despondent — particularly if they’re going through IVF or some other fertility treatment,” says Dr Sgroi, who is a representative of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
“To feel bad mentally and have that pressure put on you, or have that put in front of your face, for some women can be quite detrimental.”
However, Dr Sgroi says advising women to maintain good health and fitness before conceiving, and then continuing those outcomes through pregnancy, is responsible.
A woman’s health, including her BMI, could have an impact on factors like her body’s follicular development and chances of developing diabetes during pregnancy, Dr Sgroi says.
“If you’ve got a woman who’s 44, and one who’s exceptionally fit and healthy with a good BMI and looks after her diet, there’s no doubt that her reproductive outcomes in terms of pregnancy rates and obviously having a healthy baby are going to be a lot higher than a woman who is a bit overweight, has a poor diet, and is deficient in macro-nutrients,” Dr Sgroi explains. A healthy lifestyle also helps with pregnancy and childbirth.
“So, yes, all things equal just based on age, having additional fitness and good health would increase your chance [of conceiving].”
That said, women in their forties have a significantly lower chance of natural conception than at a younger age; Dr Sgroi says pregnancy rates in this age group are lower than five per cent, and for every ten embryos a woman produces only one may be genetically normal.
“That’s got nothing to do with health, diet, exercise and the like — it’s just unfortunately the egg quality that diminishes as a woman gets older, and then the genetic normality of any embryo that’s been subsequently created,” Dr Sgroi says.
“It’s a lot more difficult for women to fall pregnant because of chromosomal abnormalities that can occur early on in pregnancy, and therefore the higher rates of miscarriage which can’t be mitigated by diet and exercise.”
Somewhat unfairly, good luck can also come into play when it comes to fertility. Dr Sgroi says sometimes the inability to conceive can simply come down a woman or man’s genetics; after all, falling pregnant is dependent on a number of factors, including sperm, a receptive uterus and open tubes allowing ovulation. Clearly, Bridges and Willis are one of the lucky couples who managed to fall pregnant naturally.
“I think the thing regarding Michelle is she’s had the good fortune of having a genetically normal embryo, and certainly her pregnancy and the fact that she’s been able to maintain a pregnancy is aided by the fact that she has peak fitness and a really good diet,” Dr Sgroi says.
Ultimately, for any individual or couple who are struggling to fall pregnant, the most important course of action is to seek the advice of an obstetrician who can offer pre-conception advice.
Dr Sgroi says they will look at whether there are any underlying medical conditions that could predispose an individual to difficulties in falling pregnant, along with maximising all areas of health and lifestyle — everything from diet and exercise to improving heart health and assessing the risk of diabetes. He adds that surrounding yourself with supportive people and remaining positive are equally important.
“There are many women who do achieve pregnancy at the age of 44, and the options are there to in some cases undertake if it’s appropriate, which can improve your chances of falling pregnant,” he says, adding that health and fitness can improve the outcomes for women undertaking IVF.
Tracey Spicer has a similar message for any women who, like her, have struggled or are currently struggling to conceive naturally — particularly at an older age.
“[T]alk about it with as many people as possible, because the more you talk about it, the more you realise it’s incredibly common and other people will share their stories,” she says.
This post originally appeared on The Glow.
Want to see more of the couple?