How to support someone through IVF

While IVF can make dreams come true, it’s also a process rife with trials and tribulations. With so much on the line, the highs and lows of the treatment can be hard to manage.

Women undergoing IVF need support, but it is not always easy to identify how best to provide that support. Even those with the best intentions can inadvertently make a tough situation more difficult.

What is IVF?

Many couples struggle to fall pregnant and turn to assisted reproductive technologies to help them conceive a child.

In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) is one such technology used to overcome fertility issues. The process involves a number of steps which are usually taken over a few weeks.

The first step involves hormone injections which stimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce multiple eggs in that cycle. These eggs are collected from within the ovaries and fertilised in the laboratory.

The cells in each fertilised egg will multiply in the lab over the next two to five days (known as the blastocyst stage). Usually just one embryo is then transferred into a woman’s uterus and will hopefully implant. Any additional embryos are frozen for future use. After two weeks, a blood test will confirm whether the woman is pregnant.

Current success rates

IVF success rates vary from clinic to clinic and will be affected by the technique used and the age of the woman.

The Medical Journal of Australia recently published research showing that women who start the IVF process before age 30 have a 43.7% chance of a live birth after just one cycle.

This chance drops to just over 10% when IVF starts between the ages of 40 and 44. However, the greater the number of cycles of IVF, the higher the chances of eventual success.

What are the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges of IVF is the emotional rollercoaster that couples experience.

Many will already be grieving from a failure to conceive or the trauma of miscarriage. Even though couples are usually counselled on their chances with IVF, it is emotionally draining to go through the process without success month after month.

This is made worse by the hormone injections which can cause mood swings. Physical side effects of IVF can include headaches, abdominal pain and possible (though rare) damage to other organs as a result of the egg collection.

There are also practical challenges like planning your schedule around hormone injections or egg collections. And of course, IVF is an expensive procedure – couples often struggle with the financial toll on top of everything else.

Providing support

Supporting a friend or family member through IVF can be tricky.

Ignoring the issue completely can make a friend feel like you’re not interested in the most important thing happening in her life. Similarly, many women find it painful having to answer questions about pregnancy or the failure of another cycle.

The best starting point is to ask your friends how they would like to be supported. If they feel like talking about what they are experiencing, make sure you truly listen without advice or judgement. If they choose not to discuss their IVF treatment, leave it at that.

It may be useful to find out as much as you can about the process. If your friend is comfortable sharing the details and timings of her procedures, you could offer to help with logistics or to accompany her to the clinic if her partner can’t be there.

And there are definitely some things to avoid saying. A woman who has struggled with fertility issues for years will not appreciate hearing, “just relax, it will happen” from friends without fertility issues.

It’s a common piece of well-intentioned advice. But ‘relaxing’ has nothing to do with conception and this sort of comment fails to acknowledge everything your friend has been through.

In the two-week period between embryo transfer and a blood test, it is tempting to interpret every symptom your friend may mention as a sign of pregnancy.

Her doctor will be careful not to make promises or give false hope. Friends should do the same. Insisting that an IVF cycle “will definitely work this time” is equally unhelpful.

Going through IVF treatment is demanding physically and emotionally. The best support you can give your friend is to be mindful of the challenges and offer her a trusted ear when she needs it.