In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a medical fertility treatment that combines a donor egg and sperm in a laboratory setting to create a viable fertilized embryo. There are usually four to five steps in the IVF process, once the parties involved have been approved as candidates for the procedure. The success of the IVF process depends on many factors, including the health of the sperm and egg and the age of the biological parents. Some people go through several rounds of the IVF process before achieving a successful pregnancy or deciding to try a different method.
The first step in the IVF process involves medical testing on both parties. Usually, couples seek in vitro fertilization after being unable to conceive through normal intercourse. Tests on both parties can help determine if there is infertility on either side, or if another factor is causing the inability to conceive naturally. Some of the reasons that IVF may be an option include low sperm count, endometriosis, or irregular ovulation. If a doctor confirms that IVF may be an effective treatment, the real IVF process can begin.
Most of the time, women undergoing IVF will be given fertility medications that induce ovulation, ideally causing the release of multiple eggs. The more eggs released, the more attempts can be made to achieve fertilization. A woman's hormones are monitored carefully after being treated with fertility drugs, to ensure that the eggs are harvested at the best time for an optimal chance of fertilization.
The harvesting portion of the IVF process for women is done through a surgical procedure. Most of the time, doctors use a procedure called follicular aspirations, in which eggs are removed using a hollow needle that is inserted into the ovary through the pelvic region. This procedure is often performed under a local, rather than general, anesthetic, and may be done as an outpatient surgery. Sperm is collected from the father, generally through manual ejaculation.
The collected specimens are transferred to an incubation lab and combined to allow fertilization. This requires very specific laboratory conditions that mimic the atmosphere of a healthy womb. In the case of low sperm count, sperm may be injected directly into the egg. If successful, cell division will begin, indicating that fertilization has occurred.
Once an embryo has been confirmed as viable, it is implanted into the uterus of the mother or surrogate carrier. Generally, doctors hope to create and insert several viable embryos, to maximize the chances of at least one successful implantation. Following this step, the mother is monitored regularly for signs of pregnancy.
The IVF process has a relatively high rate of success, but may not work for everyone. Studies suggest that women over the age of 40 have a sharp decline in success rates for IVF. It is also important to consider the possibility of multiple births, which are fairly common with IVF. Multiple births occur when more than one of the inserted embryos implants in the womb, creating fraternal twins, triplets, or other multiples.