Trying to fall pregnant? What you need to know about IVF

Starting a family doesn’t come easily for everyone, with one in six Australian couples needing assistance. IVF could be an option, so what are the chances of success?

For Randwick couple Lizi and Geoff Simms, beautiful, cheeky, happy one-year-old daughter Leni is the centre of their world.

Rewind two years and it was a very different story.

Despite falling pregnant soon after deciding they wanted to start a family, heartache soon followed their excitement.

“The first miscarriage was the hardest,” Lizi, a physical education teacher, recounts.

“At the 12-week scan there was no heartbeat and we were devastated.”

After their third miscarriage, the couple decided to try in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

“I knew absolutely nothing, we all learn how not to get pregnant but no one ever talks about how hard it can be for many women to fulfil their dream of parenthood,” Lizi says.

One in six couples of reproductive age in Australia experiences the frustration and anguish of infertility.

For many, like the Simms, IVF offers hope.

What is IVF?

IVF is a form of assisted reproductive technology and involves combining an egg and sperm together in the laboratory in the hope of creating a fertilised embryo.

“During IVF, the woman has hormone injections to stimulate her ovaries to produce multiple eggs,” explains Monash University senior research fellow Dr Karin Hammarberg.

“When the eggs are mature, they’re retrieved in an ultrasound-guided procedure under light anaesthetic and the eggs and sperm from the male partner or a donor are placed in a culture dish in the laboratory to allow the eggs to hopefully fertilise,” Dr Hammarberg says.

“When the fertilised egg divides it becomes an embryo — within about three to five days, a normal embryo has several cells that are actively dividing.

“The embryo is then either frozen for future use or placed in the patient’s uterus.”

What are your chances of success?

More couples are conceiving through IVF treatment than ever before, according to new research from the University of New South Wales.

The study found there were 88,929 IVF cycles started in 2019 in Australia and New Zealand, leading to 16,310 babies born through the treatment.

In women aged 35-39, the live birth rate per cycle went from 19 per cent to 23 per cent in the past decade, while for women aged 40-44 it increased to 10 per cent.

Genea Fertility obstetrician gynaecologist Dr Michael Allen said there have been “big gains” since the birth of the first IVF baby in Australia in 1980.

“And now we’re seeing improvements in medications, in our diagnostic capabilities, in the overall management of couples experiencing infertility, and on the lab side of things,” Dr Allen says.

One example, he says, is the introduction of equipment such as the Geri incubation system, which aims to more closely mirror the conditions found in a mother’s womb, which has increased the live birth rate by 12.2 per cent when compared to a traditional incubator.

What are the risks of IVF?

“As an obstetrician you feel that pain that couples experience when they fail to conceive naturally or can’t carry a baby to term,” Dr Allen says.

“To see an embryo going back into a patient and coming out as a baby nine months down the track, is incredible.”

However, “a woman’s number and quality of eggs is a finite resource”, he warns.

Dr Hammarberg agrees that “age is the most important factor”.

“That’s the unfortunate reality, especially for women today who want to achieve a lot,” he says.

“Biology does catch up, so I would say to women, don’t wait if you have a choice.”

There’s also a small risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, Dr Hammarberg says, where fertility drugs can cause the ovaries to swell and become painful.

How much does IVF cost?

According to IVF Australia, the estimated treatment costs for one IVF cycle — which includes egg collection, fertilisation and embryo transfer — is $9974, without any Medicare rebates.

However, with Medicare the estimated out-of-pocket costs for the first cycle is $5021 or $4456 if you’ve reached your safety net.

“IVF is successful for many people but there is no guarantee it will work, so I would say go in with realistic expectations and your eyes wide open and choose a clinic that you feel comfortable with,” Dr Hammarberg says.

Dr Allen recommends finding a specialist who can provide you with an individualised care plan.

“IVF is just one pathway, sometimes there are other, more simple fertility treatments that might help,” he says.

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Written by Liz McGrath.